USA vs England and the path towards respect and rivalry
Growing up in the Detroit suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, Alexi Lalas was one of those American kids who knew there was another type of football.
“My father was Greek so we had more of an affinity towards soccer even though it was a sport that a lot of other parents hadn’t been exposed to or hadn’t heard of,” the former United States defender tells The Athletic.
But he didn’t know the name Joe Gaetjens and he didn’t know anything about the U.S. beating England at the 1950 World Cup in what remains one of the richest and most evocative underdog stories.
The history of American soccer “wasn’t something you read about or heard about growing up and it certainly wasn’t something you learned about at school”, Lalas says.
He first heard about it in 1993, when he was part of a U.S. team preparing for the following year’s World Cup on home soil, looking forward to facing England in a warm-up tournament at Foxboro Stadium, Massachusetts.
It seemed almost incomprehensible to him that the U.S. had once beaten England at a World Cup, so dominant was English football culture in the consciousness of all Americans who played or watched the game — “from the coaches we had growing up, to the broadcasters on our TV screens, even to the apparel made by Umbro and Admiral”.
“You (English) are from a culture where soccer is king,” he says. “And I feel there was this perception, certainly when I was playing, that ‘You Americans have no chance of beating England because you are not from a — quote, unquote — football culture and any football culture that you do have is relative to the influence that English football has had on you’.
“We were seen as this rag-tag, unknown group of players facing these incredible names, like Ian Wright, who we had seen playing on TV, and there was this slight sense of awe that we were going to step onto the field with them.
“At the same time, there was a sense of opportunity. Not to shock the world, but to challenge and permeate the media coverage and create some resonance and relevance in our own country, making a splash by trying to beat England. My mentality was that I really wanted to stick it to England. And I think that’s rooted in our country’s history, right?”
What happened in Foxborough wasn’t exactly the Boston Tea Party (the 1773 definition), but it was a humiliation for England as the U.S. went 1-0 up and then Lalas came off the bench — a goatee-bearded, guitar-playing central defender for goodness’ sake — and headed home the second in a 2-0 win.
England manager Graham Taylor, already under severe pressure as their World Cup qualifying unravelled, was subjected to even more savage criticism. One tabloid back page had his face on a Wild West-type poster: “Wanted Dead or Alive: Graham Taylor, the outlaw of English football”.
The Daily Express called it “an abject failure against a third-rate soccer nation”, losing to “a collection of college boys and second-rate professionals”. As the Daily Mirror put it, “We can’t get any lower.”
The response across the Atlantic was rather different. If there was one soccer story that would be worth a sports editor clearing space for, it was a victory over England.
It wasn’t acres of newsprint — not when the same day saw the Montreal Canadiens overcome the LA Kings to clinch the Stanley Cup and the Chicago Bulls, inspired by Michael Jordan, defeat the Phoenix Suns in the opening game of the NBA finals — but there were headlines, there was colour and there were delighted statements from Lalas and his team-mates.
And as well as references to the American War of Independence more than two centuries earlier, there were suddenly a lot of mentions of 1950.
Beating England for the second time, according to USSF secretary general Hank Steinbrecher, meant “We don’t ever have to talk about 1950 again” — to which the obvious reaction among most American sports fans, even the majority of soccer fans, was to ask what on earth happened in 1950.
Through the mists of time, Bert Williams tried to draw on memories he said he had spent nearly 60 years trying to erase.
“The American team turned up wearing sombreros, smoking cigars, and they only had about six kicks of the ball in 90 minutes,” the former Wolverhampton Wanderers and England goalkeeper told the Daily Mirror in 2009.
When Williams died in 2014, aged 93, the events of June 29, 1950, in Belo Horizonte featured prominently in his obituaries. That was rather harsh, given he had been a highly accomplished goalkeeper for club and country and a fitness instructor for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and that he was blameless for England’s defeat by the U.S.
The 1950 World Cup in Brazil was the first the FA had deemed worthy of England’s presence, having turned up their noses at the first three editions in the belief that this tournament, dreamt up by a Frenchman, couldn’t possibly rival the long-established British Home Championship.
