With the possible exception of love, soccer is the greatest thing in the world. An obvious sentiment to some, granted, true to the point of truism, but strangely, one that hasn’t always been shared. So when the soccer World Cup was invented, enthusiasm was not uniform despite wondrously simple essentials: visit another nation, to compete against other nations, to determine the finest nation on the planet.
The problem was that in 1930 it was hard to spare the time, what with host country Uruguay being so far from home; consequently only 13 nations bothered, just four of them from mainland Europe. The boycott was led by the United Kingdom, guardians of the game and progenitors of morality: more than a century earlier, in his capacity as foreign secretary, George Canning had declared “every nation for itself and God for us all,” an idea that solidified into a policy of “splendid isolation.”
By the tournament’s second edition, in 1934, hosted by Italy and co-opted by Mussolini, the world had come to realize that something special was afoot; this time there were 36 entrants, reduced to 16 via qualifying. But Uruguay—now the defending champions—absented themselves to avenge their earlier snubbing, while England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland continued to luxuriate in their rich tradition of smug insularity.
The U.K. associations had actually unaffiliated from FIFA in 1928, objecting to its policy of compensating poorly paid players for earnings lost while representing their countries—“broken time,” as it was known. Driving this process was Charles Sutcliffe, one of the Football League’s most illustrious administrators, a man convinced that British soccer was superior to all other varieties and who did not care “a brass farthing” for “the improvement of the game in France, Belgium, Austria, or Germany.”
The might of these combined forces ensured his opposition to FIFA’s one-member, one-vote system, which he accused of “magnifying the midgets”—shorthand for unconscionably threatening English dominion. So he deemed the 1934 World Cup “a joke,” surmising that “the national associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have quite enough to do in their own International Championship, which seems to me a far better World Championship than the one to be staged in Rome.”
While those less perceptive than he wasted their time enjoying Italy and each other, the FA appointed another retired referee as its secretary, Stanley Rous. Under his sage guidance, England declined to participate in France 1938, the World Cup’s first classic competition.
But World War II forced him to change tack, with cross-border collaboration and interservice games altering, at least to some extent, how people perceived difference. And naturally, there remained an imperialist imperative: Rous recognized that declining empire meant declining influence, and football was a means through which to sustain at least some of it, so in 1946, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland rejoined FIFA.
By the time of the first postwar World Cup, eventually scheduled for 1950 in Brazil, its status and England’s changed circumstance left them no option but to participate—and a good thing too, because what happened next was epochal. Their qualification was dependent on finishing first or second in the British Home International championship, but for Scotland, that was not enough. Perpetrating perhaps the Scottishest act of all time, the Scottish Football Association ruled that its team would travel only if it qualified top of the group—which it did not, edged out by England in the final game. George Young, the team captain, subsequently beseeched George Graham, secretary of the Scottish Football Association, to change his mind—but he refused to relent.
Various other nations were also absent. Burma, the Philippines, and Indonesia withdrew, leaving India as the default Asian entrant until they, too, decided against; Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru pulled out, as did France, Belgium, Turkey, Austria, and the signatories of the Warsaw Pact; and neither Africa nor Oceania was represented.
Defending champions Italy, meanwhile, considered staying home as more than half of the team’s starters—plus several other squad members—had died in the Superga air disaster of 1949, which decimated Il Grande Torino. After much debate the contingent traveled by boat, their journey taking 15 days instead of 24 hours, with all training balls lost overboard during the first week at sea.
The trophy, at least, arrived safely. After the overthrow of Mussolini in 1943, Ottorino Barassi, commissioner of the Italian Football Federation, feared that the Germans would melt it down to help with the war effort, so he secretly moved it from a Roman bank to his home in Cremona. It remained there until the armistice—the Nazis did indeed show, but somehow missed the shoebox under the bed.
In pursuit in Brazil were 13 teams, arranged in a new, unbalanced, and blessedly unique format. Because Brazil was too vast to host the straight knockout of the previous two competitions, teams were split into four groups—two of four, one of three, and one of two—with the winner of each combining to form a further group, the winner of which would be champions.
England were 3-1 favorites, thanks mainly to the incontrovertible logic of their being England, but also reflecting a straightforward-looking draw that matched them with Spain, Chile, and the minnows of the United States. And they did also have some handy talent: Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen, Tom Finney, Jackie Milburn, and Wilf Mannion were close to their peaks, while Stanley Matthews, a mere stripling of 35 and still the world’s most famous player, was first omitted from the squad, then added to it after impressing on the FA’s postseason prestige tour of North America.
