In 2016, the British soccer world was cast into the abyss when the mighty English football club went down to defeat at the hands, err feet, of Iceland, a nation whose entire population falls short that of New Orleans.
It’s hard to think of anyone who could have deserved it more. About 8% of the entire country turned out to watch the finals that year, in France. CNN reporter James Masters wrote that it was the most humbling defeat for English soccer, since their 1950 defeat by the Americans.
In 1950, the English National Soccer team had a post-war record of 23 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws. If you asked them, they’d have told you they considered themselves the “Kings of Football”.
The American team had lost the last seven straight international matches by a combined score of 45–2. If you cared to bet on it, book makers posted 3–1 odds on the English winning the Cup. The American team was 500–1.
The Americans were semi-professionals, most of the team holding down other jobs to support their families. Defender Walter Bahr was a high school teacher. Port-au-Prince native Joseph Edouard Gaetjens was playing forward while studying accounting at Columbia University on a scholarship from the Haitian government. Goalkeeper Frank Borghi drove a hearse for his uncle’s funeral parlor. Prudencio “Pete” Garcia worked as a linesman.
The team had been thrown together on short notice, having only one chance to train together before leaving for the FIFA World Cup playoffs. On June 29 they would be in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, playing the self-styled Kings of Football in the first round. Coach Bill Jeffrey captured what everyone was thinking, when he told the press “We don’t have a chance”.
It was thirty-seven minutes into a 0-0 game when Bahr took a long shot from 25 yards out. The English team had taken 9 clear shots on goal by this time. This was only the second for the US team. Goaltender Bert Williams moved to his right to intercept, as Gaetjens dived at the ball, heading it to the left of the English goalkeeper. The crowd exploded as the US took the lead, eventually winning the game, 1–0.
It was a double elimination format, and England lost their match with Spain. The Kings of Football had failed to make it to the second round, going home after the first round with a tournament record of 1–0–2.
International headlines trumpeted news of the upset, with the ironic exceptions of the American and English press. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter with the unlikely name of Dent McSkimming was the only American reporter at the game. McSkimming wasn’t about to miss this match, even when his editor refused to pay for the trip. A true fan of the sport, McSkimming studied Portuguese for three days to prepare for the trip.
The British press was more interested by the English cricket team’s first-ever loss to the West Indies on the same day.
The US went on to lose their next match 5–2 against Chile, so they didn’t go on to the final round, either. But they had won the most shocking upset ever, until the 1980 US Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union.
The United States would not qualify another World Cup soccer team, until 1990. This time, there were 100 credentialed American reporters, in attendance.