US's 1950 upset of England remains its greatest World Cup triumph

The Miracle on Grass: US Soccer’s 1950 upset of 70-1 favorite England remains its greatest World Cup triumph, but DECADES of futility followed and the game’s unlikely hero met a tragic end in 1964

  • The United States soccer team upset 70-1 favorite England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil with a 1-0 victory
  • The lone goal was scored by Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian-born dishwasher, who would never be granted citizenship
  • Instead, Gaetjens faded into near obscurity before becoming a political enemy of Haiti’s brutal dictator
  • After playing briefly in France and for the Haitian national team, Gaetjens was ‘disappeared’ in 1964 
  • Reactions differed wildly from the US, where it was largely ignored, to England, where the upset was big news 
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The United States’ impact on international soccer is famously limited. 

Since making the country’s World Cup debut with a third-place finish in Uruguay 92 years ago, the Americans have battled through a four-decade qualifying drought, four group stage exits, and one measly quarterfinals appearance on soccer’s biggest stage. The worst of it came four years ago when the promising US squad once again failed to qualify for the tournament after being upset by Trinidad and Tobago.

If there is a high point in US Soccer history, it came decades before the sport ever reached the American mainstream – but that doesn’t make it any less significant. 

Eventually dubbed the ‘Miracle on Grass,’ America’s 1-0 upset over 70-1 favorites, England, at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil remains one of the greatest shocks in World Cup history – even if its impact was felt more on one side of the Atlantic than the other. 

In this June 28, 1950 file photo, US center forward Joe Gaetjens is carried off by cheering fans after his team beat England 1-0 in a World Cup soccer match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Gaetjens scored the only goal in what remains one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history

The 1950 US World Cup team: (back row, L-R) coach Chubby Lyons, Joe Maca, Charlie Colombo, Frank Borghi, Harry Keough, Walter Bahr, manager Bill Jeffrey; (front row) Frank Wallace, Ed McIlvenny, Gino Pariani, Joe Gaetjens, John Souza, Ed Souza

In England, where the Three Lions were expected to reach the World Cup Final, the match was an unmitigated disaster. Brits awoke to newspaper headlines reading ‘World Cup shock for England – beaten by US,’ and articles slamming the team for losing to ‘500-1 outsiders’ in the southern city of Belo Horizonte. 

‘It was pathetic to watch English football beaten by a side most amateur elevens would beat at home,’ wrote John Graydon in the Aberdeen Journal. 

News reports in the US conveyed a similar amount of shock, only instead of doing so on the front pages, the articles were hidden deep inside newspapers. The New York Times, for instance, ran its coverage of the US upset on page 37. 

‘The United States today defeated England, 1-0, to add to the latest and biggest upset in the world soccer championship,’ read the Times piece. ‘The favored British team and the spectators were stunned by the result. The goal was scored by Ed Souza of Fall River, Mass., after 39 minutes in the first half.’

The biggest problem with the coverage wasn’t its low profile, but rather, its accuracy. 

Souza didn’t score the winning goal. Rather, it was center forward Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian-born dishwasher at a German restaurant, who would never be granted American citizenship and was tragically killed in his native country 14 years later. 

The shortcomings of international reporting in 1950 have since become intertwined with the story of the ‘Miracle on Grass,’ although not all of the criticism is justified. Legend had it that newspapers presumed the score to be a typo, so instead, they supposedly reported that England had beaten the US 10-1 or 10-0. However, various investigations through the years since have since debunked the myth of the erroneous reports.

The English were described as confident ahead of the 1950 meeting with the US before suffering the historic upset

News reports in the US conveyed a similar amount of shock, only instead of doing so on the front pages, the articles were hidden deep inside newspapers. The New York Times, for instance, ran its coverage of the US upset on the 37th of 46 pages

The biggest problem with the coverage wasn’t its low profile, but rather, its accuracy. Souza didn’t score the winning goal. Rather, it was center forward Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian-born dishwasher, who would never be granted American citizenship and was tragically killed in 1964

In this is November 12, 1946, file photo, England and Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper Bert Williams is seen posing for photographers before the start of a soccer match in England. Williams was the England goalkeeper who conceded the goal that allowed a team of journeymen Americans to produce a great upset at the 1950 World Cup

Prior to the game, the English were confident of a ‘comfortable win,’ according to the Derby Daily Telegraph, which noted that team players were ‘amusing themselves playing in a snooker championship.’

