This week ESPN FC is counting down, in chronological order, 10 of the greatest World Cup matches -- starting with one of the tournament's biggest ever shocks.
England had neglected to take part in the first three World Cups over a dispute with FIFA, comfortable in the knowledge that they were the game’s standard bearers as well as its creators, and it was only after World War II that the tournament saw their presence.
In 1950, Walter Winterbottom’s England squad -- boasting stars such as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Billy Wright -- travelled to Brazil for their first taste of the World Cup, and a Daily Express headline of June that year summed up the mood: “England should beat the lot.”
Their opponents in Group 2 were Spain, Chile and the United States and, after Winterbottom’s men dispatched Chile in their opener, they prepared to steamroller the Americans. England stood as 3-1 favourites to lift the Jules Rimet trophy; the U.S., fresh from a chastening performance at the 1948 Olympics in London, were rated 500-1 outsiders for the tournament. Indeed, such was the Americans’ own lack of faith, their journey home had been prebooked for the conclusion of their group games and a friendly scheduled during the second phase of the tournament.
Though they had brought in a host of new players since their 9-0 Olympic thrashing by Italy two years earlier -- among them Haiti-born Joe Gaetjens, the American Soccer League’s leading scorer in 1950 -- they had practised little. U.S. coach Bill Jeffrey had said his team of part-timers were like “sheep ready to be slaughtered” and England, relaxed about the opposition, rested star man Matthews for their meeting.
Around 10,000 fans had turned up for the start of the match as England proceeded to launch wave after wave of attack, recording six shots on goal in the opening 12 minutes. But, with the assistance of the woodwork, the U.S. preserved parity. Then came the shock: With 38 minutes played, Walter Bahr fired off a shot from distance and Gaetjens, diving headlong into its trajectory, diverted it past goalkeeper Bert Williams.
The part-timers were ahead and, try as they might, the tournament favourites could find no way back. As word spread of the upset that was unfolding, Brazilians filed into the Belo Horizonte ground in the thousands to cheer on the heroic underdogs, with contemporary reports suggesting the attendance had doubled by the end of the game. At the final whistle, the fans entered the pitch and carried Gaetjens and his teammates aloft as they basked in a miraculous victory.
The British newspapers were unanimous in their assessment -- “Probably the worst display ever by an England side” (The Guardian); “Probably never before has an England team played so badly” (The Times); “The England team played a game which must be the worst ever by an England side” (Daily Express) -- while the U.S. media by and large ignored the match entirely, but FA secretary Stanley Rous, later the FIFA president, gave due praise: “The Americans were fitter, faster and better fighters.”
An American Soccer League official said: “This is the most staggering thing that has ever happened in football. Before the series, our men played together only twice. They lost both times.”
Both teams ultimately fell at the first hurdle, with the U.S. beaten 5-2 by Chile in their final group game and England, despite a valiant display, going down to a 1-0 loss to Spain.