Our series looking at the US and the World Cup continues with a look at how the US did in 1950. You can read more about US World Cup appearances in 1930 (part 1), 1930 (part 2), 1934, the 1950-1990 drought, 1990, 1994, 1998 (part 1), 1998 (part 2), 2002 (part 1), 2002 (part 2) and 2006.
It is easy to forget that the US played more than one game in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Before its historic 1-0 victory over England, the US played four qualifying games against Mexico and Cuba before their first match in Brazil against Spain. After the victory over England, the US next faced Chile.
The lead up to the 1950 World Cup
Because of the Second World War the planned 1942 and 1946 World Cup tournaments did not take place. The US had not entered qualification for the last World Cup, won by Italy, in France in 1938.
A number of national teams decided not to participate in the 1950 World Cup. Hungary and Russia would not play teams from the West. France refused to enter the competition as a substitute for Turkey. Austria and Hungary thought their teams were not yet ready to play again on the world stage. Argentina, Ecuador and Peru all pulled out of qualification. West Germany had not yet been admitted into FIFA.
None of these absences mattered as much as England’s participation in what would be its first World Cup. England had withdrawn from FIFA in 1928 following a dispute over payment of amateur players and so missed the first three World Cup tournaments. Universally recognized as the best team in the world, England was the clear favorite to win the tournament.
Thirteen teams, divided into four groups, would appear in the 1950 World Cup. Brazil, Mexico, Yugoslavia and Switzerland were in the first group; England, the US, Chile and Spain were in the second group; Sweden, Italy and Paraguay were in the third group while the fourth group was made up of Uruguay and Bolivia. After group play, the first place team of each group would then advance to a round robin playoff to reach the finals.
The US qualifies for the 1950 World Cup
While the US had not appeared in the World Cup since 1934, it had appeared in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the last pre-war games, and the 1948 Olympics in England, the first post war games. In both instances, the US had been knocked out in the first game, losing 1-0 to Italy in 1936 and again to Italy in 1948 9-0. The teams selected had been made up of amateur and semi-professional players who were simply no match for sides that were made up of “students” who happened to play in the top flight of Italian football. Additionally, it was typical that the US teams had little or no time training together before arriving at the Olympic games: the relative inexperience of the players was compounded by their inexperience in playing together.
The World Cup qualifying games against Mexico and Cuba (Canada had been invited by the North American Football Confederation but declined to send a team) in 1949 were different for the US. Instead of being a hastily assembled picked squad, the US team had a backbone of players who had played together in a variety of international friendly matches with touring teams from Europe and South America since 1947 as well as at the 1948 Olympics. These included Charlie Colombo (St. Louis Simpkins Ford), Walt Bahr (Philadelphia Nationals), Gino Pariani (St. Louis Simpkins-Ford) and John “Charlie” Souza (Fall River’s Ponta Delgada).
With the first qualifying game scheduled for September 4, before the start of league play in the US, match fitness was a real concern for the team. That, combined with the heat and the 7,400 foot altitude at Estadio de los Deportes in Mexico City, the host for all of the qualifying matches, were factors in Mexico’s easy 6-0 victory.
The next US match on September 14 somewhat redeemed their first loss with a 1-1 draw against Cuba, who had already played and lost to Mexico 2-0. Frank Wallace of the Simpkins team in the St. Louis Major League scored the first goal in the 25th minute. While Cuba equalized five minutes later, the US controlled play for much of the game and their fitness was noticeably improved.
The first half of the second match against Mexico on September 18 ended with the home side up 3-0. Mexico scored again almost immediately after the start of the second half. In the 52nd minute John Souza scored for the US. The US scored again in the closing seconds of the second half when Ben Wattman of Brooklyn Hakoah found the net but not before Mexico had added another two goals.
The final match against Cuba would be for second place and the final North American qualification spot for the World Cup. In the 15th minute, Bahr opened the scoring with a long shot from outside of the box. In the 23rd minute John Souza scored a second goal. Two minutes later Pete Matevich of Chicago Slovak scored. Ten minutes later Matevich scored again. Before the end of the half, Cuba got a goal back after a handball in the box resulted in a penalty kick. In the 48th minute Wallace brought the US total to five goals. Cuba managed to score one more goal before the match ended as a 5-2 victory for the US.
The US had done all it could and whether or not the team would make it to the World Cup would depend on whether Cuba could upset Mexico in the final qualifying match. Mexico won an easy 3-0 victory and the US was in the World Cup.
