With the Three Lions about to take on the Stars and Stripes for the third time in World Cup history, we look back at the momentous first meeting, a match that shocked football, and the part Chelsea captain Roy Bentley played in it. Club historian Rick Glanvill tells the tale…
Roy Bentley’s gaze swept around the field placings, dwelling occasionally on the glorious setting for a brief knock at the cricket square five-and-a–half-thousand miles from Stamford Bridge. It was late June 1950 and the Chelsea Football Club captain marvelled at the idyllic scenery around Morro Velho (‘Old Hill’), a tight, self-contained mining town hugged by mountains.
Beyond the parched grassy area that served footballers and cricketers alike were rolling mountains and valleys, smoke ribboning up from the chimneys of white bungalows below, accompanied by the peal of mule bells and the clatter of cartwheels. Bentley turned his focus back to the bowler and his bat met the red ball with a thwack – a little piece of English summer in rural Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Having beaten Chile 2-0 in their 1950 World Cup opener at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, team manager Walter Winterbottom’s England squad had travelled 16 hours by train, then 16 precipitous miles by coach to their high-altitude Morro Velho headquarters ahead of match two, a first-ever meeting with the USA. The focus of the 5,000-strong community there was the world’s oldest continuously worked goldmine, British-owned for 120 years and a honeypot for thousands of migrant excavators and their families.
Bentley felt especially at home there as the vast majority hailed from the Devon and Cornwall, close to his Bristol birthplace, or Newcastle, where he had plied his trade before switching to Stamford Bridge two years earlier. Some Geordies fondly recalled his best moments at St James’ Park and the comforts of home extended to food produced for an English palate, alongside a hospital, church, cinema and freemason’s lodge. A cricket match against ex-pats in the birthplace of samba did not seem out of place.
Any feelings of paradise were about to be shattered, though, and a clue lay in the fact the world’s deepest mine also drew strychnine from its depths. In a few days’ time even poison or isolation deep underground might have seemed preferable to the wrath and scorn prompted by the biggest shock in world football history.
The long arm of the war
The 1950 World Cup was a lop-sided tournament, shrunk by withdrawals wrought by the raw politics and economic ravages of the Second World War, which had ended just five years earlier. Having rejoined FIFA in 1946, England were one of 13 entrants – yes, a baker’s dozen – broken into two groups of four teams (including England’s Group 2), one of three and one of two. The winner of each group progressed to a further group of four, and the team finishing top would claim the title, meaning no actual final.
England’s overcoming of Chile put them second behind Spain, who had beaten a spirited but limited USA 3-1. Ahead of the United States clash at Belo Horizonte, Winterbottom’s all-stars remained confident, the world’s media installing the competition late-comers as runaway favourites.
Chelsea’s skipper Bentley was part of an England football team on a far more serious mission than finding the odd boundary on a mountain cricket ground. Alongside the roving no.9, who had netted 45 goals in two seasons at the Bridge, the team boasted widely-admired forwards such Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews, Wilf Mannion, Jackie Milburn and Stan Mortensen.
On the coach from Rio airport the local radio had tracked the team’s progress through the city streets excitedly, hailing ‘the football masters’ and ‘the kings of soccer’ – accolades that embarrassed Bentley. Yet he and his team-mates aimed (and were downright expected) to fulfil the dreams of supporters back home, meet that media hype, and lift the two-feet-three-inches-tall Jules Rimet trophy, an honour reserved for FIFA’s World Cup-winners.
This was actually England’s first-ever appearance at the quadrennial tournament. Small-mindedness at the Football Association decided that attending the maiden World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 was beneath their dignity. Subsequent editions in Benito Mussolini’s Italy in 1934 and France four years later also passed the FA by. War forced cancellation of the 1942 tournament but its return in peacetime allowed FIFA to reappoint original hosts Brazil for the 1950 soccer jamboree.
It was understandable that the recession-hit hosts could not provide state-of-the-art new facilities everywhere, instead patching up some older grounds and leaving overseas associations to sort out their own training pitches. And it was in the failure to witness first-hand the wrinkles in these preparations that England made their first mistake.