Newly established in the team was Bert Williams, its fascinatingly handsome goalkeeper. A dedicated and meticulous man, he wrote to the FA before the tournament suggesting that he wear a thinner jersey than usual, given the warmer climate in Brazil. The reply was succinct: “Dear Williams. Thank-you for your letter. We will not be pursuing your idea.”
Once the traveling squad was announced, center back Neil Franklin declined the invitation to join: His wife was due to give birth and anyway, he was off to Colombia where an internal wrangle and consequent dispute with FIFA meant that players could earn far above the maximum wage imposed on them at home—but were ineligible for international football. Williams always maintained that with Franklin, England would have won the World Cup, and Wright effused equally. “Neil was a superb stylist with an instinctive positional sense,” he said. “If Neil had been satisfied with the maximum £20 he was earning at Stoke City, he would have played for England for at least another four years, and I often wonder what difference that would have made to my career.” Gosh, what a cad!
To prepare for Brazil, England went on tour, visiting Portugal and Belgium, where they won 5-3 and 4-1, respectively. Then, a month or so later and via Paris, Lisbon, Dakar, and Recife, the squad spent 31 hours flying to Rio.
Before they had so much as disembarked, men were on board spraying their plane with pesticide, and things did not improve much thereafter. Copacabana’s Luxor Hotel was not to their taste—Walter Winterbottom, the manager, ended up in the kitchen doing the cooking—and the players were banned from visiting the beach after 10 a.m., as it was decided that the sun would make them lethargic. They could, though, take solace in their feting by the local press as the “Kings of Football,” a sobriquet thoroughly befitting the zero times world champions.
The majority of games kicked off at 3 p.m., and as such, humidity was high and attendances were low. England versus Chile, the opening fixture in Group 2, attracted a crowd of just 29,703—capacity at the semi-ready, rat-infested Maracanã was in the region of 200,000—and even Stanley Matthews wasn’t there, still hobnobbing in North America on the FA’s behalf. But though England did win 2-0, their defenders were surprised by the tricksy pace of the opposing forwards. Surely it could not be that while the FA had resolutely focused on snooty xenophobia, other nations had sneakily gotten better at playing soccer?
Still, a swift 28-hour plane journey later and Matthews was available to play against the U.S. … except that he wasn’t. Winterbottom—a man who revolutionized how football was taught in England, but whose expertise was retained by the FA Committee mainly because he filled the roles of team manager and director of coaching for a single salary—wanted to bring him in, and also to make other changes. However, Arthur Drewry—an administrator who sold fish in Grimsby, but whose expertise as the team’s sole selector was retained because it was retained—wanted to keep him out, and also not to make other changes, for he had a principle of never changing a winning team and no principle was more important than principle itself. Thus was Winterbottom overruled.
The U.S.’s passage to Brazil had not been especially impressive. The North American Football Confederation Championship doubled as the qualifying competition, and in it, the Americans were thrashed twice by Mexico. But with two of its three teams moving on, a win and a draw in their two fixtures against Cuba were good enough.
On the face of it, they were not up to much. After beating Mexico to qualify for the 1934 World Cup, they had to wait nine games and seven years for their next victory. At the 1948 London Olympics, they were embarrassed 9-0 by Italy. But in their first Group 2 game, against the Spain of Telmo Zarra—who was said to have “the best head in Europe after Churchill”—they led for over an hour before conceding three times in the final 10 minutes.
Next, they drove north and inland to Belo Horizonte—from Curitiba, a journey of over 600 miles—prior to a game just four days later. The England squad, meanwhile, repaired to the beautiful environs of the Morro Velho gold mine.
The England players were billeted in wooden huts, with the U.S. in similarly spartan digs. “It was not far after the Depression,” the U.S. captain, Walter Bahr—the team’s longest-living member, who died in June 2018, aged 91—told me in a 2014 interview. “Nobody was used to living in the rich or anything like that, so I don’t remember any accommodations that you would call desperate, a crime to stay in. We were more than satisfied with our hotel and our meals.”
And the team was more experienced than was immediately obvious. Because the game was mainly an immigrant pastime, the war was, said Bahr, “bad for America but good for soccer”; its attendant industries brought an influx of Brits and continental Europeans to the States, “so we really got our indoctrination into the professional game.”