If anything, England’s aloofness had helped preserve their status as the kings of the game — Os Reis do Futbol, as the Brazilian press had called them, honoured to be hosting the great Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Billy Wright at the World Cup.
They had lost the odd game of course, usually to Scotland or Wales, but in the four years leading up to the 1950 World Cup, they had beaten Ireland 7-2, 6-2 and 9-2, the Netherlands 8-2, Portugal 10-0 and Switzerland 6-0.
They had never faced the U.S. in an official match before, but other teams had. They had lost 11-0 to Norway, 5-0 to Northern Ireland and been hit for six (twice) and seven (twice) by Mexico.
Just before the World Cup, the U.S. played a touring England XI in an unofficial match at Randall’s Island, New York, and lost by a single goal. “When you go to Brazil and play the England national team,” the FA secretary Stanley Rous is said to have told his hosts at a post-match banquet, “then you will find out what football is all about.”
It probably isn’t stretching it to suggest the American players feared the worst when they met England in Belo Horizonte. The U.S. had played in two World Cups before, reaching the semi-finals in the inaugural tournament in 1930, but this team of amateurs seemed unlikely to repeat that: a hearse driver (Frank Borghi) in goal, a meat-packer (Charly Colombo) in defence and a Haitian centre-forward (Gaetjens) who had moved to New York to study accountancy and had not yet secured American citizenship.
The U.S. team that beat England in 1950. Joe Gaetjens is three from the right in the front row (Photo: EMPICS Sport/EMPICS via Getty Images)
And yet the U.S. won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Gaetjens — an unwitting deflection according to just about every English account, a “head-long dive” to divert Walter Bahr’s shot according to American defender Harry Keough. Long before the Miracle on Ice, this was the Miracle on Grass (although, naturally enough, the English players and management pointed out afterwards that the pitch had been far too bumpy).
To borrow a wonderful line from former Chelsea and England player Roy Bentley, “It was like Babe Ruth had scored a century at Lord’s (that’s a cricket phrase for those who are unsure) with a baseball bat.”
But there are so many legends surrounding the game that it can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction. FIFA’s website says “the English press, assuming a misprint” in the wire copy coming in from Brazil, “reported that England won 10-1”, but the British Newspaper Archive suggests this is one of those old newsroom myths that came to be treated as fact. Likewise, the claim that the New York Times dismissed the wire reports as a hoax.
Even Williams’ claim about the American players turning up “wearing sombreros and smoking cigars” has been questioned. Perhaps, having spent years trying to forget about the game, what he recalled was a slightly exaggerated, caricatured view of the opposition. It is an appealing image — far from impossible — but the reality is not entirely clear.
As for the match-winner Gaetjens, his true story was extraordinary enough without him being portrayed, in the 2005 movie The Game of Their Lives, as a practitioner of voodoo.
In 1964, having returned to Haiti, Gaetjens was arrested due to family members’ links with a group that opposed president Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.
Tragically, he was never seen again. He is widely assumed to have been executed at Fort Dimanche, one of tens of thousands of Haitians suspected to have been murdered by Duvalier’s regime. In 1976, the goalscoring hero of Belo Horizonte was inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame.
But at the time, only a small number of American soccer aficionados knew his name.
Lalas knows the 1950 story now. He describes it as part of “American soccer folklore”, a highly significant moment in the history of the sport in his country.
That history is different to England’s. It started in the same era — an organised match played under FA laws in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on October 11, 1866, with the game’s popularity spreading predominantly in cities with growing British, Irish, German or Italian communities — but American soccer’s rich tapestry doesn’t have the same breadth, nor the same common threads running through it.
From the very start, the game had peaks and troughs in popularity in the U.S. So many different leagues and teams have been launched and then quickly disbanded. The N.A.S.L. of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which attracted Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and players from all over the world (not least England), was the ultimate example of that boom-and-bust.
In Qatar on Friday, England and the U.S. meet on the World Cup stage for the third time. So far, it’s one American win and one draw. England have been beaten them eight times in friendly matches, sometimes by huge margins, but have never done so in a competitive fixture — not even if you extend the definition of “competitive” to include the U.S. Cup in 1993.