It certainly helped that England was coming off friendly victories over Portugal and Belgium, scoring a combined nine goals.  

England was actually appearing in its first World Cup since joining FIFA, but was nonetheless expected to compete for a title in 1950. Those hopes only grew after The Three Lions notched a 2-0 win over Chile in the opening game of the group stage.

If any cause for concern existed, it was the absence of the English great Stanley Matthews, who was nursing an injury and left out of the lineup. Still, England boasted captain Billy Wright and forward Tom Finney, who would finish his international career with 76 goals.

Retired US soccer player Walter Bahr speaks to the media at a news conference in New York, Thursday, April 29, 2010. Bahr assisted the goal that upset England at the 1950 World Cup 

The US, meanwhile, was coming off a 3-1 loss to Spain, which, all things considered, was a good result for the inexperienced Americans in the World Cup opener, especially considering the team’s 9-0 defeat by Italy at the 1948 London Olympics. 

After all, the team was haphazardly thrown together and had only a weeklong training camp before the World Cup began in 1950, not that the American public took much notice. 

Any soccer presence in the US was largely the result of first-generation immigrants from Eastern US cities – mostly Scottish, Jewish, Irish and Hispanic communities – without which, the US may not have been able to field a team at all. 

In fact, three players (Gaetjens, Belgian Joe Maca, and Scotsman Ed McIlvenny) weren’t even American citizens, although that wasn’t a prerequisite to play in the World Cup at that time.

‘Rarely did we have any time to practice, even one day, other than a little workout and a kick-around,’ US player Walter Bahr said, as quoted by The Ringer. ‘There was none of that, it was just a question of picking the better players. 

‘We didn’t have any pre-trip training apart from a couple of exhibition games and the team changed—they’d pick up a player they thought they’d missed, and maybe drop a player that maybe didn’t show too well in a couple of pick-up games.’

Incredibly, Gaetjens wasn’t even known to the team until weeks before the World Cup began.  

‘Joe Gaetjens played with [American Soccer League club] Brookhattan and he never played a practice game with us because they only found out that he was a pretty good player a few weeks before we left,’ Bahr said. 

Given their relative unfamiliarity with each other, the US players failed to impress while qualifying in North American, falling twice to rival Mexico before squeaking into the tournament thanks to a win and a draw over Cuba. 

Even US manager Bill Jeffrey described his team as ‘sheep ready to be slaughtered’ ahead of the match against England. 

The US was coming off a 3-1 loss to Spain, which, all things considered, was a good result for the inexperienced Americans in the World Cup opener, especially considering the team’s 9-0 defeat by Italy at the 1948 London Olympics

The United States roster that was selected to play at the World Cup. From left in front row are Jeff Coombs, Nick D. Orio, Adal Molanin, Gino Gardassanish, Gino Pariani, Robert Anni, and Walter Bahr. In the second row from left are Robert Graddock, Frank Borghi, Joe Maca, Ed Souza, and John Souza. In the rear row from left are Chubby Lyon, Frank Valecenti, Joe Gaetjens, Charles Colombo, Harry Keough, and Bill Jeffrey, Head Coach

Roy Bentley, Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Ed Bailey, Bill Eckersley and Wilf Mannion are pictured for Team England

But on June 29, 1950, none of that seemed to matter for the Americans, largely due to the presence of Gaetjens. 

‘This guy Gaetjens,’ Bahr told teammate Harry Keough, ‘he makes some of the most uncanny goals you ever saw.’ 

Initially, things played out as expected with England dominating the match for most of the first half. But with eight minutes until halftime, Gaetjens took a centering pass from Bahr and headed the ball past England keeper Bert Williams, sending the predominantly pro-American crowd into hysterics.

‘The ball was thrown in from Ed McIlvenny from our right,’ Bahr recalled. ‘I collected it at about the 35-yard line. No one picked me up quickly, I pushed it ahead probably a good 10 yards and just unloaded a shot. 