The lead up to the 1950 World Cup
To prepare for the World Cup the best players of the American Soccer League were chosen and formed into an Eastern and a Western team. A final tryout match was held in St. Louis that ended in a 3-3 tie. The final team selection included from the 1949 qualifiers John Souza, Charlie Colombo, Walt Bahr, Harry Keough (St. Louis McMahon), Gino Pariani, Frank Wallace, Frank Borghi (St. Louis Simpkins Ford), and Benny McLaughlin (Philadelphia Nationals). McLaughlin had to withdraw from the team when he found he could not get time off from work to travel to Brazil.
Joining these national team veterans were Ed McIlvenny (Philadelphia Nationals), Ed Souza (Ponta Delgada – no relation to John Souza), Joe Maca (Brooklyn Hispano), Joe Gaetjens (New York Brookhattan), Robert Craddock and Nick DiOrio (Pittsburgh’s Castle Shannon), Geoff Combes, Adam Wolanin and Gino Gard (Chicago Vikings) and Robert Annis (St. Louis Simpkins Ford). Penn State’s Bill Jeffrey was selected as coach just two weeks before the tournament when the New York Americans‘ Ernö Schwarz declined the position.
While many on the team had more experience playing together than had been the case in earlier US World Cup appearances, in one essential respect things were no different. “Most of the players,” Tony Cirino says in U.S. Soccer vs The World, “even the so-called professionals, were part-timers who played in their off hours and gave up their Sundays for the love of the sport.” The US team was made up of players who were essentially amateurs.
The day before leaving for Brazil, the US team played the touring All-England team at Randall’s Island in New York. The All-England team had scored 66 goals while allowing only 13 in their previous nine games in Canada. While the US lost they allowed only one goal. Addressing the US players at a banquet after the match, Stanley Rous, the secretary of the English FA emphasized how tired the All-England team were after their tour: “When you go to Brazil and play the England national team, then you will find out what football is all about.”
The US at the 1950 World Cup
The US versus Spain
On June 25 England began group play at the 1950 World Cup with what was generally viewed as an unconvincing 2-0 victory over Chile. Later that day the US faced Spain at the Estadio Brito in Curitba. Spain immediately took control of the game. In the 18th minute and against the run of play, Pariani scored for the US when he hit a low cross from outside of the penalty area. For the next 60 minutes the US held the lead. Then, in the 80th minute, Charlie Colombo hesitated when he thought the ball had gone out of bounds, allowing a Spanish player to cross. Spain’s Estanislao Basora received the cross for the equalizer. The US defense seemed to collapse after the goal and two minutes later Basora scored a second. Just before the final whistle, Spain scored another to beat the US 3-1.
Calling the loss a “moral victory,” US goalkeeper Frank Borghi said later, “They were figured to beat us by about eight or nine goals.”
The US versus England
Four days after their defeat to Spain, the US faced England at Estadio Independencia in Belo Horizonte.
The England team had arrived in Belo Horizonte four days before the match. The city had a large community of Englishmen and their families who worked at a nearby gold mine and the England team were lodged in a hotel with access to a soccer field, a pool, tennis courts, a golf course as well as the hospitality of their expatriate countrymen. Four members of the All-England team the US had faced only weeks before, including the legendary Stanley Mortensen, had joined the England squad. John Thompson wrote in the Daily Mirror before the match “the only unanswered question seemed to be the size of the American’s defeat.”
The US arrived in Belo Horizonte the day before the match and were unable to practice before the game.
The teams faced each other on June 29 using the same WM formation. England immediately applied pressure and quickly sent a a shot sailing over the crossbar. Cirino writes that the England players “were reported to have ‘stolled back laughing,’ no doubt with visions of all the goals to come.” When those goals failed to materialize, the largely Brazilian crowd enthusiastically supported the US “and the crowd’s excitement grew as they realized that the Americans were creating difficulties for the English.”
In the 37th minute the US scored the most famous goal in the history of the US national team. Ed McIlvenny took a throw-in that found his Philadelphia Nationals teammate Walt Bahr around 35 yards out from the England goal. Bahr advanced the ball about ten yards and took a shot that was headed toward the left side of the goal. As the ball dipped in front of the goalmouth Joe Gaetjens redirected the ball with a diving header into the opposite corner past England keeper Bert Williams.
The crowd erupted.
The English were stunned.
England attacked relentlessly for the rest of the game. But with each shot that went high or wide, the England side became increasingly desperate and frustrated. Their best scoring chance came in the 82nd minute when Mortensen was brought down by Colombo. The US keeper Borghi, who was having the game of a lifetime, just managed to clear Jimmy Mullen‘s header from the resulting free kick. Late in the game Wallace had a chance to make it two for the US but lost the ball to the keeper.