Every time the sides have met
England 0-1 USA
USA 3-6 England
USA 1-8 England
USA 0-10 England
USA 0-5 England
USA 2-0 England
United States Cup
England 2-0 USA
USA 1-2 England
England 2-0 USA
England 1-1 USA
England 3-0 USA
Eng Won 8, USA Won 2, Drawn 1
Lalas, Tony Meola, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda and the rest of those 1990s players didn’t have a backdrop of American soccer culture to sustain them when they were growing up. “It wasn’t taken seriously by the masses or the media,” Lalas said. “But I equate a lot of things to life in music, so it was like when you like a unique type of band and you wear that on your sleeve. You ride or die with it. You own it.”
By contrast, those who came a generation later, like Tim Howard, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, were inspired by watching the U.S. compete in the World Cup in 1990 and, more famously, on home soil in 1994, when Lalas and his team-mates beat Colombia and became… not household names exactly, but recognisable names to many sports fans.
That effect was increased manifold when Howard, Reyna, McBride and Donovan excelled at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal and Mexico en route to the quarter-finals, where they were narrowly beaten by Germany. And then again when the U.S. drew 1-1 with England at the 2010 tournament in South Africa and then beat Algeria 1-0, thanks to a last-minute goal from Donovan, to top the group.
For that 2010 game in Rustenburg, the American players were said to have been fuelled — as if they needed more fuel — by a headline in The Sun when England placed in what was perceived to be a dream World Cup draw: “E.A.S.Y. (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks)”, which was apparently the “best English group since The Beatles”.
Hmmm. Well, what followed was arguably England’s most chastening World Cup since 1950. There was no defeat to the U.S. this time, but it felt like one as England were lifting clinging on after Dempsey’s speculative shot squirmed through the hands of goalkeeper Rob Green for the equaliser.
And it clearly felt like a victory for America, judging by the memorable New York Post front page with the tongue-in-cheek exclamation: “USA wins 1-1: greatest tie against the British since Bunker Hill”.
Like Taylor in 1993, Green was vilified by sections of the media. It was a bad mistake — and costly mistakes by any England player at a World Cup has tended to bring out the worst in certain newspaper editors over the years — but it was the opening game against a team who were 14th in the FIFA rankings at the time. The result against the U.S. was far from a disaster.
Looking back, you wonder whether the extreme reaction to Green’s error in 2010 was in part because some viewed the two nations’ rivalry much as they would have done in 1950. “You are not from a — quote, unquote — ‘football culture’,” as Lalas put it, “and any football culture that you do have is relative to the influence that English football has had on you.”
It is intriguing to note that in women’s football, the U.S. revels in its role as the dominant force in what has largely (despite a Lionesses victory in last month’s friendly at Wembley) been a one-sided rivalry with England.
There was a furious reaction online to Alex Morgan’s “tea-sipping” goal celebration in the World Cup semi-final in 2019. Some thought she was referencing the Boston Tea Party (that again!) and Piers Morgan, with characteristic nuance, called it “a declaration of war”. Others thought she was just mocking English people for drinking tea. The player explained she was in fact merely indicating the expression “That’s the tea”, meaning news or gossip, but even as the furore died down, it was interesting to hear English people use the phrase “arrogant” in relation to a U.S. football team.
For years, Lalas detected a “legendary inferiority complex” around men’s football in the U.S. — “our insecurities are well documented” — but he feels that has changed without going too far the other way. He feels American soccer is happier in its own skin now.
Lalas suggest it is one of the few areas in life where the U.S. not only finds itself as the underdog but totally embraces that status. The Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics is one famous example, the 2008 Ryder Cup another, but outside of the Rocky movies, not too many more spring to mind.
“Look, we’re a superpower and we have an arrogance which we see in different areas of life,” Lalas says. “But in men’s soccer/football there’s this amazing dynamic where we’re the underdog and we’re totally comfortable with that.
