After the outbreak of the Second World War brought a halt to proceedings in the world of professional football for twelve years, the FIFA World Cup returned in 1950. Plans had been made for Germany to host the 1942 edition, though clearly the circumstances demanded the cancellation of the competition, and with 1946 the next scheduled tournament, FIFA were left with only a year to organise a worldwide event, and in fact only reconvened in the summer after the end of the war. Therefore, the South American Championship was the biggest international fixture during the 1940s, with Argentina beating Brazil in the final and claiming to be world champions on a technicality. At the 1946 FIFA Congress, Brazil came forward with the only bid for the next tournament, and were swiftly announced as the 1950 hosts amid the deafening sound of shrugging the world over. Germany and Japan were forbidden from the tournament for obvious reasons, and once again the prospect of travelling to South America proved far from appealing to the European sides. Teams behind the Iron Curtain all withdrew along with France, Portugal, Turkey, Ireland, Belgium, and Austria, while Argentina found themselves in a dispute with the Brazilian FA so eventually ruled themselves out. India qualified by default, but took one look at the SatNav before sending their apologies, leaving the tournament with fourteen teams, split into four groups. Thirteen of those had participated in the 1930s, with just one debutant in Brazil – England.
Having spent a decade considering themselves above such folly, the English FA finally caved in and sent a team to the World Cup, having topped a Home Nations qualifying group with three wins out of three. The country had perhaps been galvanised by the efforts during the war, and the squad travelled to Brazil with a sense of being unbeatable, and will have fancied their chances in a group containing Spain, Chile and the United States. Between the end of the war and the beginning of the tournament, England had amassed 23 wins from 30 internationals, including a hefty 4-0 victory over World Cup holders Italy and could call upon a host of talent including reliable captain Billy Wright, wing wizard Stanley Matthews, and no-nonsense forward Tom Finney.
A 2-0 victory over Chile in their opening game set England on their way, and they headed into the tie against United States confident of planting one foot into the next round. In a case of reverse fortunes, the US headed into the World Cup in dreadful form, having lost seven internationals in a row prior to the competition, including a 7-1 defeat to Italy. Their best hopes for Brazil were damage limitation, and a 3-1 defeat to Spain in their opening game looked like being as good as it got. Twelve minutes into the game in Belo Horizonte England were well on top, having taken six shots at goal, hitting the post twice and forcing two good saves from US ‘keeper Frank Borghi. Finney and Stan Mortenson continued to pepper the American goal, and having missed the target with two more efforts, Borghi was called into action again to tip Finney’s header round the post with ten minutes left of the first half. Then, in the 37th minute, a rare American foray forward allowed left-half Walter Bahr to let fly from 25 yards, and as England’s Bert Williams scrambled across his goal to save the shot, centre-forward Joe Gaetjens diverted a glancing header past the ‘keeper to give the US a sensational half-time lead. The English onslaught continued in the second half, but besides a last-gasp fingertip save by Borghi from Jimmy Mullen’s header, the United States were barely tested and secured the biggest shock in the tournament’s history.
England went on to lose to Spain in the final group game and were eliminated from the tournament, while the United States shipped five against Chile and finished bottom of the group. Though the result would continue to haunt England for decades afterwards, the enduring story of the game comes in the form of the unlikely match-winner. Joe Gaetjans was born in Haiti, and came to the attention of the US national team during his time at American Soccer League side Brookhatten. Having declared his intention to gain American citizenship, he was deemed eligible to represent the US in Brazil, and made all three of his appearances for the national side at the World Cup.
Following the tournament, Gaetjens spent three years playing in France before returning to his native Haiti where, in 1957, the controversial Francois Duvalier was elected president. Though not politically active himself, Gaetjens’ brothers were involved in a plot to overthrow the president and when their plans were uncovered by the Haitian government, it was the former footballer that would be made to pay. On 8th July 1964, Gaetjens was kidnapped by two members of the Tonton Macoutes – Haiti’s special operations unit – and taken to Fort Dimanche, a prison notorious for torture. The details of when and how his life ended remain a mystery but in 1972 Gaetjens’ family were notified of his death. His wife and three children fled Haiti for Puerto Rico in 1966 and lived in exile, and his son Lesly Gaetjens wrote a book about his father’s goal against England in 2010.
With England out, the tournament moved on to its second group stage – the change of format wouldn’t stick – and Spain, Sweden, Brazil and Uruguay battled it out for the Jules Rimet trophy. Luckily for the organisers, the last group game ended up being a de-facto final between the hosts and Uruguay, though judging by the confidence in Brazil leading up to the game you’d have thought the home side had won the trophy already. In fact the Mayor of Rio offered the following humble words to the Brazilian team ahead of the game: “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You, who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!”
Cue Curb Your Enthusiasm Theme Music.
A goal just after half-time from Friaça put the hosts in control, but strikes from Alberto Schiaffino and then Alcides Ghiggia turned the game, and the tournament, on its head. Ghiggia’s strike was met by stunned silence in the Maracana and despite a valiant effort from the Brazilians, Uruguay hung on to secure their second World Cup win. The result was met like a national tragedy in Brazil, and is talked about to this day, given the nickname Maracanazo. The link between football and life and death has never been stronger.