It is one of England’s most famous matches. More is known about epic World Cup clashes with West Germany and Argentina, but England’s defeat by the United States in the 1950 World Cup is regarded as the biggest football upset of all time.
England’s 6-3 defeat by Hungary three years later was more significant in the development of football. It was the watershed moment when a non-UK team won at Wembley for the first time to prove the inventors of the game didn’t have a divine right to excel at it, the warning, still dangerously ignored, that superior overseas technique is to be learned from, not scoffed at.
The fact that England’s superiority complex was not pricked until the ‘Magical Magyars’ taught them a lesson says everything about the way the American humbling – the ‘miracle on grass’ – was viewed.
It was excused as a one-off, a freak occurrence that did not deserve investigation. Whilst unexpected outcomes are a treasured part of sport, the failure to recognise its significance set the tone for England’s displays at virtually all subsequent overseas World Cups: the Three Lions arrive with an inflated opinion of their own ability and invariably depart early without learning from the reasons for their early exit.
However, concentrating on England’s role in this match diminishes the Americans’ achievement. Beating a team containing Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen was a remarkable feat for a team that had scored two goals and conceded 45 in their previous seven international fixtures.
The match became the blueprint for football upsets. The US goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, played the game of his life, keeping his team in the match with a string of fine saves. The favourites miss a host of good chances, hitting woodwork but not net, and a breakaway goal is stoically defended in the closing stages.
The match was barely reported in either nation, which is reflective of how Word Cups were treated by them in that era. America did not qualify for another tournament until 1990, whilst England didn’t think it worthy of their presence until that 1950.
The humiliation inflicted on them by Joe Gaetjens’ goal only reinforced that arrogant viewpoint. 1966 changed all that, but England are still waiting for the international tournament that proves they are one of the football world’s big players.