The world in 1950 was very different to the one we live in now. In a world coming out of the horrors of the Second World War, Brazil was chosen as the venue for hosting the FIFA World Cup because it was one of the few nations that had been left undamaged by the War.
Neither was the World Cup a global event the way the showpiece event in South Africa or the European Championships in Poland-Ukraine were. This was the era before the information explosion of the digital age kicked in, and radio signals were feeble at best. The only segments of matches people could see on the television (for those who had one) were no more than a couple minutes long, and often arrived days after the games had ended.
England had named a side brimming with talent. Manager Walter Winterbottom had called up the finest players in England, including Stanley Matthews, Alf Ramsey, Laurie Hughes, Jimmy Dickinson and Tom Finney. However, Matthews didn’t feature against the States as he was considered too important to be fielded against the North Americans.
The United States, on the other hand, which didn’t have a professional Men’s Soccer Team at the time, comprised of semi-professional footballers who relied on one, sometimes two jobs to support their families.
Some of the players who made up the team weren’t even American to begin with! This was perfectly in keeping with the rules of the United States Soccer Association at the time. Ed McIlvenny, John Maca and Joe Gaetjens weren’t United States nationals.
The English went into the game full of confidence, expecting to sweep their opponents aside. Some national papers said it would be fair to give the Americans a 3-0 lead to start with. The BBC reflects the attitude of the English rather well:
The English Football Association (FA) had never even bothered to enter the previous World Cup competitions – England had invented football and if various bunches of foreigners wanted to amuse themselves by pretending they were world champions, they were welcome to.
Everyone knew that England was the best team in the world.
And the 1950 squad was pretty good too; assembled at the airport for the newsreel cameras they looked confident and relaxed – perhaps not surprising when you consider that most of their fellow countrymen assumed they were heading for Brazil to collect the cup rather than to compete for it.
The US players had had just one training session together, and their coach labelled them “sheep ready to be slaughtered.”
The English started the game with great verve and energy, mustering a total of six shots before the first 15 minutes of the game had been played. The Yanks struggled to get out of their own half, and their first attempt at troubling England keeper Bert Williams came well after 25 minutes of the game had been played.
After England went on to spurn yet another flurry of chances, the Americans broke forward in a rare foray. Walter Bahr took a long shot from 25 yards out, and Williams dived to intercept. En route to goal, however, Joe Gaetjens headed the ball past the already committed England keeper.
The crowd, that was made up mostly of Brazilians, roared in glee. The Americans would only find out why much later. According to Bahr:
“[T]he overwhelming majority was Brazilians, but they rooted for us the entire time. We didn’t realize why until after. They [were] hoping we would beat England and that Brazil would not have to play England in the final game”
The match had been covered on local radio, and as more and more Brazilians sat up in disbelief on hearing the scoreline, made their way to the Estadio Independencia in Belo Horizonte where the match was being played, egging the Americans on, as a result of which they began the second half with much more confidence and fervour.
England continued to press forward, but a combination of some spectacular saves by keeper Frank Borghi and some horrendous finishing meant the score would obstinately stay one-nil.
The English people, who were still struggling to get to terms with losing their empire, automatically assumed there was a misprint in the papers that carried the story. Few papers carried it, though. The West Indies had just beaten the England cricket team for the first time, and that was more important than this result on the one page of sport that most papers carried those days.
England could have still gone on to proceed further in the competition, but they lost their subsequent game to Spain (also 1-0). The US lost their next game 5-2 to Chile and would not qualify for another World Cup until 1990.
For the English, the game acted as a very rude wake up call to the aristocratic management who went on to restructure English football. The result was England’s World Cup victory, sixteen years later in 1966 on home soil.
The English, smarting from their dumping from the World Cup, took the case of their loss to FIFA, stating that a lot of players had come from abroad and weren’t US citizens. The Americans were cleared of any wrongdoing in a hearing on the 2nd of December that same year, as according to rules laid down by the US Soccer Federation, they were allowed to play for the States.
Geoffrey Douglas, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, wrote a book on the game in 1996, titled The Game of Their Lives, after extensive interviews with the survivors of what is now called The Miracle on Grass. The book was later made into a film in 2005.
The English are yet to beat the United States in a competitive football game. That could’ve changed in 2010, but Robert Green’s ‘Hand of Clod’ means that Steven Gerrard‘s and Clint Dempsey‘s goals would ultimately cancel each other out. Nevertheless, as Bahr puts it in an interview just before their World Cup clash in 2010:
“It’s taken England 60 years to have the opportunity to tie up this series in World Cup finals play. We’ve led them 1-0 for 60 years.”
A record that stands to this day, and only underlines that anything can happen in football.