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May 2, 2006

1950 - England's baptism of fire

When England eventually decided to try their hand at the World Cup FIFA allowed the British quartet to use their traditional home internationals as a qualifying group for the 1950 tournament in Brazil, and Walter Winterbottom's side scrapped through with a 1-0 win over Scotland to make their debut at what turned out to be the most disorganised Finals to date.

The 200,000-capacity showpiece stadium, the Maracana, was a building site and, after introducing the forerunner of the current league-based first phase, organisers neglected to schedule the actual final.

That proved a fitting prelude for what happened next, as England suffered humiliation - despite having future boss Alf Ramsey and legend Billy Wright in defence and a famous forward line of Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Wilf Mannion and Stanley Matthews.

Matthews - nicknamed the 'Wizard of Dribble' - had unrivalled skill and loved to speed past the last man, but in a 33-year career was amazingly capped only 37 times. Many observers believed he should have won more and the fact that he was only used sparingly during the 1950 tournament contributed to England's demise.

In their first game, England beat Chile 2-0 with Mortensen and Mannion scoring - but with victory achieved, the team seemed to treat their second group game, against the USA in Belo Horizonte, as a practice match.

The unthinkable occurred when Haitian-born Joe 'Larry' Gaetjens scored a headed goal for the USA's collection of dubiously qualified part-timers before the break and, try as they might, England could not hit back. When the final score came through back home, many thought 'England 0-1 USA' was a misprint and produced newspapers with the score 'England 10-1 USA'

As an aside, in America, a country were football was relatively unkown, Gaetjens was a long way from becoming a national hero and returned to Haiti in 1954 to run a laundry business as a virtual unknown.

Sadly, far worse was to come for the scourge of Belo Horizonte and Gaetjens was jailed in 1964 after members of his family campaigned against Haitian dictator Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier. He was never seen again.

However, in 1972 he was honoured at a New York Cosmos match and enshrined in the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976, the same year the Organization of American States condemned Haiti's government for his arrest. In 1997, Haiti authorized the issue of a stamp in his honor. In 2005 Gaetjens' exploits with the USA team hit the silver screen with the release of woeful film The Game of Their Lives...but we digress.

England's 1-0 defeat to the USA made the last group game against Spain a must-win match. It wasn't to be, as - despite continued pressure - even the Wizard of Dribble could not unlock the Spanish defence.

It all proved to be the start of a downward spiral for the national team. Yugoslavia became the first side to draw a full international on England's own turf, and then Winterbottom's men lost 3-2 to Scotland after Mannion was carried off with a suspected fractured skull.

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