Thursday, April 20, 2006
The 1950 World Cup unites the great English-speaking nations on either side of the Atlantic for different reasons.

England remembers its first appearance at the finals as a nightmare, but US Soccer looks back to a legendary 1-0 win over the three lions in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where Joe Gaetjens' 37th minute header etched the national team into soccer history.

The famous scoreline of June 29th 1950, allegedly mistaken for 1-10 by more than one news agency, remains one of sport's greatest shocks and certainly the most humiliating defeat England has ever suffered in soccer.

The Americans' David and Goliath tale was immortalized by author Geoffrey Douglas in his 1996 book 'The Game of Their Lives', and made into a feature film in 2005.

With another World Cup approaching, YA commemorated the famous game by speaking to two of the surviving legends of Belo Horizonte - Harry Keough and Sir Tom Finney.

Harry Keough is a jovial teddy bear of a man whose energy, enthusiasm and sense of humor belie his 78 years. When he spoke to YA, he was getting ready to referee a high school girls' game in St. Louis, the soccer city where he played for several teams, coached St. Louis University and still lives.

The 1950 World Cup aside, Keough represented his country in two Olympic Games, served in the US Navy after World War II and worked for the US Postal Service for 37 years, but is comfortable with the fact he is best remembered for 90 minutes from 56 years ago.

"I recognize that seems to be the one that put my name on the map in more than just St. Louis," he told YA. "I remember quite a lot of it because there were six of us on the National Team from St. Louis and five of us from right here in the city."

"I actually went to Brazil last year and I have been back to Belo Horizonte a few times. I was there a few years back with Walter and Wilf Mannion (an England veteran of the game). Certainly it brought back the memories. It sent shivers up your back just thinking about it."

At 84 years old, Tom Finney remains one of England's greatest and the same plain-talking Northerner he always was.

Sixty years after he made his debut for his beloved Preston North End, he is still at Deepdale as president of the Lilywhites, who have repaid his lifelong loyalty with a statue and a renamed stand, his smiling face picked out in the seats.

The 'Preston Plumber', so-called because of the trade he practiced during and after his playing days, was a two-footed marauder comfortable on either flank.

Number four on the list of England's all-time goal scorers, Finney was 28 in 1950 and at the height of his powers – but despite a stellar career, would live forever with the stigma of being part of that England team.

Over half a century after the event, Finney reminds everyone that the 1950 World Cup was nothing like the 2006 edition:

"It wasn't anywhere near the attraction it is now," he told YA. "It was just starting out really and there weren't the sort of numbers of people watching it that you got in future World Cups, not the same sort of following."

Yet still he curses his luck on that day in Brazil: "We did not even qualify for the next round and to be knocked out by a team like that... they were looked upon as novices."

Everyone expected England to win by a canter. In the two years prior to the World Cup, the US had been thumped 5-0 by Northern Ireland, 6-0 by Mexico, 9-0 by Italy and 11-0 by Portugal.

England, meanwhile, had beaten the world champions Italy home and away including a memorable 4-0 drubbing in Turin, where Finney scored twice.

"We went out there to do our best, but we recognized what we were up against," says Keough. "Going into the game, if we had lost 2 or 3-0, we would have probably thought we had done pretty good."

If England were expecting a walk in the park, they were to be sorely disappointed as the USA scrapped, hustled and challenged for every ball, running their socks off.

"The Americans weren't considered a footballing side at all," says Finney. "But the trouble with playing countries so far away was that you had never seen them or knew how good they were."

Keough, however, was expecting some big names in Brazil: "I was well read up on all the English players because my brother had a soccer newspaper in St. Louis called 'The Shot'."

As expected, England came fast out of the blocks. Chelsea striker Roy Bentley, one of four England players still alive today, beat US goalkeeper Frank Borghi as early as the second minute, but watched his shot carom off the post.

In the opening quarter of an hour, the English had half a dozen good chances, but were let down by some inexplicably bad finishing (some blamed the grass) and the heroics of the American between the sticks.

"Frank Borghi was the star of the game by a wide margin," insists Keough. "He made some terrific saves."

Around the 20-minute mark Pariani got the first American shot in on goal, but the US were lucky not to fall behind ten minutes later. Stan Mortensen, the only man to have scored a hat trick in an FA Cup Final, skied a gilt-edged chance from close range.

