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The Miracle on Grass

ESPN staff
June 9, 2010
The USA's Joe Gaetjens sealed his place in World Cup folklore with the only goal of the game in his side's 1-0 win over England in 1950 © Getty Images
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England's opening World Cup match against USA at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg will be the two sides' first clash in a competitive match since 1950. Much of the build-up to this weekend's clash has focussed on England's last defeat against USA in 1993, when Graham Taylor's side capitulated in the Boston heat, but 60 years ago England's Group C rivals served up one of the biggest shocks of World Cup history.

In 1950, England were appearing in their first World Cup and, with a reputation as the 'Kings of Football', were widely tipped to win the tournament in Brazil. After coming through their first game unscathed with a 2-0 win over Chile, Walter Winterbottom's team were faced with a far from threatening US team, which included a postman, a mill-worker and a funeral director. In contrast, England boasted some of the best players in the world, with the likes of Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen - the only player ever to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup final - coming to the tournament with reputations akin to those of Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney this time around.

England's main star, Stanley Matthews, was absent though. The FA, who had chosen to ignore the tournament since its inception in 1930, had arranged a goodwill tour of Canada to take place at the same time as the World Cup. The tour would use many of the players that Winterbottom had expected to be able to take with him, including Matthews. Plans to fly the Blackpool player from Canada to Brazil in time for England's second Group 2 clash were made but, despite the manager's pleas, Matthews was not picked by the selection committee on the grounds that a winning team should not be changed.

Despite the disruption, England made a strong start to the match in the mining town of Belo Horizonte and forced American goalkeeper Frank Borghi into several early saves before hitting the woodwork twice inside the opening half hour. Any sense of an upset seemed distant. Joe Gaetjens, a part-time dishwasher whose mother was from Haiti, would change that though.

Joe Gaetjens almost added a second late in the game but his miss did not prove costly as USA closed out one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history © Getty Images
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After receiving the ball wide out on the right, USA captain Walter Bahr unleashed an ambitious diagonal shot angling towards the far corner of the net. England goalkeeper Bert Williams, sensing an easy save, moved with the flight of the ball towards his left post, only to see Gaetjens head the ball down the centre of the goal with the slightest of touches. The goalscorer, planted face down in the grass, never saw the ball cross the line.

England responded but the equaliser that their dominance threatened was not forthcoming. Alf Ramsey, who would go on to coach England to World Cup glory in 1966, saw a goal from a free kick disallowed and Borghi made a save from a Mortensen free kick, before producing another last-gasp tip-over from a James Mullen header in the dying minutes. Gaetjens narrowly missed a late chance but his place in World Cup folklore was assured.

The final whistle was greeted by a mixture of shock and unbridled joy by the USA players, as they struggled to comprehend the extent of their success. "At the time, I didn't realise how big a victory it really was," Bahr said during an interview to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game in 2000. "We weren't that familiar with the World Cup. As the years went by, the significance of that victory has become more important."

Winterbottom's side, perhaps still shocked by the defeat, would go on to lose to Spain and exit the competition at the first stage, while USA finished bottom of the group after losing 5-2 to Chile. Although the result did not spark an immediate rise in football's popularity in North America, the seismic shock of the result did initiate the country's journey to hosting the tournament in 1994.

England would claim a measure of revenge three years later with a 6-3 win in front of a packed Yankee Stadium. The ramifications of the 1950 loss, combined with England's famous 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley in 1956, would see a much-needed shake up of English football, which would culminate in winning the World Cup in 1966 on home soil.

Bob Bradley's USA side, who reached the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa 12 months ago before losing 3-2 to Brazil, will have to pull off another major upset if they are to win this weekend but it is England who go into the game, as they did in 1950, with everything to lose.

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