World Cup 2010: How the USA's 1950 amateurs upset England and the odds | Ewen MacAskill

England, 3-1 favourites to win the 1950 World Cup, fell to a shock defeat inflicted by the USA, 500-1 outsiders. Survivors remember their day in the sun

Walter Bahr places on the table of his Pennsylvania farmhouse a napkin to represent the goalposts, a scrap of paper to show where he was standing when he hit the shot and a sugar bowl for Joe Gaetjens, whose goal produced the biggest upset in English football history. "I hit a decent ball with some steam from 25 to 28 yards out," he says. "Somehow Joe Gaetjens got a piece of the ball. It was not a beautiful goal by any means."

It might not have been beautiful but it was sweeter than the contents of the sugar bowl for the Americans, bringing victory over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Bahr describes England as the powerhouse of world football at the time, 3-1 favourites to win the World Cup. The USA team were 500-1 and made up entirely of amateurs who included a mailman, a paint-stripper, a dishwasher and a hearse driver. England will have their chance of revenge when they play the USA in their World Cup opener in Rustenburg on Saturday. Bahr says: "It has taken England 60 years to get a chance to get even."

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Bahr, aged 83, a former teacher and football coach, is one of four survivors of the 1950 team. The others are: John Souza, a knitting machinist; Harry Keough, the mailman; and goalkeeper Frank Borghi, the hearse driver. Bahr, still physically and mentally fit, is clearheaded about the game and its consequences, relatively free of the tendency of old athletes to exaggerate the triumphs of their youth.

"The perfect game is to win and play well," he says. "We won but we certainly did not outplay England. It was one of those games where the best team does not win. I am proud of it. We had a decent team. But if we played England 10 times, they would have won nine of them."

Bahr digs out newspaper cuttings from 1950, mainly from Brazilian papers as coverage in the US was minimal. "We knew it was something special but most of the papers back home had a little column or had the score wrong, or the names wrong." The New York Times gave it two paragraphs. Such was the lack of interest in the US that, Bahr says, in the two decades that followed he was interviewed only twice.

That changed with the growth of football in the US. A book about the victory, The Game of Their Lives, was published in 1996, with a movie of the same name in 2005. Another book is scheduled for April, about Gaetjens, focused not only on his football career but his tragic death in jail in Haiti, shunned by the US.

Gaetjens, who was Haitian, was a dishwasher in New York. Others in the team were also from immigrant backgrounds or from communities where the influence of immigrants was strong and football was the favourite game. Four of the 1950 team were from Italian backgrounds, two from Portuguese and one Irish. Eddie McIlvenny was a Scot who qualified because, like Gaetjens, he said he would become a US citizen, although neither did.

Bahr captained the USA for a decade but gave the captaincy that day to McIlvenny because the game was against England. About 20,000 fans, about 1,000 of them English expatriates and the rest Brazilian, crowded into the ground in Belo Horizonte on 29 June. The star-studded England team included Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey and Stan Mortensen, with Stanley Matthews and Jackie Milburn left out.

"For the first 20 minutes, England were all over us. I think they hit the woodwork," Bahr says. "As the game went on, England began to get desperate."

Keough, aged 82, speaking from his home in St Louis, recalls that Borghi put up a fantastic display. And then in the 38th minute the USA scored.

There is no film footage of the goal and there is debate whether Gaetjens had been going for it or whether it had accidently hit him. His USA team-mates say he had a habit of scoring such acrobatic goals. "Gaetjens dived at it. He probably never thought he would get it. If he had hit it solidly, it would have gone out for a corner," Keough says. "He just scratched it with his head. It was a one in a million goal."

Keough and Bahr praise the English players for the way they conducted themselves after the match. Keough says: "I admired the players. They shook our hands. They did not say anything like 'You lucky bastards'." However polite they were at the time, the result hurt. The England keeper Bert Williams, aged 90, told the Associated Press in February: "It's been 60 years. It's taken a lot of forgetting as far as I am concerned."

Bahr played football until he was almost 40 and coached for 15 years at Penn State University. McIlvenny went on to play for Manchester United. Gaetjens went to play in France before returning to Haiti. Speaking from Oakland, California, his niece, Mary Gaetjens, says he was taken from Port-au-Prince in 1963 to Fort Dimanche jail by the Tonton Macoute, the militia of the dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and was killed soon after. "He was a national hero. He thought the goal would protect him," Mary says. The family is sore that the US refused pleas to help him, either by pushing Duvalier to grant him an amnesty or to grant him US citizenship and the protection that might have provided.

Despite failing to help a US sporting hero when he needed it, the US felt no embarrassment in honouring him posthumously, inducting him, along with the rest of the team, into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.

Bahr is realistic about the USA-England clash. The USA team are better organised than they were, make fewer mistakes and have lots of good players, such as LA Galaxy's Landon Donovan. "But I do not think they have the individuals to match England. They do not have a Rooney or a Gerrard or Lampard."

Despite that, Bahr, who plans to watch the game in his home among the mountains of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, will still be hoping for another improbable win. "The USA team have a good chance, a better chance than we did," Bahr says.


Ewen MacAskill in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania

The GuardianTramp

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