Particularly important were the munitions factories of St. Louis, the mines of Pittsburgh, and the mills of Philadelphia, which supplied two teams to the East Coast’s American Soccer League. Also involved were three from New Jersey and four from New York City—the cunningly named Brookhattan among them—and between them, they represented the area’s Irish, Scottish, Jewish, and Hispanic communities.
“It was a pretty good league,” said Bahr, who played for the Philadelphia Nationals. “We had players who’d played in the English first division, we had players that were off merchant ships and all of them with a good background of soccer. … It was a port city, Philadelphia, a lot of merchant ships would pull in there for a time to load or unload, and [the visitors] would always, one of the first things they did, was find out if there were any soccer teams in town.”
In 1948, Liverpool toured the United States and though they won all 11 of their games, they were pushed by the all-star teams of Philadelphia, New York, and St. Louis. The Scottish national team arrived a year later. They won their match fairly easily, but Tommy Muirhead, writing in the Glasgow Daily Mail, was moved to note that Bahr was “good enough to play for any First Division team in the United Kingdom.”
In May 1950, Manchester United visited, walloping St. Louis Simpkins-Ford as well as a New York select XI featuring a Haitian immigrant named Joe Gaetjens. However, the New England Stars ran Manchester United close and Bahr’s Kearny-Philadelphia Stars earned a draw.
The U.S. squad for Brazil was mainly made up of the men who’d gotten it there. Benny McLaughlin, the striker, was forced to drop out thanks to the combined aggravation of work and wedding planning; Gino Pariani left for Brazil a few days after getting married; and Jack Hynes was left out altogether. During qualifying, he’d sent a postcard to his friend Bill Graham, mentioning his sympathy for those not selected; Graham, a sportswriter at the Brooklyn Eagle, turned the sentiment into a story that criticized the management; and Hynes was informed that he would never represent his country again.
“It was an interesting makeup,” said Bahr of the squad selected by the United States Soccer Football Association. “They had try-out games around the country, but they knew who the better players were. They had a selection committee like they do so many times ... and the way the selection was made, five players were picked from the ASL, and 14 players picked from the rest. They had to have some type of representation, but we thought more players should’ve been picked from the ASL because everybody knew the better players played in the ASL.”
Of those selected for Brazil, three were born outside America: Joe Maca, its Belgian MVP; Ed McIlvenny, a Scot who would start the following season at Manchester United; and, most famously, Gaetjens, its leading scorer. A member of the Haitian elite with a government scholarship to study accounting at Columbia University—though he also worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant—the non-ASL players had yet to see Gaetjens play, but they’d heard a bit. “This guy Gaetjens,” Bahr told Harry Keough. “He makes some of the most uncanny goals you ever saw.” Though Gaetjens, Maca, and McIlvenny were not U.S. citizens, under the rules of the USSFA—ratified by FIFA in December 1950 and altered immediately afterward—declaring an intention to become one at a later date was sufficient. In the event, only Maca completed the process.
Bahr, meanwhile, was close to missing the trip altogether. “I taught PE, which was typical for a lot of athletes because it was the easiest course to take. I’d already been off a week for an earlier trip to England, so when I asked the principal for leave I was told, ‘Well, if you go, we got plenty of teachers can fill your place forever, so you make up the choice: It’s either the game or stay home and keep your job.’ He had threatened to fire me, which he could—there was no union at that time—and he had threatened to fire me if I had to take off another week of work, but he had a change of … a change of … I don’t know what, patriotism or something. It was in the papers and so forth.”
Eventually, each member of the squad of 19 was given $100 a week. Though the money was double what Bahr made teaching, preparation was still limited. “Rarely did we have any time to practice, even one day, other than a little workout and a kick-around,” said Bahr. “There was none of that, it was just a question of picking the better players. … We didn’t have any pre-trip training apart from a couple of exhibition games and the team changed—they’d pick up a player they thought they’d missed, and maybe drop a player that maybe didn’t show too well in a couple of pick-up games. Joe Gaetjens played with Brookhattan and he never played a practice game with us because they only found out that he was a pretty good player a few weeks before we left.”