Mortensen sent two more chances over the bar and Finney saw a header saved by Borghi in a trio of near misses around the half-hour mark.

The US, who had adopted England's WM formation shortly before the tournament, snatched the lead in the 37th minute with a goal that could have been made in soccer's homeland.

Bahr collected the ball 35 yards out and advanced before lumping a cross-cum-shot from 25 yards at which Gaetjens launched himself, his clumsy-looking contact sending the ball in the opposite direction to England goalie Bert Williams and into the net.

Moments later, as Finney shaped to shoot from about a dozen yards out, the referee blew the whistle for halftime and the Americans entered the dressing rooms ahead of mighty England.

"It just surprised us that we got to halftime and we were leading," Keough remembers. "The coach did not make too long of a talking to us, he just said 'You lads are doing well, just go out and do the same thing in the second half'. I don't think he anticipated the victory either."

The second half picked up where the first had left off, the English attacking in wave after wave. When they did manage to penetrate the gritty American defense, they were scuffing or miscuing their shots, or found them blocked by Borghi, the posts or the crossbar.

"We had probably 70% or 80% of the game," Finney reckons. "I think we shook the woodwork on at least three or four occasions."

In a rare US attack, Gaetjens almost added a second from a center by another St. Louis product, Frank 'Pee-Wee' Wallace, but his header flew inches over the bar.

In the 82nd minute, an infamous moment arrived when Charley 'Gloves' Colombo, the States' enforcer at the back, brought down Mortensen as he was clean through on goal with a tackle straight out of a coaching manual of the NFL or rugby – and amazingly remained on the field.

"He prided himself on being physical," said Keough. "He was intimidating in ways the rest of us did not like, but Charlie was Charlie. If his mother had been on the other team, she would have been in danger!"

From the resulting free kick, Alf Ramsey, who would toast World Cup success as England's coach in 1966, chipped the ball for Wolves outside left Jimmy Mullen to nod past Borghi.

In a split second, the prone US goalie, having dived and missed the ball initially, stretched to claw it away before it could hit the side netting and be deemed a clear goal, provoking furious protests from the England players.

Finney, Mannion and Mortensen missed further chances as England seemed doomed to lose, and were lucky not to concede a second five minutes from time when Wallace had the goal at his mercy, but let Ramsey slide in and stop his shot.

At the final whistle, the Brazilian fans invaded the field and joyfully mobbed the plucky Americans they had cheered throughout, carrying Gaetjens and Borghi off on their shoulders in glorious triumph.

"It was one of those games that we were going to lose," Finney laments. "They had one opportunity and scored, and the game passed in a moment."

England had outshot the US on target by about 20 to 3, but had failed to rattle the onion bag like the Americans.

Years later in London, a Brazilian who had been a fan in the stands in Belo Horizonte that day approached Finney to commiserate. It was Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

"Pele said he had come to see a real English side for the first time," Finney recounts, "so for us to get a freak result like that must have been very disappointing for him as well as for us!"

After the match, some England players wanted to lodge complaints about the Italian match official but FA Chairman Stanley Rous, the future FIFA President and ever Mr. Fair Play, reminded them the referee's decision was always final.

"We had most of the play and were very, very disappointed about the result because we thought we had done enough to have won it comfortably," says Finney.

England then lost to Spain and went home in sheepish surrender, having started out as one of the pre-tournament favorites.

The motherland of the game had been punished for its myopic, even hubristic worldview and its presumed perch atop the world of soccer was now crumbling fast.

Three years later England lost its first home game to a nation from outside the British Isles, 6-3 to Hungary, and the myth of Anglo dominance was smashed.

The 1950 catastrophe had little public impact back in England due to the lack of live TV or radio coverage, but the newspapers were in no mood for forgiveness.

"Ooh, the press!" chuckles Finney. "They gave us a real slating because it was the first time we had played in the World Cup and so much was expected of us, and to lose to a team like that was really something special to them."

"It was a real shock in the sense that before we went they were talking about us being in the Final or even winning it."

The press reaction in the United States, predictably, would be far smaller.

