20100611

The story of the 1950 US soccer team


It goes without saying that defeat for England against the United States when their World Cup campaign kicks off in Rustenburg tomorrow would come as a surprise, although not, of course, on anything like the scale of the 1-0 loss in Belo Horizonte during the 1950 finals in Brazil.

Today, no shock is ever ruled out, but a win for USA then was regarded as not so much unlikely as out of the question.  No photographer captured the winning goal, for example, because all of the snappers sent to cover the contest were positioned behind the American net, expecting a deluge of scoring from the England team.

In the press box, meanwhile, there was only one American journalist, Dent McSkimming from the St Louis Despatch, who funded the trip to Brazil himself after the newspaper declined to pay his passage.  His report was the only one to appear in any major American newspaper.

The match kicked off at 9pm London time and communication was primitive to say the least. When first notification of the 0-1 scoreline arrived in Fleet Street newspaper offices, it was assumed there had been a typographical error in transmission.

Sports desks were understandably preoccupied by the England cricket team's defeat against West Indies at Lord's on the same day -- another seismic shock in that it was the first against that opponent on home soil -- and some papers assumed that the real scoreline from the football match must have been 10-1 or even 11-0, in England's favour.

The American team had been assembled mostly from semi-professional players who supported their families through other jobs.  Some were drafted in at the last moment and the group had not trained together until the day before they left for Brazil.  Joe Gaetjens, the mature student from Columbia University who was to score the winning goal in Belo Horizonte, was not even a US citizen, being born in Haiti, but was allowed to play because he had declared his intention to become a US citizen.

In the event, he never did attain citizenship and was assumed to have died in prison in Haiti in the mid-60s, having been arrested by the regime of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier because of his familial association, through a number of brothers, with a group of Haitian exiles in the Domican Republic who were planning a coup.

His story and that of the other members of the United States team were told by the American author Geoffrey Douglas, in a 1996 book The Game of Their Lives: The Untold Story of the World Cup's Biggest Upset, which was reissued in paperback in 2005.

The book is sketchy on football but offers an intriguing picture of life in America in the late 1940s through the eyes of first-generation sons of immigrants, particularly in the area around St Louis, where soccer enjoyed particular popularity.

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