A day before departure they took on the English FA XI, which, as well as Matthews, comprised the best players not selected for Brazil, such as Bolton Wanderers’ Nat Lofthouse and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Johnny Hancocks. The tourists had won eight and drawn one of their nine previous games, scoring 66 goals in the process, and had beaten Manchester United 4-2, yet required a late goal to get by the U.S., 1-0. “We felt pretty good about that,” Bahr said.
Then it was off to Brazil. “We went over by ship, and the trip itself was a hassle. But we used to exercise [on the ship] and that was probably the extent of our training. We got more there than the rest of the time we were away.”
Nor did Bahr recall much tactical discussion. “No, no, no no. We played the old W-M formation that all teams played at that time—two fullbacks, three halfbacks, five forwards, and that was as much of tactics as we had. Just pick the best players, those that play well together.”
This last aspect was crucial; the coach, Bill Jeffrey, did not simply pick individuals but combinations. At outside and inside-right were Frank Wallace and Gino Pariani of St. Louis; on the left, Ed Souza linked up with John Souza, his Ponta Delgada teammate; and the right and left halves, McIlvenny and Bahr, were partners for Philly.
But beyond that, there were no specific plans. “We’d heard of Tom Finney and Billy Wright,” Bahr said, “but we only knew about the players because the game was starting to get some coverage in different newspapers.”
In such context the Americans could hardly share their opponents’ morbid obsession with who got to call heads or tails, so they did not. Against Spain, Keough led the team because, thanks to a wife of Mexican descent, he spoke Spanish, then McIlvenny took over for the England game because he was British. “I was the unofficial captain and he was the official captain,” Bahr said. “It was a nice gesture from our administrators and I don’t remember it being an issue.”
The two teams met on June 29, and odds on a U.S. win were 70-1; by way of comparison, Buster Douglas was 42-1 to beat Mike Tyson. “It would be fair to give three goals of a start,” calculated the Daily Express.
In public, Bill Jeffrey played along, describing his players as “sheep ready to be slaughtered.” But in private, things were different. “He said, ‘Go and do the best you can and let’s see what happens,’” Bahr recalled. “He said a lot of things that turned out to be true: ‘We’re not going into this game thinking to win any more than any game thinking we can win. If you don’t think we can win, let me know now and we’ll play someone else.’ They were honest statements, he didn’t build us up by saying we’re gonna win this game, but maybe something’ll happen and we’ll come away with a victory.”
His players began positively, too: First, they inadvertently reinforced their opponents’ superiority complex by turning up with sombreros and cigars, then donned their gorgeous strip of white jersey with diagonal red stripe, meaning that England were in unfamiliar blue. And the surface at the Estádio Independência, in less than perfect condition, also favored the underdogs. “Most of the fields we played on in Philadelphia were cinder fields,” Bahr said. “There weren’t that many of them, they were used a lot, and it was difficult to keep a grass field in half-decent condition, so a lot of the fields were either cinder fields or dirt fields. When we played a big game, if we were playing, let’s say, a team from Germany or a team from England, it was a big attraction, and if we had a game they thought they’d hold 10,000 or 15,000, we would play on baseball fields—Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, Shibe Park—and they’d leave the grass to grow a little bit longer.”
Several of his teammates were accustomed to far greater hardships. During the war, Frank “Pee Wee” Wallace was captured by the Germans and spent 15 months in a prisoner-of-war camp; Adam Wolanin fled Poland after the German invasion in 1939; Frank Borghi won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his efforts as a battlefield medic, saving, among others, the future baseball announcer Jack Buck; and Harry Keough was part of a destroyer crew once the armistice had been signed. These were not men about to be cowed by a game of fucking soccer.
England, though, went for them immediately, taking six shots in the opening 12 minutes, with Roy Bentley hitting both bar and post. “I got above the bloody keeper for one and really met it and thought, ‘That’s a goal,’” he said. “But I got too much power behind it, so it didn’t drop.”
The U.S. then settled into the game, and gradually it became more of a contest. “We were a little bit better of a team than most people thought,” Bahr said. “We weren’t any great shakes by international standards, but we knew which end to go for. We’d played in some good games against some foreign teams and made some decent shows.”