When the final whistle blew the crowd stormed the pitch and carried of the US players off the field on their shoulders. Joe Maca later recalled, “Some of us went looking for Stanley Rous to remind him of the nice speech at the Waldorf Astoria. He was nowhere to be found.”
When Joe Barriskill, the head of the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA), received a telegram informing him of the victory he thought it was a mistake.
I couldn’t believe it. When they told me we had won 1-0, I said ‘Who the hell you think you’re kidding?’ I immediately started to make phone calls. I thought I had lost my mind. I had to telephone England to find out if it was true. And it was true. I could have dropped dead.
The US versus Chile
On July 2 the US faced Chile in their final game of the group stage at Estadio Ilha do Retiro in Recife. Whereas the game against England had been played in the cool mountains, Recife was one thousand miles away from Belo Horizonte and much closer to the Equator. If the US could beat Chile – and England, who were playing Spain the same day, could secure a win – the US would force a playoff for first place in the group.
It was not to be.
Chile was up 2-0 by the end of the first half. Surprisingly, the US tied the game in the first five minutes of the second half with goals from Wallace and Maca. After that, the US seemed to wilt in the 110° heat. Chile retook the lead four minutes later and never looked back. When the final whistle was blown, the score was 5-2 and the US was out of the World Cup.
After the World Cup
Spain were undefeated in group play to join Uruguay, Brazil and Sweden in the final round of play. They managed only one draw and no wins and the deciding game of the tournament was an all South American final between Uruguay and Brazil in front of 200,000 spectators at Estadio do Maracana. After a scoreless first half, Brazil went ahead in the 47th minute. Uruguay then accomplished the improbable with goals in the 66th and 79th minute to win their second World Cup. Brazil would have to wait until the 1958 World Cup in Sweden to win its first.
While the England players were gracious in defeat, the English press proved to be otherwise. (Only one American reporter, Dent McSkimming, was at the game. A writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he had paid his own way.) Some English papers thought that wire service reports of the US v England scoreline were in error and that England had won 10-0. Later, various fictions were invented to belittle Gaetjen’s goal. Some reported that the goal was an accident because Gaetjen’s had been trying to get out of the way of Bahr’s shot. Others rather incredibly suggested that Bahr’s shot was a “clearance out of danger.” Bahr said later,
Gaetjens redirected my shot into the other side of the goal, so it wasn’t a case of this ball ricocheting from Joe. Joe beat the defender to the ball and made a great play out of it, changed direction on it and put it on the other side. I have been given credit for the assist. Well, it definitely wasn’t an assist in the truest sense of the word. I took a shot, a good shot, and Joe was the last one to touch the ball and he redirected it into the goal mouth. But I definitely didn’t pass the ball to Joe Gaetjens. I was shooting for the goal.
Some of the questions about the goal are due to the fact that no footage exists of it. Mainly, however, the questions seem to derive from embittered English sources, most of whom did not see the goal. Bahr has said of the different accounts of the goal, “There have been so many varying descriptions of that goal that sometimes I wonder if I played the same game.”
Some also suggested that the US had illegally fielded foreign players. At first, perhaps because of his name, attention was directed at Gino Pariani. But Pariani had been born and raised in St. Louis. Eventually, attention focused on the three nonnative players, McIlvenny, Gaetjens and Maca, none of whom were US citizens. In fact, Maca had played for Belgium against England in 1945.
But according to the rules of the day, a player had only to declare his intention to acquire citizenship by “filing for their first papers” in order to play for a country in which they were not a citizen. The England FA never filed an official complaint and FIFA cleared the US of any wrongdoing. Only Maca would eventually become a US citizen after playing in his native Belgium for a time. McIlvenny would go to England to join Manchester United while Gaetjens played professional soccer in France before returning to his native Haiti. In 1964, Gaetjens was arrested by “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes secret police. His body was never found.
The rest of the US team returned to their day jobs and continued to play in the ASL. The USSFA failed to capitalize on the sudden popularity of the US team around the world and turned down the many invitations to visit countries who were anxious in seeing the wonder team. The federation did propose a home and away series with England for 1951 and 1952 but the offer was “reluctantly declined” due to scheduling conflicts. In 1976 the entire squad was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. The US would not qualify for another World Cup until 1990.
You can read more about the US victory over England here.
Harry Keough and Frank Borghi remember the victory over England