‘I can’t say I picked out the corner or anything like that, but I hit a decent ball; it was a good shot that Bert Williams had to move to his right to handle, and Joe Gaetjens, somehow—I couldn’t see it, it went into traffic—but somehow, in the goal area, Joe Gaetjens either purposely got a piece of the ball and directed it left, or it was a ricochet. 

‘It was one that Joe got his head on it, but how professional it was, or how intentional it was, is another story. I couldn’t describe it, but he went up in the traffic, the ball was deflected, and Bert Williams was caught wrong-footed.’  

(Left) In this July 16, 1952, file photo, Harry Keough, captain of the US Olympic men’s soccer team, greets Italy’s captain, E. Pandolfini, (near left), and referee A.E. Ellis, of Great Britain, prior to the start of their match in Tampere, Finland. (Right) Keough talks about the major motion picture that was to be filmed in St. Louis., highlighting the Miracle on Grass

Keough believed the header was not only intentional, but a brilliant play by the athletic Gaetjens. 

‘If you saw Joe Gaetjens play before and after that game, Joe Gaetjens was a very athletic type of player,’ Keough said. ‘And what he did, dove and made that goal, you’d seen other examples of Joe’s ability to get that body around somebody. He was very quick, and anytime a cross would come he was dangerous because he would find a way to get his head to the ball—he had good timing. That goal was a classic example of that.’

The goal shocked the English and the crowd, but generated differing reactions from the opposing managers Jeffrey and England’s Walter Winterbottom. 

According to Bahr, halftime was uneventful on the American side. 

‘Bill was a little bit tight-lipped,’ Bahr said. ‘Everybody was lighthearted and whatever, but it wasn’t an out-and-out cheerleader exhibition.’ 

Meanwhile, Winterbottom went to work by moving Blackpool FC’s Stan Mortensen to center forward and Chelsea’s Roy Bentley to wing, but the moves failed to free up England’s attackers as he had hoped. 

‘The small ground and the close marking of the United States defenders seemed to upset the English players in their close passing game,’ read the Times of London’s article.

The captains of England and USA, Billy Wright and Ed McIlvenny (right) exchange souvenirs at the start of their match

England goalkeeper Bert Williams holds the ball while his teammate Alf Ramsey stands ready to help during the England-USA match on June 29, 1950 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which the American team won 1-0 much to the amazement of the world

The anti-England crowd in Brazil didn’t do Winterbottom’s team any favors. Not wanting to face The Three Lions later on in the tournament, the locals began chanting, ‘Mais um! Mais um!’ (One more! One more!’)

The US came out of halftime and nearly scored again, but the panicked England players were far from finished. 

In the 59th minute, England nearly scored on a direct kick by Mortensen, but the shot was saved by US keeper Frank Borghi. 

England got a better chance with eight minutes remaining, when America’s Charlie Colombo was whistled for an illegal tackle on Mortensen. 

‘It was a foul, an out-and-out foul,’ Bahr recalled. ‘I think he grabbed him around the waist first and then drove him down, dove headlong and grabbed him on the back of the knees.’ 

‘That’s the way Colombo was,’ Keough agreed. ‘He said, ”He was getting away from me. I had to stop him some way.”’

But despite English pleas for a penalty kick, officials ruled that the takedown occurred outside the box, resulting in a free kick for Alf Ramsey. 

American goalkeeper Frank Borghi saves in front of Tom Finney during the England-USA match on June 29, 1950

Despite the setback, Ramsey’s free kick was on target and found teammate Jimmy Mullen, who headed the ball on net. Unfortunately for England, Borghi again came up with another clutch save, although England players insisted that the ball had crossed the line. 

‘I wasn’t standing on the line in front of it,’ said Borghi, a St. Louis native and former baseball player who had grown up near Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. ‘I reached back and pulled the ball out before it crossed the line. If I had been standing on the line, it would have been a goal.’ 

England would fail to threaten again for the remainder of the match, although the US nearly scored on a shot by  Frank ‘Peewee’ Wallace that was miraculously cleared by Ramsey. 

Through it all, the Americans seemed to gain momentum, even as England produced a string of scoring chances. 

