Against all odds: When USA's part-timers beat England’s ‘Kings of Football’

Andorra may be 40/1 outsiders at Wembley on Sunday but the Three Lions have come unstuck against minnows before as Planet Sport recalls.

The USA beating England at the 1950 World Cup is the single greatest miracle in the history of soccer.

Upsets are one thing but for a team of amateurs to beat arguably the world's best team in soccer's most important tournament is something that will never happen again.

Planet Sport looks at how the Americans pulled off the 'Miracle on Grass" and profiles the men who made it happen.

Normal men doing extraordinary things

A mailman, a hearse driver, a dishwasher, an undertaker, a knitting machinist and a paint stripper. Those were some of the jobs that members of the American team did back in their hometowns, but on June 29, 1950, these men were in Belo Horizonte awaiting their second World Cup game against England.

As a team made up of amateurs, the USA were given 500/1 odds of winning the tournament. Most argued that even those odds were rather generous. Their upcoming opponents, on the other hand, were priced as the 3/1 favorites to win the World Cup.

Unlike the Americans, there were no part-timers in the England team. Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey, Stan Mortensen and Tom Finney were just some of the stars that graced Walter Winterbottom's side.

England's Tom Finney in action in 1954
England's Tom Finney in action in 1954

The manager of the American team was Bill Jeffrey. Edinburgh-born, the Scotsman was given the task of getting the best out of a group of players who had been selected by a committee on his behalf.

He only had a couple of days to prepare the side for the World Cup but his brief was simple - don't complicate things. Jeffrey played every player in the position that they were used to, or the position that they played for their club side.

It may seem rather obvious by today's standards but back then, many teams were picked by a bunch of men in suits and cigars rather than the manager. Little thought was given to positional play or tactical awareness. That was the case with the England team for many years as nine committee members took charge of team selection while Winterbottom would simply try and get the best out of what he was given.

England manager Walter Winterbottom ahead of the 1950 World Cup
England manager Walter Winterbottom ahead of the 1950 World Cup

One result gave them belief

One of the reasons why the Americans were priced at such massive odds wasn't down to the fact they were part-timers - it was because their results prior to the tournament had been so poor.

In 1949, the United States took part in the North American Football Confederation Championships. Out of the four games, the US only lost two, but over the course of the tournament, the team conceded 15 goals.

The team had also suffered a 4-0 defeat to Scotland, a 5-0 loss to Northern Ireland and an 11-0 thrashing to Norway - all of which were international friendlies.

Despite those defeats, there was one specific game which made a difference. Before jetting off to Brazil for the 1950 Mundial, the Americans had organised one more friendly, against England. More specifically, an England side that consisted of all the players who had missed out on a place in Winterbottom's World Cup team.

England were the favourites even in that friendly, but they could only muster a narrow 1-0 win in New York. The result gave Jeffrey's men a boost - and in sport, confidence can go a very long way. The fixture also gave the US an idea of what to expect from the English in Brazil.

The Miracle on Grass

America's clash with England would be their second game of the tournament. A few days earlier, the United States lost 3-1 to Spain, but the scoreline doesn't really tell the whole story.

After taking the lead in the 17th minute, Jeffrey's men held their advantage for most of the game. With 10 minutes remaining, the Spanish eventually found a breakthrough and scored three quickfire goals to bag themselves the two points. Nevertheless, the US had given a good account of themselves. England, on the other hand, had just beaten Chile 2-0 in Rio de Janeiro.

As the stage was set for the game between the English and the Americans, over 10,000 fans squeezed into the Estadio Independencia in Belo Horizonte.

The Brazilian media had branded the English as the 'Kings of Football' and the European side lived up to that billing by dominating the opening exchanges.

After 12 minutes, England had already had six shots. Two of those smashed against the woodwork while the others kept USA goalie, Frank Borghi, on his toes.

The Americans struggled to get hold of the ball and had to wait until the 25th minute to have their first attempt on goal. However, England responded and created three more dangerous chances between the 30th and 32nd minute. Despite this, the score remained goalless.

Moments later, the Americans would get their second goalscoring opportunity. This time, however, the outcome was different. Walter Bahr, America's central midfielder, struck a decent shot from 25 yards out. As the ball flew through the heart of the penalty area, Joe Gaetjens was there, flying head first to deflect the ball past England's keeper Bert Williams. As the ball hit the back of the net, the crowd exploded.

Most of the fans were Brazilians and they knew that England had the potential to threaten Brazil further down the line. They willed the USA team on and at half-time, their slender lead was still intact.

Bert Williams saves from USA's Edward Souza
Bert Williams saves from USA's Edward Souza

In the second half, England were like a wounded animal, stunned by what had happened in those opening 45 minutes. While Winterbottom's men still dominated, they certainly didn't possess the killer instinct they needed.

Wounded or not, England came out and once again dominated possession. While they managed to get the ball into the box, the tall American goalkeeper Borghi was simply unbeatable.

England's best chance came eight minutes from time. Stan Mortensen was brought down just outside of the area and despite pleas for a penalty, the Italian official awarded a free-kick.

Alf Ramsey stepped up, delivered a cross into the area and found the head of Jimmy Mullen, who powered the ball goalwards. Unfortunately for England, Borghi pulled off one of the saves of the tournament to tip the ball away to safety.

It was the nearest England came to getting back on level terms as USA pulled off what remains the greatest upset in world soccer.

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Reaction…what reaction?

Despite doing the impossible, hardly anyone in the United States knew about it. There was only one American journalist present at the World Cup and he only represented the regional newspaper of St Louis.

The reporter, Dent McSkimming, also had to take time off and fund his own trip to Brazil as the paper refused to cover the costs of reporting on a soccer tournament in South America.

The coverage was also rather limited in England. This was partly down to the English cricket team suffering a major loss of their own on the same day. A first-ever home defeat to the West Indies stole most of the sporting headlines. Nonetheless, reports of the embarrassing loss to USA did eventually make the rounds, with headlines such as 'The Last Straw - U.S. Beat England In World Cup' and 'England Canned At Soccer Too'.

The international press, on the other hand, covered the match extensively. One newspaper in Brazil even added America's John Souza to their All-Star team for the 1950 World Cup.

American coverage of the now infamous game picked up 44 years later when the tournament was hosted by the United States. A book about the achievement was released around the time and it was soon followed by the film The Game of Their Lives which depicted the events of 1950.

Three steps back, one World Cup win

For England, this was the first of three major losses in the 1950s. The Miracle on Grass was followed by the 'Match of the Century' in 1953 which saw Hungary become the first nation to beat the Three Lions at Wembley. A year later, they added further embarrassment by beating the English 7-1 at home.

England used those defeats to revolutionise their strategy on and off the field. This eventually led to their victory at the 1966 World Cup.

For the USA, the win over England had little to no impact on the soccer scene in the country. Soccer has picked up momentum over the last few decades largely thanks to the dominance of the women's team, but the men are also beginning to break through, with players including Christian PulisicWeston McKennie and Gio Reyna impressing at Europe's biggest clubs. This was catalysed by their hosting of the 1994 World Cup and the increasing success of both the MLS and NWSL.

Diana Ross World Cup 1994 launch USA

There is also one more thing to remember. While England have been the vastly superior team on the international stage, they're yet to get their revenge for what happened in 1950. The two nations last met at a World Cup in 2010, but with the game ending in a 1-1 draw, the USA still boast a superior record over the supposed Kings of Football.

READ MORE: Ten things you didn’t know about England’s next opponents, Andorra