The United States men's soccer team defeated England 1–0 on June 29, 1950, in a group match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup at Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The result is notable as one of the biggest shocks in the tournament's history.
Before the game, England were heavy favorites against a hastily assembled U.S. team, which was composed of part-time players. The game's only goal was scored by the U.S.'s Haitian-born center forward Joe Gaetjens. This game and the U.S. team were profiled by author Geoffrey Douglas in his book The Game of Their Lives, which was made into a film of the same name (later renamed The Miracle Match).
This was England's World Cup debut, the Football Association having boycotted the previous three tournaments owing to a dispute with FIFA over payments made to amateur players, which had been resolved four years earlier. England and the United States were both drawn in Group 2, along with Spain and Chile: under the rules of the competition only the group winner from this four-nation round-robin would progress to the final stage. Each team had played one previous match in the group, England having beaten Chile 2–0 and the United States losing 3–1 to Spain.
At the time, the English had a reputation as the "Kings of Football", with a post-war record of 23 wins, 4 losses, and 3 ties. They had beaten the Italians 4–0 and the Portuguese 10–0 in Lisbon two weeks before that. Conversely, the Americans, despite having finished third in the inaugural 1930 World Cup, had lost their last seven international matches (including the 1934 World Cup and 1948 Summer Olympics) by the combined score of 45–2, including heavy losses to Italy (7–1), Norway (11–0) and Northern Ireland (5–0). The odds were 3–1 the English would win the Cup, and 500–1 for the U.S.:5 The people from Belo Horizonte were eager to watch the English team, with 10,000 tickets sold along with 3,000 distributed to associates of Sete de Setembro Futebol Clube, then-owners of the newly inaugurated Estádio Independência.
England had Stanley Matthews available, who was widely considered one of the best players in the world at the time,:99 but he had not played with the English team in the three international matches before the World Cup (in fact, he had joined the team late, having been touring Canada as part of another group of English internationals). As such, the selection committee (consisting entirely of Arthur Drewry, then president of The Football League in England and later the president of FIFA) opted to stay with the team that had just defeated Chile. Matthews would be saved for later, supposedly more difficult, opponents. As there were no substitutes allowed in those days, Matthews watched the game with the other reserves. Incidentally, the England team which toured Canada beat the United States team preparing for the World Cup 1–0 at the Triborough Stadium in New York City on 19 June, 10 days before the World Cup match, courtesy of a Johnny Hancocks goal.
The American team consisted of semi-professional players, most of whom had other jobs to support their families. Walter Bahr was a high school teacher, Frank Borghi drove a hearse for his uncle's funeral home:14 and others worked as letter carrier or dishwashers. One player, Ben McLaughlin, had to withdraw from the tournament because he could not get time off work. The team had also been hastily assembled, and had only been able to train together once, and that was the day before they left for Brazil, which happened to be against the touring English team featuring Matthews (Matthews did not play in that game, as he was injured.) Three players—Joe Maca, Ed McIlvenny, and Joe Gaetjens, none of whom were U.S. citizens—had been added to the roster just before that game. "We have no chance," recently appointed coach Bill Jeffrey told the press;:16 he also declared his players "sheep ready to be slaughtered". The English Daily Express newspaper wrote: "It would be fair to give the U.S. three goals of a start."
England won the toss and elected to kick off. Within ninety seconds, Stanley Mortensen sent a cross from the left wing to Roy Bentley, who let off a shot that was barely pushed aside by U.S. goalkeeper Frank Borghi. By the 12th minute, England had six clear shots on goal but could not convert, with two shots hitting the post, one just going over the top, and another brilliantly saved by Borghi.:22–24
The U.S. struggled to move to the offense, and finally managed a shot on goal in the 25th minute, which was blocked by English goalkeeper Bert Williams. The English counterattacked with three successive clear shots at the goal in minutes 30, 31, and 32, but failed to score. Mortensen twice went over the crossbar, and Tom Finney's header to the top corner was tipped away by Borghi.:37–42
In the 37th minute, Bahr took a long shot from twenty-five yards out, but as Williams moved to his right to intercept, Gaetjens dived headlong near the penalty spot, and grazed the ball enough to put it to the left of the English goalkeeper, whose momentum prevented him from changing direction, and into the back of the net. The crowd exploded as the U.S. improbably led 1–0. As the half drew to a close, Finney had a chance to equalize, but the whistle blew before he could shoot.:62
The crowd, initially 10,000, increased as Brazilian locals heard radio coverage of the match. Attendants were mostly supporting for the underdog Americans, cheering with Borghi's defenses and the missed English offenses. According to Bahr, "The overwhelming majority was Brazilians, but they rooted for us the entire time. We didn't realize why until after. They [were] hoping we would beat England and that Brazil would not have to play England in the final game." Some locals even jumped a short wall to enter the stadium through the playing field.