Even so, they were grateful for the profligacy of Mortensen and Mannion, both shooting high when in front of goal before, on 38 minutes, the U.S. won a throw. “The ball was thrown in from Ed McIlvenny from our right,” Bahr recalled, “and I collected it at about the 35-yard line. No one picked me up quickly, I pushed it ahead probably a good 10 yards and just unloaded a shot. I can’t say I picked out the corner or anything like that, but I hit a decent ball; it was a good shot that Bert Williams had to move to his right to handle, and Joe Gaetjens, somehow—I couldn’t see it, it went into traffic—but somehow, in the goal area, Joe Gaetjens either purposely got a piece of the ball and directed it left, or it was a ricochet. It was one that Joe got his head on it, but how professional it was, or how intentional it was, is another story. I couldn’t describe it, but he went up in the traffic, the ball was deflected, and Bert Williams was caught wrong-footed.”
The underdogs were suddenly ahead 1-0 on the tournament favorites. Williams considered the goal a fluke, while Alf Ramsey thought Gaetjens ducked to avoid the ball. But Laurie Hughes, his marker, was sure of his intention to play it, and Keough simply saw a characteristic intervention by a free spirit.
“If you saw Joe Gaetjens play before and after that game, Joe Gaetjens was a very athletic type of player,” Keough said. “And what he did, dove and made that goal, you’d seen other examples of Joe’s ability to get that body around somebody. He was very quick, and anytime a cross would come he was dangerous because he would find a way to get his head to the ball—he had good timing. That goal was a classic example of that.”
Bahr, though, crystallized the crux. “What’s the difference?” he asked. “It doesn’t say on the scoreboard that it was an accident. I’m sure everybody in the stadium thought it would just be a matter of time before England tied it up and went into the lead.”
But at halftime the U.S. was still ahead, whereupon their manager said “nothing much.” “Bill was a little bit tight-lipped,” Bahr remembered. “Everybody was lighthearted and whatever, but it wasn’t an out-and-out cheerleader exhibition.”
Winterbottom, on the other hand, made the first of several tactical tweaks, moving Mortensen to center forward and Bentley out wide—to little avail. “The small ground and the close marking of the United States defenders seemed to upset the English players in their close passing game,” bleated the Times of London’s match report.
In the meantime, the radio relayed news of impending amazingness, and accordingly, the crowd swelled. Keen to avoid England in the latter stage and not entirely enamored of the country, in any case, its Brazilian members spent the second half chanting “Mais um! Mais um!”; “One more! One more!”
Back on the pitch, the U.S. shut down their more vaunted opponents with relative ease, illustrating a point later made by journalist and former amateur star Ivan Sharpe, who felt that a backward domestic game reflected a backward society. “League clubs daren’t take the risk of losing points,” he wrote. “Abroad, there is continual examination of tactics, and striving for new moves and methods. In Britain the accent since the war has been on players’ pay.”
So, though Ramsey had a free-kick goal disallowed, the U.S. were largely comfortable, and at the other end, Pariani missed a good chance. “The first 20 minutes was our worst 20 minutes, and the last 20 minutes was probably our best,” Bahr said. “We played a little bit better than most people thought we could. We played as a team, we went forward as a team, we went back as a team, and there were no slackers on the team. I actually thought we played a better game against Spain than against England—I think Spain was a little bit better of a soccer game by both teams.”
Consequently, Borghi—a former minor league baseball player who had grown up in the same neighborhood at the same time as Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola—was forced to scramble to make a few saves, but spent most of his time catching crosses. This was a skill honed on the baseball diamonds of his childhood and facilitated by the colossal hands of his adulthood, but not one appreciated by all; after the match, Bentley complained that he was “diving through the air and grabbing people.”
Still, England maintained equilibrium. “As the clock was running out, they had to be getting desperate but they didn’t act it, they didn’t show it,” Bahr said. Then, on 82 minutes, Mortensen was sent through on goal; for Charlie Colombo, there was only one thing to do. “Colombo wasn’t what you’d call a good soccer player,” said Keough of the fingerless-glove-wearing meat packer from St. Louis. “But he was a good defender.”
So he did some good defending. “It was a foul, an out-and-out foul,” Bahr recalled. “I think he grabbed him around the waist first and then drove him down, dove headlong and grabbed him on the back of the knees.”
Keough agreed. “That’s the way Colombo was,” he explained. “He said, ‘He was getting away from me. I had to stop him some way.’”
Though various attackers appealed for a penalty, the award was a free kick just outside the box; Colombo later told his teammates that Generoso Dattilo, the Italian referee, had praised his anti-English efforts, calling “Buono, buono.” “I can’t imagine him saying that but it’s been in print a couple of times,” Bahr said. “It was probably just a joke.”