Fail to plan, plan to fail
Cost considerations meant Winterbottom (who cut his coaching teeth at Chelsea), his staff and squad did not fly out early to acclimatise to the heat and humidity of Brazil. Instead they warmed up with a session at Wembley Stadium, then three days at Dulwich Hamlet’s Dog Kennel Hill ground – and not even on the first-team pitch, which had been reseeded.
The flight to Rio de Janeiro took a gruelling 31 hours and included leg-stretchers at Paris, Lisbon, Dakar, Recife en route. Even then, only 17 of the 20-man playing squad made that trip, with Matthews (on a different FA mission in Canada) and two others joining later.
Their base in Rio, the Luxor, just yards from the sand football pitches of Copacabana Beach, had not been reconnoitred beforehand and was found wanting, lacking air conditioning in, typically 27 degrees daytime heat, and offering atrocious catering. Winterbottom later recalled: ‘All the food was being cooked in reams of black oil and garlic and the smell of it was dreadful and carried all through the hotel. Nearly all the players went down with tummy upsets at one time or another.’
Like an army, a football team marches on its stomach, and Finney remembered ‘cold ham and fried eggs swimming in black oil’ while Mortensen claimed ‘even the dustbins had ulcers.’ The players feasted instead on bananas to beat Chile in match one.
Rio’s urban haze also affected Bentley, who found it hard to breathe, so the rustic, drier setting of Morro Velho ahead of the second game against USA was a relief, despite the altitude. However, dressing room facilities at Campo do America’s ground were suddenly deemed too cramped for comfort, so Winterbottom instructed his team to change at a college 300 yards away and march the streets to the Estadio Independencia in their kit.
All of these factors were foreseeable with planning. After such pre-tournament laxness, the second mistake was to believe the hype, and the third was to underestimate the opposition.
The States of play
The shock of what befell England in Belo Horizonte was multiplied by the hubris that preceded it. In the build-up the USA were dismissed by English papers as callow part-timers whose appearance in the finals was something of a pantomime and the Daily Express declared the only way to avoid a one-sided match was to offer the Americans a three-goal start. The Daily Mirror mulled over whether the 500/1 outsiders would concede double-figures against the Football League’s finest. None of this was shared or encouraged by Bentley or his team-mates.
The pitch at the Estadio Independencia was smaller than Wembley’s verdant acres and uneven where new patches of grass had not bedded in. Like others Bentley has been convinced to wear lightweight Brazilian ‘Rio-style’ boots. They were generally better suited to the hard, dry conditions but were not designed to offer protection against the odd stone speckled across the playing surface.
One England player noted a high wall surrounding the stadium leant it the appearance of ‘a blooming prison’. ‘He was right too,’ observed Bentley in his 1955 autobiography Going For Goal, ‘and we were about to take our punishment there.’
The underdog has his day
The United States line-up boasted eight homegrown players and a Scot formerly with Wrexham, Eddie McIlvenny. They were unromantic about the task that faced them and in the opening two minutes Bentley drew a smart save from ’keeper Frank Borghi, who soon saw other efforts ricochet to safety off his goal frame. Football, of course, punishes profligacy wherever it is played.
Just before half-time Walt Bahr whacked the ball into a crowded penalty area and a glance off the head of Haiti-born forward Joe Gaetjens wrong-footed England goalie Bert Williams to secure a shock lead. At the break, Winterbottom switched Bentley from the middle of the attack to right-wing, Finney moving inside and Mortensen now leading the line.
Yet with 45 minutes to deliver the performance everyone had expected, England's men fluffed their lines and the States won 1-0 – a result every bit as astonishing as Saudi Arabia’s triumph over Argentina in Qatar this week.
‘I still couldn’t believe we had lost to the USA,’ Bentley said about the aftermath, but ‘the whole thing was out of perspective – it was as if Babe Ruth had scored a century with a baseball bat at Lord’s.’
Suddenly, England’s first World Cup campaign looked all-washed-up thanks to a carefree part-time kitchen porter with his shirt untucked and his socks round his ankles.
McIlvenny was shouldered off the field by team-mates at the final whistle but history bestowed greatness on goalkeeper Borghi and match-winner Gaetjens. It was soon established that on civvy street Borghi was a hearse-driver in St Louis, and Gaetjens subsidised his accountancy degree studies by washing dishes in a Brooklyn restaurant, providing more free hits for headline writers.
