England v USA at the World Cup finals – hopefully a whole new script will be written in the Al Bayt Stadium tonight.
For now, though, Belo Horizonte in 1950 still casts a haunting shadow over the fixture as far as supporters on this side of the Atlantic are concerned.
Bert Williams, for all of his achievements in the game, said he never lived down the shame of the Americans’ 1-0 victory in Brazil. Billy Wright was quoted as saying in one of his books: “It was easily the most frustrating and one-sided international in which I ever played.” And Jimmy Mullen was a third Wolves player in the beaten line-up, which also included Alf Ramsey.
An article by John J O’Connor in the recently published 82nd issue of Backpass magazine adds new context to the stunning occasion on June 29 the small matter of 72 years ago, although he dismisses as folklore the suggestions that Fleet Street sports editors were so convinced the office machines were spluttering out a misprint after the final whistle that some actually went to press initially with the assumed result of England 10 USA 1.
That the true version had to have the ‘1’ removed from the England half of the scoreline was thanks to what Billy called ‘a freak’ set of circumstances, including a fortunate close-range header by Joe Gaetjens, a Haiti-born trainee accountant who helped make ends meet by washing dishes in a Manhattan restaurant.
Images, if not YouTube, capture a startled Williams as the ball hits the net behind him and tournament favourites England unbelievably failed to muster a reply despite massive dominance and numerous chances.
O’Connor says the US were 500-1 to win the World Cup – the same odds that Leicester apparently were before their 2015-16 Premier League title triumph – and a semblance of normality was restored when the minnows lost 5-2 to Chile in their next game and still finished bottom of group two.
Only Spain went through and there was no fanfare on arrival back home for the shock Belo Horizonte victors.
“My wife was the only person waiting for us at the airport,” Backpass tells us of a 2009 interview with American defender Walter Bahr, who was the last survivor from the notorious fixture when he died at 91 four years ago.
“It was 25 years later when I gave my first interview about the game. That’s how long it was before people over here realised what we had accomplished.”
Gaetjens, having played professionally for a couple of years in France, was murdered in Haiti a few weeks after Wolves had played on the island on their long tour of the Caribbean in the summer of 1964.
He was inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976 and has inevitably popped up in previews of this evening’s game in Al Kohr.
We hope and trust that events there will further lay to rest the nightmare memories of Belo Horizonte and, less so, those of Rob Green’s howler against America in a draw during the 2010 finals in South Africa and of the friendly defeat suffered by Graham Taylor’s England in Boston in 1993.
John J O’Connor’s fascinating two-page article appears in a World Cup-themed issue of Backpass, which has Bobby Moore and The Queen on the front and is available by clicking on the cover bearing John Richards’ photo above right.