Ramsey then chipped the free kick over the wall and Jimmy Mullen was there to meet it, but somehow, Borghi flicked the resulting header clear. “I wasn’t standing on the line in front of it,” he said. “I reached back and pulled the ball out before it crossed the line. If I had been standing on the line, it would have been a goal.”
And that was that. The dribbling of John Souza consumed some of the time that remained. As England committed more men forward, Pee-Wee Wallace found himself in on goal; he rounded Williams, but Ramsey managed to clear his shot to safety.
It made no difference. With Brazilian fans waving handkerchiefs to bid England farewell, the U.S. held on for the win, and at full time Gaetjens and Borghi were carried off the pitch shoulder high, amid what the Manchester Guardian described as “scenes of wild enthusiasm.” Spectators then gathered papers together and set them alight on the concrete in jubilation; the stars had been well and truly striped.
“Other than one player—I won’t mention his name—everyone handled the loss very well,” Bahr said. “They didn’t seem to show a lot of emotion after the game. They handled their loss better than most would, and there was some handshaking—but they didn’t overdo it!”
That was because the English players, though banned from voicing their various gripes, were significantly less than gruntled. Tom Finney later described the Americans as a “rubbish side, really,” while Williams was aghast at their uncouth refusal to submit. “Everybody in the world knew the Americans wouldn’t win,” he said. “They came under the impression that they didn’t expect to win, but they didn’t want to lose by a hatful of goals. As a result of this, the retreating defense came into operation. Everyone on their side came back onto the goal line, and you couldn’t see the goal. We couldn’t score if we were still playing now. We couldn’t believe it.”
This shock was not lost on the U.S. “I don’t mind saying we were almost sorry to beat the English team that day in Belo Horizonte,” Keough admitted. “We felt it was going to be a terrible blow to them, and we knew we were not yet strong enough to win the championship. But we beat them and in the last five minutes came close to making it 3-0 instead of 1-0.”
All the while, the great Stanley Matthews sat at the side; at tournaments, substitutes were still not permitted. “The game was purgatory to watch from the stands,” he recalled. “Come the final whistle, I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t been part of it.” And Keough felt similarly: “Had he played, the chances were they woulda won. But the chances were they woulda won anyway.”
Disappointingly and affirmingly, post-match revelry was low-key. “Coupla players were carried off the field on shoulders, but no big celebration by the entire team, other than little groups of three or four,” Bahr said. “There was a little hootin’ and howlin’ in the locker room afterward, but I can’t remember any outlandish things that took place. I can’t remember any outlandish jumping up and down—you didn’t jump up and down as much. Today, they almost look like they’re going to get married. There wasn’t a big celebration at any time, on the field or in the locker room.”
Nor was there disbelief at what had come to pass. “I hate the saying ‘We deserved to win,’” Bahr explained. “To put it in proper perspective, back in the dressing room, Charlie Colombo, he was our center back and he was a bit of a character, a bit of a tough guy, and in the locker room, he was saying, ‘We shoulda beat those guys by three goals at least.’”
Back in England, a different defeat to a different strain of chippy colonials dominated the following day’s newspapers: Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes, and Sonny Ramadhin had inspired the West Indies’ cricketers to their first win at Lord’s, and by a monumental 326 runs too. Nonetheless, the eight English writers who traveled to Brazil were still sure to get their licks in. “A sensation was caused here to-day,” The Times declared, speculating that “Probably never before has an England team played so badly,” while the Daily Mail bemoaned “the biggest soccer upset of all time.”
In the U.S., almost no attention was paid. Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the only reporter in attendance and, though not a single word appeared bearing his byline until he returned, he became a central part of the ensuing mythology. Quite why he filed no copy is unclear, but there seems to be a consensus that despite his standing as a soccer evangelist and one of America’s premier sportswriters, his request to cover the competition was refused. Unimpressed with this state of affairs, when he won the office’s Kentucky Derby sweepstake, he finished his half-shift, collected his dues, and took a two-and-a-half-month lunch break. A year later, he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
It was not until 1976 that the actual team was so honored, in a ceremony from which the winning goal scorer was tragically absent. After the World Cup, he played briefly in France before returning to Haiti in 1953 to become a spokesman for Colgate-Palmolive. Thousands turned out to greet “Ti Joe” at the airport, and that same day he played for L’Etoile Haïtienne against their archrivals, Racing. The entire country shut down to watch the game, and though Gaetjens’s finesse was crowded out by the physical “bing-bang” style, his status was unaffected and he remained a national hero.