"It was not the best time of the year," explained Keough. "It was the middle of the summer and baseball teams were playing so we were not expecting much. In St. Louis, a big article on a full page came out in the paper but that was because of Dent McSkimming."

McSkimming was the only US soccer journalist in Brazil and had paid his own way there because, according to Keough, "he was devoted to soccer and demanded the Post-Dispatch send him there. Others reported the game, but he analyzed it."

Both nations failed to make it to the second round, but if the Americans' overall World Cup experience was a joyous one, England's was truly sobering.

Their players were low wage workers, many with second jobs, and from a country still on rations following the war. Having been amazed by a visit to the Rio carnival, they then got a real wake-up call when the global game hit them squarely in the face.

"We had quite a shock when we saw Brazil play Mexico prior to the American game and saw how skilful they were," Finney remembers. "They were doing things we had not seen before."

Little has been made of the effect of the Brazilian summer on proceedings but the Americans' familiarity with warmth and humidity probably gave them an edge on the England players, accustomed to soccer amid the damp British winter.

The hard fields and long grass in Brazil were also new to the English, but although the Estádio Independęncia would never meet the required standard for a World Cup venue in 2006, on that day it was the same for both sides.

The FA's naive preparations had also placed the England team in a hotel on Copacabana beach at the beginning of the tournament, which did not make for good sleeping with the "car horns and drums banging throughout the night," as Finney recalls.

Another factor cited for England's defeat was the absence of two key players, center half Neil Franklin, who had sensationally gone to play in Colombia and had become persona non grata with the FA, and Stanley Matthews, alongside Finney, the outstanding English attacker of the post-war period.

With the mention of Franklin, Finney gets emotional and is sure he would have made a difference to England at the World Cup. "He was a loss, a great player and a great friend of mine. He was the best center half I ever saw, an outstanding player."

The absence of Matthews, which soccer historian Norman Giller likened to "leaving Wellington on the bench at Waterloo", remains somewhat puzzling. The explanation that he was carrying a slight knock is less likely than the fact England were treating the World Cup with less than 100% focus.

The lack of 'The Wizard of Dribble' came as a relief to Keough. "Tom Finney normally played outside left with Stanley Matthews outside right, so Finney, thank the good Lord, changed positions. So luckily I did not have to mark him! Now I did tackle Finney a couple of times in that game because everybody needed help as he was coming in from that right wing."

He might have beaten him that day, but Keough remained in awe of the true great. "He was the greatest soccer player I was ever on the same field with. He was so quick."

"When he turned a corner and went some place, he was just gone. I followed the rest of his career, and he never left his original club, did he? He was very loyal and he seemed like such a nice person."

The two met one more time on the field, when England won 6-3 against the States at Yankee Stadium three years later, Finney scoring twice.

"Yes, I think there was revenge in the air," Finney recalls of the 1953 rematch. "We wanted to put matters right."

Finney went on to play in two more World Cups and enjoyed a lengthy club and country career, despite never winning a major title.

He has never returned to the USA and has only crossed paths with American soccer when Eddie Lewis spent three seasons at Preston from 2002 to 2005.

"I enjoyed watching him," Finney says, recognizing a fellow wide man. "He was a good player and we were very sorry to lose him. He is a pure winger, quite quick and quite skilful. We have never really replaced him."

Tom Finney and Harry Keough have lived through every World Cup since the inaugural one in Uruguay in 1930 and will be sure to watch this summer's too.

Finney will be at home in Preston, the town he sees no reason to leave, but Keough, full of beans as ever, will be making the trip to Germany.

"I went to the one in France and of course I am going to this one too," he chirps. "The Catholic Youth Council has tours to the World Cup. We are going to see four games in the latter stages."

Even today, the famous result still seems hard to believe. When viewed in the round, the score was a one-off and did not precipitate any golden age of American soccer.

"It was a freak result. That is all you can say it was really," concludes Finney.

As Geoffrey Douglas put it, on that day in Brazil "blind luck was an animate force." But Stanley Rous thought the Americans had deserved their victory, for having been "fitter, faster and better fighters."

The greatest epitaph for Belo Horizonte though, was perhaps uttered by Walter Bahr, who helped keep the English at bay for so long, protecting the States' slender lead:

"Nine times out of 10 they would have beaten us, but that game was our game."

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