“It has been fascinating and — I can’t lie to you — incredibly enjoyable to see the angst and fear that England and other big, traditional soccer nations have to deal with when they’re competing on the world stage against the U.S. or another nation they’re expected to beat. We have had it the other way around when we’ve been to Central America and played matches where we have been expecting to beat teams and they are desperate to beat us and it becomes a question of how you deal with that.”
Lalas points out that the Anglo-American football dynamic has evolved an awful lot since his playing days. It certainly has. With Major League Soccer continuing to grow and with a proliferation across the top European leagues of American players and even coaches (Bob Bradley, Jesse Marsch, Ted Lasso), the U.S. is now recognised — and perhaps even grudgingly respected — as a credible football nation with a “quote-unquote football culture”.
Lalas celebrates the win in 1993 (Photo: David Davies/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images)
This is their eighth World Cup out of the past nine — the same as England — and they have reached the knockout phase on four occasions, including as far as the quarter-finals in 2002. It is inferior to England’s record over the same period (six progressions to the knockout stage, beaten quarter-finalists twice, beaten semi-finalists twice) but it is closer than some might imagine. For the past decade, the U.S. have generally found themselves somewhere beaten 13th and 30th in the FIFA rankings, England generally somewhere between fourth and 15th depending on whether their tails are up or down at the moment in question.
Right now, England’s tails are up, having reached performed well in their last two tournaments and started this one with a resounding 6-2 victory over Iran. If they are favourites to beat the U.S. on Friday, it is because of their resurgence over the past few years rather than some kind of ingrained superiority dating back to the 19th century.
“While I love to joke about England, this is an elite team,” Lalas says. “They’ve done well over the last few years and they’ve started out on fire at this World Cup. It’s an England team that can kick on.
“And this is a U.S. team which has developed under Gregg Berhalter, who has talked about developing a more evolved type of style. And this is where the rubber hits the road and we find out whether that’s a hill he’s ready to die on or whether he’s a bit more pragmatic and a little less romantic in terms of how he wants to approach it. There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Let’s take it to England’. If we’re going to go down, let’s go down swinging.”
That is the kind of spirit Lalas and his team-mates summoned to beat England in Foxborough in 1993 and helped Bradley’s U.S. team earn a 1-1 draw in Rustenburg 17 years later.
Belo Horizonte in 1950? Judging by the testimonies of the crestfallen English players and incredulous English newspaper reporters, the American team got lucky and then held on for dear life as their goal was peppered with shots. But it is the type of result that doesn’t happen without the opposition having… well, The Game of Their Lives.
Maybe it comes back to something Lalas’s former team-mate Wynalda said earlier in the week. “Playing Brazil and Argentina is how you measure yourself as a country but playing England always feels personal,” the former U.S. forward told the Guardian. “In our day, there was an element of jealousy. The England players were rich, they had a big league and great fan support. They were cocky as hell. We wanted to be them but in our own way. That still exists. As a soccer player in America, you’re always paying homage to a little island.”
Wynalda finished by recalling that after that victory in 1993 he approached David Batty, asking if they could swap shirts, only for the England midfielder to tell him, “Well I don’t want yours.” Wynalda says he told Batty, “I still want yours because I want something to wipe my ass with” — at which point the Yorkshireman laughed and handed it over. We were left with the impression Batty still didn’t want the American shirt, not even for practical purposes.
Green’s error led to a draw in 2010 (Photo: Mark Leech / Offside / Getty Images).
“Paying homage to a little island”, though. Ouch. And maybe what Wynalda identifies is something felt the world over to varying degrees: other nations irked by the prevalence of English football culture, the all-consuming Premier League, the “home of football” talk. Even, in the case of Croatia at the last World Cup and Italy at last summer’s European Championship final, a desperation to shove “Football’s Coming Home” back down English throats.
Because every nation has its own football culture and its own football story. Many of those stories are built on rivalry and on underdog wins. From our side of the Atlantic, the U.S. men’s team has never been really seen as a rival, but maybe that is the next step.
At the very least, the relationship has matured into one of respect, where English fans will approach Friday’s game with a certain degree of apprehension.
Or, at least, they will if they know their history.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)