It’s an oft-told tale but that doesn’t it mean it shouldn’t be repeated: the (brief) story of how the U.S. somehow managed to beat England in the 1950 World Cup and whether it can happen again.
The venue was Belo Horizonte in Brazil. England — you know, the mighty England who essentially invented the game and came up with the rules — had never taken part in a World Cup before, either refusing to travel the vast distances involved or, more likely, just finding the entire shindig beneath them. Well they showed up in 1950, promptly installed as 3/1 favorites in the eyes of the bookmakers, led by arguably the greatest player in the world, Stanley Matthews, though he didn’t even play in the match. But they did have legendary captain Billy Wright and fearsome forwards Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen.
What of the Yanks? They had a dishwasher, meat packer and even a hearse driver among their number. Coach Bill Jeffrey labeled them “sheep ready to be slaughtered,” which, even if meant to be reverse pyschology, surely isn’t the best way to inspire your troops.
But inspired they were. The Italian-American goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, had the game of his life (a phrase surely good enough to spawn a book) and mere minutes before half time, a striker called Joe Gaetjens headed the ball into the net. The 500/1 underdogs (in some quarters) were, improbably, ahead. You must know the rest: the U.S. somehow held on in what has become known as the Miracle on Grass. “How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?” one player said in the immediate aftermath. Speaking as an Englishman, I can tell you we haven’t.
60 years on, there isn’t a fellow England fan who isn’t petrified by the possibility of another upset (miracle would be far too unkind a word these days) taking place. Back in 1950, some newspapers editors, after seeing the score come in over the wires, simply couldn’t believe their own eyes, and actually printed the result as 10-1 to England. Well, nobody would dare make that mistake in 2010.
Fellow blogger Bill Saporito has also previewed the game but I’m not only wary of this incredibly fit, well-drilled U.S. side, who are one of the tightest units among the 32 sides on show in South Africa (as proved by their highly impressive run to the final of last year’s Confederations Cup, knocking off Spain and its 35 match unbeaten run in the process) but have to confess that history is never on England’s side in its first game. You have to go back to 1982 — with Bryan Robson scoring after 30 seconds — for the last time England appeared convincing straight away (they beat France 3-1). All too often, the expectations or conditions (granted, this is a winter World Cup but the altitude ain’t gonna work in their favor) have proved too much and I can only forecast a draw.
The U.S. have a better goalkeeper in Tim Howard than either David James (past his sell by date, prone to clangers), Joe Hart (international appearances: 0) or Rob Green (Capello hasn’t shown much faith in him). The back four all have issues: Chelsea’s Ashley Cole and John Terry are coming off surely their worst ever personal years, Ledley King is only playing because Rio Ferdinand is injured (let’s not even discuss the state of King’s knees) and Glen Johnson, while exciting when he ventures forward, isn’t that solid in his proper position. The midfield always throws up the predictable question (can Gerrard and Lampard play in central midfield together?), the left side hasn’t been patrolled by anyone world class in an awfully long time and the one player Capello would love to have, Gareth Barry, has already ruled himself out of the match as he’s not fully fit, despite Capello curiously insisting he may feature at some stage on Saturday. And upfront, nobody really knows who should partner Wayne Rooney: Heskey can’t buy a goal, Crouch is unlikely to trouble the best sides and Defoe is arguably too lightweight. It’s such a worry that Capello may avoid the issue entirely and play Gerrard just behind Rooney, who isn’t prone to demons of his own.
Despite coming over as incredibly negative — I actually think England will reach the semi finals due to Capello’s acumen and the side gelling from the third game onwards — it would still represent a major shock if the U.S. did win. Their own back line will probably be terrorized by Rooney (who I’m convinced will score) and the likes of Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole, if Capello plays them. U.S. defenders Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector have already suffered at English hands and keeping a clean sheet appears out of the question. But if Landon Donovan and Tim Howard perform like Gaetjans and Borghi, history could repeat itself.