Two of Gaetjens’s brothers were friends with Louis Déjoie, a business leader who stood in the 1957 presidential elections against the army-backed François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who won a healthy majority. Duvalier’s desire to eliminate all opposition prompted a failed coup attempt in July 1958, after which he established the Militia of National Security Volunteers. So merciless was their violence that they became known as the Tonton Macoutes after the Haitian Creole bogeyman, infamous for kidnapping children, storing them in a sack, and eating them for breakfast.
In July 1964, Duvalier proclaimed himself lifetime president, prompting two of Gaetjens’s brothers to decamp to the Dominican Republic, where they planned an invasion. As a consequence, the rest of the family went into hiding—all apart from Joe, who figured that the goal and political ambivalence for which he was famed would keep him safe. But working one day at the dry cleaning store he owned, Gaetjens was arrested by the Tonton and taken to Fort Dimanche prison; the U.S. failed to pursue his release, and nothing more was heard of him until his death was confirmed to the embassy in 1972. For decades after, people in Haiti were frightened to mention his name.
Still, at least they knew what it was; in Britain, newspapers recorded his goal as scored by “Larry Gaetjens,” while The Guardian and the Buenos Aires Herald said that he was Argentine. Elsewhere, the Associated Press identified Ed Souza as the scorer, while others credited Bahr or recorded a shot from Gaetjens that went straight in.
The New York Times, meanwhile, did not immediately report the score, suspecting a hoax after receiving a wire report close to deadline—and there exist two similar English anecdotes. One said that, presuming a telegraphic misprint, some outlets announced the result as 10-1 in England’s favor. The other describes front pages printed with black edges to imitate funeral cards, presumably inspired by The Sporting Times’ mock obituary for English cricket after Australia relieved them of the Ashes in 1882. Both are untrue.
And yet this makes little material difference; as the Jamaican phrase has it, “If it no go so, it go near so.” But even when it go far so, it still doesn’t matter. With the passage of time, reality becomes mythology, mythology becomes reality, and every detail, imagined or otherwise, is absorbed into a unified experience, a fluid oral tradition passed down from generation to generation for eternity.
Lore surrounding the U.S.’s win has also developed more recently; the greater the American interest in soccer, the greater the achievement becomes, the greater the American interest in its history. In 1996, professor Geoffrey Douglas wrote The Game of Their Lives about the squad, and the book was later adapted into a film, narrated by Patrick Stewart in the guise of McSkimming, while the 2009 documentary A Time for Champions looks specifically at St. Louis and how its domestic dominance inspired a nationwide surge in the game’s popularity. As such, the game is now known as “The Miracle on Grass” in retroactive tribute to the “Miracle on Ice” of the 1980 Olympics.
Nomenclature of this ilk is a powerful thing. Arsenal’s “Invincibles” of 2003-04, for example, won an unretained league title in a weak field, lost to inferior teams in both FA and European Cups, and didn’t win the most games ever, accumulate the most points ever, or score the most goals ever. But their season is regularly feted as one of the greatest of all time, far more so than those put in by many of the same players in 1997-98 and 2001-02 in which they sealed the title with astonishing runs of 10 and 13 straight victories, to beat off better competition, and as well as the league championship won the FA Cup. This is due, in significant part, to a simple, vivid, and unsurpassable sobriquet—a trick that operates elsewhere, too. Consider, for example, the NFL’s “Immaculate Reception,” the NBA’s “Kiss of Death,” or MLB’s “Shot Heard Round the World”; or outside of sport, the electoral system’s “Super Tuesday,” The X Factor’s “Deadlock,” or the weather forecast’s “Beast from the East”: Each is more resonant by virtue of an evocative moniker, while everything and everyone now has a nickname. It works because language is how we communicate, communication is how we form communities, and communities are how we perpetuate and fulfill ourselves.
Beyond the basic meaning of words, language also creates symbols and codes, which foster powerful feelings. Aside from the Miracle on Grass, the 1950 World Cup delivered one other epochal event: Uruguay beating Brazil to become champions at the hosts’ expense, in a match now known as the “Maracanazo”—literally “the Maracanã agony.” The distillation of everything that means into a single phrase not only evokes a national tragedy far more powerfully and economically than a descriptive sentence—not only forms part of a visual, aural, and emotional shorthand—but is empowering and unifying, enabling football fans to converse with one another to the exclusion of ignoramuses.