Born in Port-au-Prince 26 years earlier, Joseph Edouard Gaetjens had actually played two friendlies for Haiti prior to migrating in 1947 to New York City, where he became the star turn of American Soccer League outfit Brookhattan. A mere statement of intent to claim citizenship in the land of the free was in those days sufficient to permit a call-up for Uncle Sam’s national soccer team.
He featured only three times for the North Americans and never did become naturalised, ending his days back on the Caribbean island of his birth, and figuring for them in a 1953 World Cup qualifier. ‘Loaned’ to the USA by Haiti for a single tournament, the hero of Belo Horizonte was effectively a ringer.
Sadly, the striker’s luck in life stayed in Brazil. Family connections with opponents of Haitian dictator Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier snared him in the deadly clasp of the island’s secret police, the Tonton Macoute, and, hauled to notorious Fort Dimanche in July 1964, America’s all-time football hero was never seen again.
FIFA fo fum
A highlight of the players’ stay in Rio had been a trip up the Corcovado mountain to sight-see the Cristo Redentor statue, but there would be no redemption for Winterburn’s tarnished heroes after Belo Horizonte. Newspapers smelled the blood of 11 Englishmen.
In fact, right across the nation’s sports, Thursday 29 June 1950 was not just a bad day at the office but a catastrophe for the whole corporation: in the same 24 hours the West Indies cricket team enjoyed their first ever win at Lord’s, and at Wimbledon home tennis fans’ last hope, Tony Mottram, double faulted three times in a row to bow out with four rounds remaining.
With classic not-angry-but-disappointed British understatement, headlines such as ‘England fall to US amateurs’ and ‘Worst-ever display by an England side’ were designed to humiliate the so-called world kings of soccer.
In an act of not-me-guv bravado the game’s great and good joined the clamour, Football League president and England team selector Arthur Drewry declaring the outcome ‘unbelievable’. Manager Winterbottom singled out the forwards – including Chelsea’s Bentley – as ‘far too eager’.
Pre-empting Daft Punk by half a century, FA secretary Sir Stanley Rous pronounced the Americans ‘fitter, faster, better fighters.’ Few pointed out that the FA’s complacent preparations had been instrumental in England’s shocking failure.
Back among their ex-pat mining pals at Morro Velho, Bentley revealed, ‘though naturally disappointed, our friends took it in good spirit. It was defeat all right, complete and absolute; but certainly not disgrace.’
Decamping again to Rio, England actually had a last chance to redeem themselves three days later, back at the Maracana. The line-up to face group leaders Spain showed four player changes (with Chelsea’s man omitted) and England lost the win-or-bust showdown 1-0, bowing out at the first opportunity. Uruguay eventually won the tournament.
1950 The special relationship
Today brings only the third World Cup meeting between England and the USA and it is likely several Chelsea players will be involved, aiming to avoid the humbling dealt out to their predecessor Bentley and his colleagues. The twist is that one club team-mate, Christian Pulisic, will be determined to stage a 1950 re-enactment.
When Supremes singer Diana Ross’s penalty kick missed its mark at the opening of the US-hosted 1994 World Cup, the failure to trigger planned pyrotechnics was not the first disappointment. England’s failure to qualify had already removed any chance of a revenge rematch, 44 years on.
Not until 12 June 2010 did the two teams clash again, when South Africa were hosts. This time the result was a 1-1 draw. No less than seven players with existing or future Stamford Bridge connections were in Fabio Capello’s matchday squad that day: Rob Green, Ashley Cole, Glen Johnson, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
‘Don’t worry about England, it will come out right in the end – you’ll see,’ Roy Bentley wrote in his mid-Fifties book, adding: ‘Well, dash it, look what happened to Chelsea!’
He died aged 93 in April 2018 as the last surviving member of the fateful 1950 England 11. It is fair to say that winning Chelsea’s first-ever Football League title triumph as skipper in 1955 (and the many Premier League titles enjoyed from afar in his dotage) had long since salved the scars of Belo Horizonte.