FrontRowSoccer.com continues its series of U.S. men’s national team’s history of the World Cup. Today, we look at how the Americans reached Brazil in 1950 and how it pulled off one of the great results in soccer history.
By Michael Lewis
Perhaps Soccer Week said it best in 1989: “In a galaxy far, far away, a long time ago . . . the United States qualified for a World Cup.”
The story referred to the last time the Americans had actually qualified on the field for the finals – in 1950 – before the 1990 World Cup.
That team included midfielder Walter Bahr, defender Harry Keough and forward Joe Gaetjens, among others, who would go on to make some history in the World Cup.
“We were a jovial, outgoing group,” said U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Jack Hynes, a forward on the team that qualified. “We had a lot of fun. We had no regrets, that’s for sure. We went night-clubbing a lot.”
They also found time to play soccer, usually for a local factory or steel mill, or in Hynes’ case, the original American Soccer League.
After a 12-year layoff because of World War II, FIFA wanted to re-organize its new international tournament, the World Cup. Brazil was selected as host. The North American-Caribbean area would get two berths, and three countries were interested– the U.S., Mexico and Cuba. So the U.S. Soccer Federation sent a team to Mexico City to play in a qualifying tournament. It wasn’t too much of a big deal, because the United States had appeared in two of the first three World Cups.
“I wasn’t fully cognizant of the whole thing,” Hynes said. “We played on so many all-star teams in those days, it was like another game or tournament.
“We were just going to another country. It wasn’t until later on that it hit me.”
The team, as was the case in that era, hardly practiced together.
“We did not have a first-class coach,” Hynes said. “There was no set way of training. No advice, no technical advice.”
“Walter Bahr and I led most of the training. We did gymnastics outside the hotel. It was the first time we trained together. It was a farce.”
So was the opener against Mexico, a 6-0 victory for the home team before 60,000 fans on Sept. 4, 1949.
“They got a penalty,” Hynes remembered. “They didn’t take it. They rolled it to the goalie. It was a gesture. I didn’t like it . . . We were outclassed, completely outclassed.”
Ten days later, the U.S. played Cuba to a 1-1 tie. On Sept. 18, Mexico rolled to a 6-2 triumph over the U.S. — John Souza and Ben Wattman scored. But the Americans completed the tournament with a 5-2 victory over Cuba on Sept. 21. Pete Matetich (two goals), Frank Wallace, Souza and Bahr found the back of the net.
“The game had some rough play,” Hynes said. “It was an indication of how we improved. We finally blossomed.”
The Cubans were to play Mexico in a couple of days, yet the U.S. squad was so confident the Mexicans would vanquish the Cubans, it went out to a restaurant in Mexico City called Los Globos and celebrated reaching the World Cup, even though the U.S. had only a 1-2-1 record.
“We were on our way,” Hynes said. “We had a victory party.”
The U.S. left the country before the match was played, which was a 2-0 Mexican triumph. “We found out about the score after we returned home,” Hynes said.
“We accepted it. You didn’t have TV. There were no replays. There were no movies [of the game back then]. You’re lucky to get pictures of the games.”
So the U.S. was off to the World Cup in Brazil The Americans, mostly amateur players, were seeded in the same group as Spain, England and Chile.
The Americans enjoyed an encouraging start, taking a 1-0 lead on a goal by Gino Pariani and keeping it until the 80th minute before the Spanish burst their bubble with three goals in the final 10 minutes in Curtiba.
Next was the English, for whom the Americans had a tremendous amount of respect. The English, who were playing in their first World Cup. Still, coach Walter Winterbottom had an array of stars to choose from — the team reportedly had been insured by Lloyd’s of London for $3 million, a tremendous sum in those days — even if a couple of players here and there were lost to touring teams. Stanley Matthews, arguably the greatest English player, did not start against the U.S. in that June 29 encounter.
“We went into the game hoping to keep the score down,” goalkeeper Frank Borghi said. “If we could have held them to five or six goals, we would have called it a moral victory.”
“It was like the Yankees losing to an amateur team from Massapequa, N.Y.,” defender Joe Maca said.
“We were 70-1 underdogs. I should have bet $10 on the game,” midfielder Charles Colombo said with a laugh.
The U.S., though, held its own and scored the lone goal in the 37th minute. Gaetjens, who was killed as a political prisoner in his native Haiti in the 1960s, headed in a Bahr pass past the English goalkeeper. In Associated Press reports, Ed Souza was credited with the goal.
The English press that Gaetjens’ goal was an accident; that he misjudged the shot and deflected the ball off the top of his head, not his forehead, into the net.
The U.S. team did not buy that.
“I had taken a shot from 25 yards out,” Bahr said. “Gaetjens was a highly skill [player]. He turned my going going to the left-hand post and into the right-hand corner.
Accident or not, the U.S. had an improbable 1-0 lead.
“Now, I thought, they’re going to bury us,” defender Harry Keough said. “We just woke up a sleeping lion.”
It never happened.
Somehow, the Americans managed to hold on, although there were a number of heart-stopping moments. With 20 minutes remaining in the match, Charles Colombo, the midfielder who wore gloves, made the defensive player of the match when he stopped English great Stan Mortenson from going in alone on Borghi to tie the score. Colombo tackled Mortenson at the edge of the penalty area and England protested for a penalty kick. Instead, the English was awarded a free kick just outside the area, and nothing came of it.
“I dove headlong and tackled him,” Colombo said. “He got a step on me and was going in on goal. If they scored one, they would have scored six. After I had tackled him, the referee, who was Italian, shouted at me, ‘Bono, bono, bono,” which means “good” in Italian. The English thought he was giving me hell.”
Afterwards, the English press complained about the field (“narrow, rutted and stony,” one journalist reported) and about the three non-citizens who perfo rmed for the U.S. – Gaetjens, Maca (Belgium) and midfielder Ed McIllveny (Scotland). They were residents of the U.S., which was allowed at the time. Nowadays, a player must be a citizen.
“We never should of played,” Maca said. “At that time, they didn’t ask any questions . . . If we hadn’t
beaten England, no one would have said anything.”
The U.S. players were carried off the field.
Lost in the afterglow of the upset the fact the U.S. dropped a 5-2 decision to Chile three days later in Recife (Souza and Pariani had the goals) and was eliminated (so were the English, who lost to Spain, 1-0).