Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 29, 1950: The Miracle on Grass

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil - It only takes one chance. A team can be dominating a game in every aspect, controlling the pace of play completely and exerting their will over an inferior opponent, but one shot, one little flick of the head, can knock them out.

In the second group stage game of the 1950 World Cup, England was dominating play in the first half against the United States. This was to be expected, as England entered the tournament with a record of 23-4-3 since the War ended, while the United States had lost its last seven international games by a combined score of 45-2. England was one of the favorites to win the first World Cup in 12 years, while even the United States coach admitted that his team had no chance against England.

It took the U.S. 25 minutes to get their first shot against England, while the English were peppering U.S. goalkeeper Frank Borghi with shot after shot. In the 37th minute, American high school teacher Walter Bahr took a long shot, one that English goalkeeper Bert Williams moved into position to easily stop. But Williams never touched the ball. Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian playing for the American team, dove head-first and deflected the ball - just a little flick of the head - and it got past a stunned Williams and into the net.

Under today's rules, Gaetjens wouldn't be allowed to play on the American team. Born in Haiti to German parents, he had dual citizenship to both countries, but played professionally in America. In 1950, one only had to declare an intention to become an American citizen to be allowed to play for America, and so Gaetjens did, putting him in Brazil and in position to shock the world.

That's no understatment, either. Gaetjens' goal, the only one of the game, truly did shock the world. The Brazilian fans watching the game exploded in cheers at the thought that the Americans would actually take the lead against England. When the 1-0 scoreline held up, people reading the score in newspapers in England were sure it was a misprint, some even believing it should have said 10-0 for England. Only one American newspaper was there to cover the game, and that reporter, Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, had to pay his own way and take vacation time to cover it; the paper wouldn't cover his expenses.

The years following that shocking result further drove home the magnitude of the upset. The U.S. didn't qualify for another World Cup until 1990. Gaetjens never played for the U.S. again, travelling to France before returning to Haiti to play for the Haitian national team. He never applied for U.S. citizenship and was presumed murdered in Haiti the day after a political coup in 1964.

England and the United States didn't meet again in soccer until the 2010 World Cup last week, playing to a 1-1 draw.

Joe Gaetjens being carried off the field by Brazilian fans after scoring
the only goal in the United States' 1-0 victory over England.

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