‘The first 20 minutes was our worst 20 minutes, and the last 20 minutes was probably our best,’ Bahr said. ‘We played a little bit better than most people thought we could. We played as a team, we went forward as a team, we went back as a team, and there were no slackers on the team. I actually thought we played a better game against Spain than against England—I think Spain was a little bit better of a soccer game by both teams.’ 

To their credit, England did not pout after the loss, according to Bahr. 

‘Other than one player—I won’t mention his name—everyone handled the loss very well,’ Bahr said. ‘They didn’t seem to show a lot of emotion after the game. They handled their loss better than most would, and there was some handshaking—but they didn’t overdo it!’ 

Bert Williams, Wolves athletic goalkeeper of the 1950’s. He also won 24 caps for England including the infamous match in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil against the USA which England contrived to loose 1-0

Keough later admitted that the Americans felt sympathy for the English, who were going to face intense criticism in their home country. 

‘I don’t mind saying we were almost sorry to beat the English team that day in Belo Horizonte,’ Keough said. ‘We felt it was going to be a terrible blow to them, and we knew we were not yet strong enough to win the championship. But we beat them and in the last five minutes came close to making it 3-0 instead of 1-0.’ 

Neither team would advance to the knockout stage after both dropped their third and final group matches with the US losing 5-2 to Chile and England falling to Spain, 1-0. Uruguay would ultimately beat the hosts, Brazil, to win the country’s second World Cup title.

The English became a regular contender over the next half century, winning the Cup in 1966 and finishing fourth in 1990.

The United States, meanwhile, wouldn’t return to the World Cup until 1990, when the team finished 23rd. Since then, their best finish came in 2002, when they were eighth in South Korea and Japan, while their biggest upset came at home in 1994 against the heavily favored Colombians.

England and the US once again find themselves in the same group at this month’s Qatar World Cup. Their November 25 matchup will be their third ever World Cup meeting, following a 1-1 draw in South Africa 12 years ago. Two EPL players scored in the game: England’s Steven Gerrard in the fourth minute and America’s Clint Dempsey in the 40th. 

England and USA fans enjoy the buildup to the two teams’ second World Cup meeting in South Africa in 2010

As for the game’s only goal scorer, the aftermath of the Miracle on Grass was mostly tragic. 

Although Gaetjens played briefly in France, in 1953 he would return to Haiti, where he suited up for his native country in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico.

Meanwhile, his brothers had befriended political candidate Louis Dejoie, who would lose to François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, an aspiring dictator.

Although Gaetjens played briefly in France, in 1953 he returned to Haiti, where he would play for his native country in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Meanwhile, his brothers had befriended political candidate Louis Dejoie, who would lose to François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier (pictured), an aspiring dictator

By 1964, Duvalier had declared himself president for life, while Gaetjens’ brothers fled to the Dominican Republic, where an invasion was being planned.

Although other family members went into hiding, Gaetjens believed his celebrity status from the Miracle on Grass would protect him against Duvalier’s purges.

Unfortunately, he was arrested by Duvalier’s security forces while working in a laundromat he owned. Gaetjens was taken to Fort Dimanche prison, where he was never heard from again.

There is no proof of the US attempting to secure his release, and Gaetjens’ death was confirmed to the American Embassy in 1972.

Later that year, Gaetjens was honored at Yankee Stadium in New York in a game between the Cosmos, of the North American Soccer League, and local Haitian immigrants. He was posthumously inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.

His son ultimately wrote a biography about his father: ‘The Shot Heard Around the World: The Joe Gaetjens Story.’

‘My father became famous in soccer circles because he, along with an unlikely band of heroes, felled a soccer Giant on the greatest soccer stage, the World Cup,’ wrote Lesly Gaetjens. ‘My father was not heard from again in the soccer world after his famous goal because he moved back to Haiti, his beloved homeland, where he led a quiet family life, raising three sons – and where, in 1964, he was disappeared by the ruthless Francoise ”Papa Doc” Duvalier regime.’ 

England players and officials arrive back after they failed to get past the first stage of the World Cup finals at Heathrow Airport, in London in June of 1950

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