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Here's Hoping This Brazilian World Cup is Half as Wild as the Last One

Blackmail, dropouts, and upsets, oh my

Photo credit Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Excepting the eleventh hour, landmark rule change, the even more last-minute withdrawals, and two upsets that were among the biggest of all time, the 1950 World Cup—the last one to take place in Brazil—was a sleepy affair.

With both the 1942 and 1946 tournaments canceled because of the war, and most of Europe just starting to dig out from under the utter devastation and financial ruin inflicted, the continent seemed like a rather poor place to hold anything more ambitious than a potluck when planning for the 1950 World Cup began. In fact, FIFA couldn’t find anyone anywhere who wanted to host the tournament until Brazil put forth the lone bid. With no other suitor, FIFA couldn’t even pretend to play it cool, and quickly accepted.

Meanwhile, Brazil was quickly reminded that it had just become a semi-democratic nation in 1946, and hadn’t really thought through the costs of building a 200,000-person stadium, let alone the many other venues it would take to host a World Cup. But then the Brazilian planners realized something else. The tournament was up to that point a single-elimination format. But if they could get FIFA to abandon that system and replace it with an opening stage of round-robin matches, with countries divided into four different groups, then there would be thirty games overall—enough to cover the bill for stadium construction and infrastructure work. 

"Pssh!" said FIFA. (I am paraphrasing.) Why would it change a format that it had been using successfully for twenty years? But Brazil—mainly by threatening to pull out of the entire enterprise—was persuasive, and FIFA was forced into accepting the change. And thus did blackmail bring us the modern World Cup we’ve come to know and love.

Won’t You Come to Our Party? Please?!

Now the tricky part began: convincing nations to actually send teams to Brazil. Japan and Germany were banned from the competition. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union declined to participate. Austria, perhaps confusing the invite with a car rental application, claimed its team was too young. Argentina, thanks to bad blood with the Brazilian Football Association, also refused. Ecuador, Peru, Belgium, and Turkey sent regrets. France got Turkey’s spot, then bailed too. The most damaging blow to the competition came from Scotland, which—despite qualifying for the Cup by finishing second in the Home International Championship in Great Britain and being one of the great clubs in the world at the time—opted to decline the invite as well. The country’s Football Association secretary, George Graham, had declared they’d only go to Brazil if the team won the British championship, and basically didn’t want people to call him a flip flopper after finishing runner-up. Despite pleas from Scottish captain George Young to reconsider, Graham refused to back down, proving he was a man of his word, especially when it comes to silly guarantees he shouldn’t have made in the first place.

Even the participation of Italy, the winner of the last Cup in 1938, was in doubt. The Italians had suffered a horrible loss when a plane carrying the Torino club soccer team crashed on May 4, 1949, killing eighteen players, twelve of whom played for the Italian national side. With the entire country in shock, it was unclear if it would even field a team. When it ultimately decided to, the players opted to travel to the tournament by boat.

When the dust and rejections settled, only thirteen of the sixteen teams needed to complete the field had committed to playing. Brazil was like the kid at his own bar mitzvah who can’t fill all the tables in the hotel conference room, and ends up having to get people from the dance troupe to sit and eat brisket with him. But in the end, thirteen was better than not having the Cup at all. Group Three would only have three teams, and Group Four would only have two. And off the tournament went.

The Miracle on Sod

The team that the US sent to Brazil was what we’ll generously refer to as a work in progress, consisting almost entirely of semi-pro players sidelining in the American Soccer League for clubs with amazing names like the Philadelphia German-Americans, Uhrik Truckers, and Kearny Scots; a few others came from a St. Louis squad that had won the US Open Cup. All had regular jobs. Midfielder Walter Bahr (whose sons, Matt and Chris, went on to become well-known NFL kickers) was a schoolteacher in Philadelphia. Goalkeeper Frank Borghi worked at his uncle’s funeral parlor driving a hearse. The team fit in training after business hours a couple of times a week and play matches on the weekend for $25 a game, but that was it. There were as yet no lucrative Umbro sponsorships to be had.

Placed in Group Two with Spain, England, and Chile (the throwback Group of Death!), the US wasn’t expected to fare well at all. After a loss to Spain in the team’s opening match, expectations dropped even lower for its game against England. The US manager Bill Jeffrey, a Scottish expat who’d gotten into coaching when his amateur team played against Penn State and the college asked if he’d stick around to coach its team, told the England manager beforehand, “We ain’t got a chance against your boys.”

Nor should they have. England—along with Brazil—were favored to win the tournament, and boasted Stanley Matthews, the throwback Cristiano Ronaldo. But Matthews never saw the pitch versus the US; whether because English manager Arthur Drewry wanted to rest him for matches versus stronger teams or because he arrived late and was punished has never been clear. But either way, that was just the first of the breaks the US caught over the next 90 minutes. 

In the first twelve, England hit the crossbar twice and forced Borghi to make two exceptional saves. With eight minutes left in the first half and England still pressing, Bahr got off a shot from about 25 yards out, which Joe Gaetjens–a native of Haiti attending Columbia on an accounting scholarship–redirected with a diving header. (Or some cynics argue, accidentally hit the ball with his head while trying to dive out of the way). Suddenly the ball was in the back of the English net, and the US was in the lead.

In the second half the Americans played with a new confidence that rattled the Brits, who began to panic and chase the game. They were nearly rewarded in the 82nd minute when US midfielder Charles Colombo slide tackled English striker Stanley Mortensen right on the edge of the box. The English players begged their case for a penalty kick with the Italian ref, but he ruled the foul outside the box. Soon the game was over, and Brazilian spectators stormed the field to carry the Americans off. The 10,151 fans in attendance had just witnessed the greatest upset in World Cup history.

Back home, it was a different story. Only one American paper, the St. Louis Dispatch, actually wrote an article about the game. In their next match, the US was spanked by Chile 5-2 and jettisoned from the tournament. No welcoming crowds awaiting their arrival back in America. As Bahr recalls in A History of the World Cup, “The only one at the airport to meet me was my wife.” The star of the game, Joe Gaetjens, faced an even sadder fate. After going to France to play professionally for a few years he returned to Haiti and—because his family opposed dictator Francois Duvalier—was arrested and never seen again.

Wonders Did Not Cease

In the final, Brazil faced off against Uruguay in front of 172,000 people at the Maracanã stadium, all of whom assumed Brazil would dominate and lift the Cup. But it was not to be: Uruguay, thanks to an assist and a goal by Alcides Ghiggia, won the match 2-1. Brazilian fans wept openly leaving the grounds. The President of FIFA, Jules Rimet, was forced to walk out onto the field alone to present the trophy; no one from the Brazil Football Association would go with him. The match became known as the Maracanazo (essentially, the Maracanã Blow). A single tournament had produced two of the most shocking outcomes in World Cup history.

England, meanwhile, never recovered from its loss to the US, falling to Spain and failing to make it out of the group stage. Its team headed home embarrassed, perhaps sensing, accurately, that this was something we’d try and rub in for as long as possible. It was enough to make the Americans feel guilty. After the win, Behr turned to his teammate Frank Wallace and remarked, “I really feel sorry for those poor bastards. We never should’ve beaten those guys.”