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Thursday, May 26, 2005
This Saturday night in Chicago, the USA face England again with history ringing in their ears.

The memories of two American victories forty years apart continue to trouble the fathers of the sport, who would prefer to dismiss the USA as only a minor rival to the Old World in football, as in other walks of life.

It is strange that two nations who exchange so much culturally and politically have not met on the soccer field for over a decade, but England has always held a condescending attitude towards America's attempts to play "its" game, with the losses at Belo Horizonte in 1950 and Foxboro in 1993 days the FA would rather forget.

The UK and US have a lot of things in common, and although soccer has never really been one of them, the USA was the first country outside Britain to start a club - Boston side Oneida beginning in 1869 when continental Europe and South America had yet to discover the sport.

Indeed, there are even reports of English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia playing an early form of soccer back in the 1600s, but as we all know, association football was not to catch on in America as elsewhere in the world.

While there remain different theories, it is most likely that Harvard University's decision to adopt rugby rather than soccer, which was the preferred sport of Princeton and other Ivy League colleges in the late 1800s, was instrumental in America's shift away from a kicking to a handling style of football.

This pattern was repeated in Britain's other colonies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa and it was thanks to British merchants trading outside the Empire that the sport became global.

When England at last deigned the World Cup worthy of their presence, the team arrived in Brazil in 1950 as one of the clear favorites, having never been beaten at home by an overseas nation, but had underestimated the USA.

After an opening defeat of Chile, the "masters" arrived in the mining town of Belo Horizonte 275 miles north of Rio expecting a walk in the park against the totally unfancied Americans.

England were fielding a dream team including attacking legends Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion, striker Stan Mortensen, skipper Billy Wright and future World Cup winning coach Alf Ramsey.

Tellingly perhaps, they opted to rest their best player, "The Wizard of Dribble" Stanley Matthews, who had joined up with the squad late and was carrying a slight injury.

Almost half the American squad and five of the starters against England hailed from the soccer city of St Louis, as did the only American journalist to attend the game, on vacation, Dent McSkimming, played by Patrick Stewart in this year's movie "The Game of Their Lives".

Three of the team including match winner Joe Gaetjens were not US citizens and the captain for the game was a Scot, Eddie McIlvenny, who would go on to play for Manchester United.

Gaetjens' 37th minute header from a Walter Bahr punt punctured the mystique surrounding the England side, and despite laying siege to the American goal for most of the match and having innumerable chances and a disallowed goal from Ramsey, the English could not find the net. When the final whistle went the crowd poured onto the field and chaired Gaetjens and the Americans off in glorious triumph.

The USA's first meeting with England on the soccer field instantly became the greatest World Cup shock yet, but back in the UK the result was largely ignored given the lack of television or live radio coverage and the fact England were gingerly entering for the first time a tournament that had yet to capture the country's imagination.

There is nevertheless, the delightful story of a telegram of the 1-0 scoreline being questioned as a misprint for 1-10 to England.

The result stood and became over time a humiliation for England so much so that the words "Belo Horizonte" still make English football fans - including this Londoner - wince.

In many ways the score was a herald for Ferenc Puskas and Hungary's 6-3 demolition of the inventors of football at Wembley three years later, which remains the sharpest thorn in England's footballing psyche and the final confirmation of their loss of world soccer dominance.

Later that year, England got some consolation at Yankee Stadium, despite the US having only played one game since the World Cup, a 6-0 thumping by Scotland.

For England legend Tom Finney it was payback time: "We had lived with the stigma of the 1950 World Cup for three years and there was a genuine feeling of revenge in the air," he claims in his autobiography, but he had an uncomfortable afternoon.

A pitiful 7,271, a then record low attendance for an England game, saw the Americans give the inventors of football another scare, holding them scoreless for 44 minutes and drawing back to 3-4 before England scored two late goals to win 6-3.

