Given their standing as the home of the game and in many cases, through trade and conquest, the evangelists for its spread throughout the globe, shock defeats for the England national team tend to send tremors through football’s old foundations.
The Three Lions’ failure to progress in major tournaments had become the norm in recent times – their elimination by Iceland at Euro 2016 was branded a humiliation – until Gareth Southgate broke the cycle to deliver a World Cup last four and Euros final appearances.
When Hungary’s ‘Mighty Magyars’ of Ferenc Puskas and co. humbled Walter Winterbottom’s side 6- 3 at Wembley in 1953, it was labelled “a new conception in football” by The Times newspaper. It wasn’t just the scale of the friendly defeat, but the manner too. It led to a review of tactics and the adoption of more continental practices both at international and domestic levels.
It has also occasionally been denoted England’s first-ever defeat by foreign opposition on home soil causing no little consternation across the Irish Sea following Ireland’s 2-0 win at Goodison Park in 1949.
Yet perhaps the greatest shock of all came at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil – England’s debut in the competition having boycotted three editions following squabbles with FIFA over payments to amateur players.
In the group game at Stádio Independência in Belo Horizonte in front of a reported 13,000 spectators, a hastily-assembled USA side, comprising mostly of part-timers, beat England 1-0 in what is regarded as one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history.
The US trained just once going into the tournament and had lost their previous seven matches including heavy defeats to Italy (7–1), and Norway (11–0). England chose to rest Stanley Matthews who, with no reserves at the time, had to watch the horror unfold from the sidelines.
Prior to the game, the Daily Express had written: “It would be fair to give the U.S. three goals of a start.” Even the American coach Bill Jeffrey, who could call on high school teacher Walter Bahr and hearse driver Frank Borghi, declared his team “sheep ready to be slaughtered.”
However, in the 38th minute, Bahr’s shot from 25 yards was met by Joe Gaetjens’ diving header to glance the ball beyond England goalkeeper Bert Williams for an astonishing lead. The numbers in the Brazilian crowd swelled as news spread of what was taking place and the Americans held on for a sport-defining victory.
Gaetjens was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and won two Ligue Haïtienne championships before moving to New York to study accounting. Playing with Brookhatten in the American Soccer League, he finished top scorer in his third season.
Although Gaetjens was not a United States citizen, he had declared his intention to become one and under the rules was allowed to play at the 1950 World Cup. Gaetjens never actually did gain American citizenship, and after the tournament, following a spell in France, he returned to his homeland for whom he later played a World Cup qualifier against Mexico.
Gaetjens’ family was related to Louis Déjoie who’d been defeated in the 1957 Haitian presidential election by François Duvalier. Joe’s younger brothers Jean-Pierre and Fred had become became associated with a group of exiles in the Dominican Republic who wanted to stage a coup and consequently, on July 8, 1964, the morning after Duvalier declared himself “president for life,” the Gaetjens family fled the country but Joe stayed behind.
The same morning, he was arrested by the Tonton Macoutes secret police and taken to the notoriously brutal Fort Dimanche prison where it is presumed he was killed later that month.
Gaetjens, with no interest in politics, never thought he would be targeted as a mere sportsman and though his body has never been found, his legacy in the world’s most popular game cannot be erased. A later biography by his son was entitled “The shot heard around the world” and in 1976, Gaetjens was posthumously inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
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