By Michael Lewis
The telephone rang in the Hong Kong office of the Associated Press in late June 1950.
An editor picked up.
“Is it true?” the person on the other end asked.
“No, no,” the editor replied. “The United States and Russia have not declared war.”
To which the caller responded: “No, no, that’s not what I meant. Is it true that the United States beat Britain in the World Soccer Cup?”
The editor answered succinctly, “Yes.”
“Why, those cheeky Americans,” the caller replied.
That account appeared in an AP story about the U.S. men’s national team knocking off so-called powerhouse England in the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
It was truly a stunning result because no one gave the USA a chance. The Americans, who in 1930 were called “shot putters” reached the semifinals of the first World Cup in Uruguay. It reached the 1934 competition before it was routed by the Italians, 7-1 in the single elimination tournament, and found a way to qualify for Brazil 1950.
Not surprisingly, the British media was more surprised than anyone else.
On page one of the Daily Express, this was said: “It marks the lowest ever in British sport.”
The Daily Mail’s Roy Peskett wrote in another front-page story: “”A fitter, faster, fighting team of the United States have done the unbelievable! This is the biggest soccer upset of all time.”
John Gayson of the Daily Graphic wrote: “It was pathetic to see the cream of English players beaten by a side most amateur players at home would have beaten, and there was no fluke about it.”
After Joe Gaetjens scored the goal that gave the USA a 1-0 lead, John Thompson of the Daily Mail reported that the English were losing to a “team I never knew played football.”
Back in the British Isles, it was similar lament:
The Bradford Observer sported this deadline in its June 30 editions:
England’s shock defeat in World Cup
England crashed ignominiously to defeat at Belo Horizonte yesterday against the United States – 500-to-1 outsiders for the World Soccer Cup title.
Probably never before has an English team played so badly. The changes they missed were legion, for with the American goal at their mercy the forward blazed away over the bar or fiddled and hesitated to allow a nippy defense to rob them.
England’s defeat became the sensation of the series. The 20,000 crowd went wild with enthusiasm at the end of the match, and hundreds of spectators rushed in congratulate the jubilant American team as they left the field, carrying the players should high.”
Wow. Imagine that happening today.
That would have been a scandal and a half with today’s security.
The Belfast Telegraph’s headline read:
ENGLISH SOCCER ECLIPSE
Worst display ever given by a national side
Vernon Morgan, a Reuters special correspondent wrote this account in the paper:
Yesterday’s team gave probably the worst display ever seen for an England side and not a single player could be proud of his showing.
England officials were dumbfounded by the defeat. Mr. Arthur Drewry, president of the Football League declared: “It’s unbelievable.”
The Guardian wasn’t as sensational as the other newspapers, although it was critical. The paper also had the wrong nationality of the goal-scorer.
In a one column story, the Guardian headline read:
ENGLAND LOSES IN BRAZIL
BELO HORIZONTE, June 29
England was beaten here today by the United States in pool B of the World Cup Association Football tournament. The Americans hung stubbornly on to the lead they gained in the 38th minute of the match when their centre forward, an Argentine-born player called Gaetjens, scored with a good shot from twenty yards through a crowd of players into the corner of the net.
The United States thus brought off the biggest surprise of the tournament so far, and they beat a team which gave probably the worst display ever by an England side.
As for the USA’s reaction at the time?
Well, good luck finding it because it was few and far between.
The New York Times had this headline:
U.S. Upsets England in World Soccer Tourney
SOUZA’S GOAL BEATS
BRITISH ELEVEN, 1-0
Yes, The Times had Ed Souza of Fall River, Mass. not Gaetjens scoring the goal in its AP report. We don’t know if it was an early story sent out by the wire service that had the misinformation or another reason.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a sizeable running across the top of one of its sports pages:
U.S. Upsets England in Soccer
The paper did not say which wire services were used in the story, although it had Gaetjens scoring the winning goal and mentioned St. Louis native and defender Charlie Colombo.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Dent McSkimming, the National Soccer Hall of Fame sportswriter who paid his own way to Brazil to watch the USMNT, did not have a byline on the story and didn’t write about the Americans’ accomplishments until he returned home.
The Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash. had this headline:
TEAM IN UPSET
It’s seven-paragraph story on the day’s action came from Reuters:
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – The United States world cup soccer squad caused a sensation by upsetting the highly touted English team here today, 1 to 0.
Center forward Joe Gaetjens, of the New York Manhattans, notched the winning marker in the first half.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a story by its soccer columnist, Billy Graham, that Friday. He mentioned the USA played England that day and was looking forward to its final group game against Chile on Sunday. Graham was one of the leading American soccer writers in his day, publishing annual North American Soccer Guide.
Most likely, that story was published before the story came in about the big upset.
If a newspaper ran a story, it was a small one with a few paragraphs and it was far from the lead story of the day.
During that time, baseball was king in the U.S. and soccer was an ethnic sport that had its own part of the sporting universe in such larger metropolitan areas such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and Boston (and many parts of New England), among other cities.
With the USA failed to qualify for the World Cup over four decades, the legend of the game grew in the states as more writers and historians started researching and writing about one of the most stunning results in soccer, if not the world.