In 1959, American soccer was in terminal decline and assembling for the first time in two years but went into halftime against England in Los Angeles at 1-1 having taken the lead and having had a goal disallowed.

The second half however saw that two-year gap tell in fitness as a Bobby Charlton hat-trick helped England to an 8-1 avalanche.

Come 1964 and the gulf between the two nations was at its widest, England preparing to host the 1966 World Cup, which they would win, and the US without a national league or organized national team, who again had assembled for the first time in a year.

England won the clash on Randall's Island, New York by an obscene 10-0 margin with World Cup winner Roger Hunt bagging four and US keeper Uwe Schwart retiring after the match.

It would be twenty-one years before the two nations would meet again, and at least the US could say they halved the previous scoreline, going down only 5-0 to a Bobby Robson-coached England for whom Gary Lineker and Kerry Dixon both scored twice.

The USA fielded two indoor players and five college students in an eleven including a young Paul Caligiuri and John Kerr, who would go on to play in England for Millwall.

After the US qualified for Italia '90 John Harkes crossed the pond, scored a goal of the season, became the first American to play in a Wembley cup final and went on to play for four English teams.

He would also skipper the US to their second English scalp in 1993.

Demoralized by a dismal 2-0 loss away to Norway six days earlier that made their qualification for USA 1994 look hopeless ("The End of the World" said one tabloid headline), England traveled to Boston under beleaguered manager Graham Taylor in June of 1993 and lost by the same scoreline to the USA. "Yanks 2, Planks 0" bemoaned another paper.

The visitors missed a number of chances at Foxboro and succumbed to headed goals from Tom Dooley and Alexi Lalas, whose General Custer look and rock music lifestyle made him the face of US soccer in Europe for some years to come.

England could only watch enviously at the following summer's World Cup in the States having missed the boat after a 2-0 defeat by the Netherlands in Rotterdam signaled the end of Taylor's disastrous reign but would meet the USA again, this time in London, in September of 1994 in front of 38,629 at Wembley.

The USA, still under the helm of World Cup coach Bora Milutinovic, fielded Brad Friedel, who was in work-permit limbo, Cobi Jones, who was playing for Coventry City and two players who would go on to appear in England's Premiership, Joe-Max Moore and a young Claudio Reyna.

A resurgent home side under new coach Terry Venables comfortably won 2-0 with a brace from Alan Shearer decisive in a one-sided game in which the USA had a sole shot on target.

The English press were less than gracious to their guests the following day, complaining the Americans had offended their hosts by approaching an exhibition match looking for a tie, a somewhat unfair charge, and that England needed more serious opposition to prepare for their hosting of Euro '96.

The USA's performance that night undoubtedly contributed to the long wait until this week's game, but eleven years is still an extraordinary long time gap between meetings for the two nations.

The fact is, England has never come out of a game with the USA satisfied, either having lost humiliatingly or won ridiculously and so they have preferred to play nations they believe will provide more of an even contest.

A quarterfinal finish in the 2002 World Cup from the USA plus increasing numbers of Americans playing in England has repaired America's image in English football's eyes and the time is now clearly ripe for a rematch between the transatlantic cousins.

But given the weakened squad Sven-Goran Eriksson has been forced to bring to Chicago thanks to the exacting demands of the Premiership coaches, for whom the national team is increasingly a nuisance, there is every reason to believe the ever-improving USA can complete a hat-trick of defeats over the mother country at soccer on Saturday.

This could mean another wound in England's pride and another long hiatus before another clash, although it is common practice to offer a reciprocal friendly fixture, which could mean the US playing in London in 2006, possibly as a World Cup preparation in late winter or spring.

The game at Soldier Field will not heal the historic wounds inflicted by the USA on England, but given the recent rise of the USA as a soccer nation, we can at least feel confident that the US will henceforth be perceived as a meaningful challenge for England and it will be less than eleven years before the two sides meet again.

Whatever the result on Saturday.
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