All this means that once a specific circumstance has a specific title, it becomes a specific thing, turning it from a noun into a proper noun into a concept into a legend. The various iterations of the Bible understand this well: the Tanakh, Gospels, Quran, and Adi Granth are full of tales and fables with names and labels, ripe for exegesis and not to be taken as facts but interpreted and reinterpreted as eternal truths.
What the respective authors of these books appreciated—be they God, divinely inspired human, single storyteller, or multiplicity of raconteurs—is that narrative is the perfect vehicle through which to canonize, immortalize, and inculcate. Or, as the Native American proverb expresses it, “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever” ... “so much so that I will devote my life to principles and practices of unverifiable provenance that are frequently counterintuitive,” it might have continued.
All of which is to say that as soon as Generoso Dattilo blew the full-time whistle in Belo Horizonte, what had previously been a football match became a living organism and part of a much larger living organism, able to nourish, transport, and inspire millions of people, all over the planet, forever and ever, amen. This is so because of the process rather than the result: Agatha Christie books are 200 pages long, not two pages long, because no one has an innate desire to know who killed Lady Cissy Double-Barrelled, but countless among us buzz off the characters, ideas, and plots which lead us to that information.
Our ability to do this defines our existence, as Yuval Noah Harari explained in Sapiens. “Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things but to do so collectively,” he wrote. “We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
Little wonder, then, that humans are obsessed with stories to an almost neurotic degree (consider news, sport, religion, gaming, gossip, and the arts) as part of being obsessed with themselves to an almost neurotic degree (consider babies’ love of mirrors, teenagers in general, and adults’ fascination with ancestry, legacy, and rites of passage). The entire discipline of narrative psychology exists because narrative allows us to make sense of our lives in a uniquely profound way: as the protagonists of our own comedies, tragedies, epics, and snoozers. But soccer takes things a step further, meshing the personal and the universal while raising themes as grand, petty, and comic as those in any literary work, while its mythology and lore are passed proudly down the generations like family history and family heirlooms.
Look at U.S. 1, England 0 to understand a game of soccer; look at U.S. 1, England 0 to understand about those countries; and look at U.S. 1, England 0 to understand about the lives of individuals in those countries. Soccer’s past, present, and future is our past, present, and future, its ever-presence and omnipresence distracting us from the futility of life and inevitability of death, salving pain with passion and tedium with thrill, a speedball of identity and love that is everything we are and everything we are not.
Research shows that in old age, we appraise our lives in one of two ways: Either “It all came to nothing in the end” or “It all came together in the end,” but a beauty of soccer is that there is no “end”; it is immortal. Of course, the same is so of various other sports and pastimes, but despite hindrances of imperialism, nationalism, nepotism, capitalism, bigotry, idiocy, and war, it is soccer that has taken over the world—because there is nothing else remotely like it.
Informally, it requires nothing but a ball or something to be used as a ball; formally, it is simple and it is balanced: between big and small, fast and slow, individual and team, attack and defense, athleticism and skill, innocence and experience, preparation and improvisation, with 22 flowing and freely moving parts guaranteeing unpredictable outcomes and unrepeatable events. And because goals are relatively rare, we are guaranteed unfathomable extremes of anticipation and release, elevating and elevated by a vibrant, confrontational, and incomparable culture. Or, put another way, soccer gives us the biggest and best, most believable, least believable, stories—stories like U.S. 1, England 0.
To say the team that scores more goals wins is a footballing cliché, yet somehow, to say the team that scores more goals deserves to win is not—though there is a handy metric, sometimes known as “the score,” in place to determine that precise fact. That afternoon in Belo Horizonte, both the U.S. and England were trying to win, yet only one of them did win, and when Walter Bahr prepared to shoot it was possible for his effort to be diverted past Bert Williams by Joe Gaetjens; we know this because it happened. England were first unable to pre-empt it, then unable to prevent it, and finally unable to match it; we know this because it happened, which is to say that one team’s game plan worked and the other team’s game plan did not work. You merit a goal if you score a goal; you only merit a goal if you score a goal, and if you do not score a goal, you do not merit a goal. So, the U.S. beat England because they deserved to beat England, because they were better than England and because England were worse than them … but most of all, the U.S. beat England because soccer is the greatest thing in the world.