Every Four (or Forty) Years

 Joe Gaetjen is lifted by fans and the American support team following the victory on June 29. (Credit BBC.com)

Joe Gaetjen is lifted by fans and the American support team following the victory on June 29. (Credit BBC.com)

By Marcel Haas

It is World Cup season! Of course, while most soccer-loving people have directed their steady gaze towards Russia and the fate of the 32 teams there in action, Americans celebrate a future event. On Wednesday, one day before the kick-off of the 2018 tournament’s first match between hosts Russia and the hopefuls from Saudi-Arabia (spoiler alert, Russia won 5:0), the FIFA voted to give the 2026 World Cup to a joint bid from Canada, Mexico, and the US. With a whopping 60 out of 80 matches played in stadiums around the United States, American fans truly have something to look forward to in these hard times. Following the infamous 1950 tournament in Brazil, the US had to overcome four decades of drought in which the Soccer team featured in as many World Cups as the proud but minuscule nation of Andorra (that is, zero). The country celebrated a 1990s’ revival topped with the hosting of the 1994 World Cup, but disappeared again from the World Cup stage this year. This second US drought will definitely end at the latest in 2026, since host nations are automatically qualified for the competition.

Why am I harking on about the failure of the US national team and about soccer, the sport Americans love to hate (unless they win, in which case it is the pastime of champions, of course)? Because it is good to remember some of the more surprising victories in the midst of all that doom and gloom. Maybe, when studying the history of one of these dramatic sporting upsets, one can even find new hope and a good story, such as the US team’s monumental victory against the vastly superior English on June 29, 1950. Really, it is for this reason that we study comparative and transnational history, I would argue.[1]

In 1950, England was amongst the greatest footballing nations on the planet. The United States, however, was not. England’s players were famous worldwide, professionals in their chosen sport. The Americans, you guessed it, were not.[2] Although they had survived the qualifying tournament the year before, in 1950 in Brazil the world expected the Americans to get a good thrashing by the English. The latter had gone on an exhibition tour through North America just before the World Cup, where they had effortlessly dispatched an American national team with 1:0 in New York. In the group stages of the competition, they met the US again, besides the hopeful Chileans and the composed Spanish. The Americans played their first match against Spain, scoring early on through John Souza and defending valiantly around the Belgian-born center back Joe Maca, before going down 3:1 in the final ten minutes. England did better, and defeated now rather hopeless Chileans 2:0. Meeting the Americans for the second match, the English would go through had they won the match. In one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, however, the English team, hailed as “Kings of Europe,” could not bring the ball past the American goalkeeper Frank Borghi. On the other side, Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens somehow headed an effort by Walter Bahr on goal. The ball went into the net marking the greatest victory of any American sports team.[3] Following the goal in the 37th minute, a barrage of English shots was fired towards Borghi, who jumped, rolled, and dived to snatch each and every one of them. “As the game went on, we got a little bit better and they got a little bit more panicky,” Bahr said later about the game. “Nine times out of 10 they would have beaten us. But that game was our game.”[4]

In the end, both teams left the 1950 World Cup with one victory each: the Americans, tired by their efforts against Spain and England, crashed 5:2 against triumphant Chileans, and the depressed English lost 1:0 to Spain. The English team was ridiculed upon their return. People had first believed the reports of 0:1 to be mistaken and missing another number to make it the more appropriate 10:1. The Americans, on the other hand, treated their team possibly even more harshly. The players returned to no reception, no big news or hero’s welcome. Instead, the nation had more or less forgotten about its biggest sports victory the moment after it had happened. Finally, in 2005, the movie The Game of Their Lives was released to an absolutely horrendous reception (bad reviews and basically no viewers). Although honoring the feat of the US team, it was full of historical errors and artistic licenses (and an overall bad movie, I might add).

The 1950 victory over England is a typical underdog story, including the unlikely participants, the tragic heroes, and the hurt pride of the favored.[5] Of course, England would triumph in 1966 with their only World Cup title so far, while the United States disappeared from the World Cup stage until 1990. There are always the next four years, however. Failing that, in 2026 no one can take the US participation from them, and at least so far, no one has the team anywhere near the title. Another underdog story then, maybe?

 

[1] And what is more comparative and transnational than a FIFA World Cup? Correct, nothing.

[2] However, the US team’s captain in the fateful match against England was Ed McIlvenny, a Scotsman who had played seven matches for Third Division Wrexham A.F.C. The latter was not exactly the crown of English soccer.

[3] I realize that this is a highly subjective statement, but I remain convinced of it. Even the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” pales in comparison. If you think otherwise, email me at haas1m@cmich.edu and please explain why I should like Baseball, Basketball, or American Football.

[4] Cited in: Angelo Clemente Lisi, A History of the World Cup, 1930-2006 (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007), 53.

[5] Especially Joe Gaetjens' life story would make for a great movie.


When CMU doctoral candidate Marcel Haas doesn’t write blog posts, he tries to research something for one of his other upcoming projects.