The U.S. played with renewed confidence as the second half opened, creating another scoring opportunity in the 54th minute.:102–104 In the 59th minute England was awarded a direct free kick but Mortensen's shot was well saved by Borghi. But England began threatening again, and it was fifteen minutes before the Americans were able to get another shot. With eight minutes left, Charlie Colombo brought down Mortensen with an illegal tackle at the edge of the penalty area. England pleaded for a penalty kick, but the referee ruled it was outside the box. From Alf Ramsey's resulting free kick, Jimmy Mullen headed the ball for what he thought was a goal, but Borghi tipped it away at the last instant, and despite the protests of the English players, the referee ruled that the ball had not crossed the line and thus there was no goal. England did not threaten again, but the U.S. had one final chance in the 85th minute: Frank "Peewee" Wallace drew Williams out of position and fired a shot at the empty net, only to be denied by a sliding goal line clearance by Ramsey.:131–134
Even after this loss, England could have kept their chances alive by winning their final pool match against Spain. However, they were unable to do this, losing 1–0, and finishing the First Round with a record of 1–0–2. The U.S. also lost their next match 5–2, versus Chile, ending their 1950 World Cup run with a First Round record of 1–0–2. They would not qualify for the World Cup again until 1990. Spain advanced to the four-team Final Round, finishing fourth. Uruguay won the 1950 World Cup.
John Souza, the U.S. inside right forward, was selected to the World Cup All-Star team by the Brazilian sports newspaper Mundo Esportivo, and remained the only American player selected to a World Cup All-Star team until Claudio Reyna in 2002.
Newspaper headlines in most World Cup nations trumpeted the shocking upset, except ironically in the United States and England. There was only one American journalist at the World Cup: Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; he could not persuade the newspaper to pay for the trip, and had taken time off work to cover the event.:4 His report of the match was the only one to appear in any major American newspaper.:141 In England, newspapers at the time were generally small, and only had a single page devoted to sports. Because the English cricket team happened to suffer their first-ever defeat by the West Indies the very same day, that was the major story in most publications. Legend has it that in publications that did report the World Cup match, so unexpected was the result that it was presumed that the 1–0 scoreline was a typing error and so it was reported that England had won on a scoreline of 10–0 or 10–1. However, historical newspapers online at The British Newspaper Archive show that the story is a myth.
Afterwards, a number of books and newspapers in England suggested that the U.S. team had arrived "through Ellis Island", meaning that the team was made up of imported players. In actuality, eight of the starting eleven were American-born, while the other three, Gaetjens, McIlvenny, and Maca, were not U.S. citizens, but had declared their intentions to gain citizenship (only Maca ultimately became a U.S. citizen in 1957), and according to the rules of the United States Soccer Football Association at the time, were allowed to play. The U.S. was cleared of any wrongdoing by FIFA in a hearing on December 2, 1950. Of the eight American-born starters, five were from St. Louis, Missouri.
England's blue uniform, which had made its debut in this match, was never worn again. Walter Bahr erroneously noted that England has never had a blue uniform since then, but a blue road uniform was worn again in 1959 during a 1–4 loss to Peru. The 1950 loss was the first of several shock losses for the English team. In 1953, they were defeated 6–3 by the "Magical Magyars" of Hungary and in 1954, they lost again to Hungary 7–1. The result of these losses was a reorganization of English soccer that culminated in England winning the 1966 World Cup on home soil.
There was little attention given to the match in the U.S. at the time, and that continued to be the case until the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted in the U.S., although Pariani, an Italian American, was interviewed by the Italian press in 1990 when Italy and England played against each other for third place. Geoffrey Douglas, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was inspired by news articles in the build-up to the 1994 tournament, and wrote a book about the 1950 match, having interviewed the five surviving members of the U.S. team. Entitled The Game of Their Lives, in 2005 it was made into a film of the same name directed by David Anspaugh. Since then, the game has become known as "The Miracle Match", in reference to the Miracle on Ice from the 1980 Winter Olympics, in which the U.S. ice hockey team defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union. The United States and England did not play another World Cup match against each other until the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which ended in a 1–1 tie.