The finer details may have faded but for Bert Williams the pain of World Cup defeat by the United States 60 years ago – still England's most startling loss on football's biggest stage – remains vivid. "I can remember little about the game, it's the hurt after the game that's been with me ever since," says Williams, now 90.
The then Wolves goalkeeper was part of a side featuring captain Billy Wright, Tom Finney and future 1966 World Cup-winning coach Alf Ramsey, who were humbled by a team of part-timers on a bumpy pitch in the Brazilian mining town of Belo Horizonte.
A first-half strike by Joe Gaetjens, a centre-forward who was born in Haiti, inflicted ignominy on England in their maiden World Cup campaign and the verdict in The Times the following day was damning: "Probably never before has an England team played so badly. The chances they missed were legion."
Six decades on, Williams, who today raises funds for the Alzheimer's Society, says: "To my knowledge we hit the upright and crossbar at least three times. Given how much play we had, we should have won 9-1."
The backdrop to that first England-USA contest evokes a past resembling less a foreign country than a different planet. "The World Cup was in its infancy," recalls Williams, and the absence of hype is evident from the sports page of The Times on the day of the match, 29 June, which contained just one paragraph about the tournament, listing England's starting XI.
England's preparations were hardly ideal. In Rio, they stayed in a hotel on the noisy Copacabana beach and struggled with the heat and hard pitches. Yet they opened with a 2-0 win over Chile and the Americans did not expect to stop them. "We thought if we could keep it within three, four, five goals, it would be a respectable score," says Walter Bahr, the US captain who worked as a PE teacher.
Before leaving for Brazil, the US side, which also included a funeral director and a postman, had lost 1-0 to a touring English League XI (including Stanley Matthews, who was duly summoned to South America but did not play in Belo Horizonte). The Americans then led Spain 1-0 in their first World Cup outing before shipping three late goals. "Those two games gave us a little bit of encouragement but I don't think any of us ever thought we could knock off England," adds the 83-year-old Bahr, whose team spent the initial exchanges penned deep in their own half.
Williams recalls: "They came with the idea that they weren't going to lose by a cricket score. As soon as an English player got the ball, everybody retreated inside the 18-yard line." Though England were unaccustomed to facing "a massed defence like that" they still created chances but paid the price for a succession of misses when Gaetjens struck at the other end after 38 minutes, deflecting Bahr's angled shot past the wrongfooted Williams with his head.
Sixty years on, the question of Gaetjens' intent still draws strongly felt views. Williams insists: "It was a fluke goal, there isn't any doubt about that – I was going one way, it hit somebody on the head and went the other way." Perhaps not surprisingly, Bahr remembers it differently. "I have never seen any film that shows exactly how the goal was scored but I know he went after the ball and made an honest effort to get to it. I took a legitimate shot from 25, 28 yards out and I am sure Bert Williams would have covered my shot. Harry Keough, who was a defender on the opposite side of the field, said he had a good view of everything and that Joe went after the ball."
Bahr had played club football with Gaetjens, who was working part-time as a dishwasher in New York while studying accountancy. "I'd played with him at New York and seen him get some goals where I'd say to myself, 'I wonder how he even got to that ball'." Tragically, after Gaetjens returned home to Haiti, he disappeared in 1963, presumably murdered by the secret police of dictator Papa Doc Duvalier.
England thought they might have levelled Gaetjens' goal when Jimmy Mullen's header passed goalkeeper Frank Borghi, only for the American to reach back and smother the ball. Whether or not it crossed the line is "a matter of who's giving you the story, us or them", says Bahr.
But he admits England could have one "legitimate gripe", explaining: "Late in the game Stan Mortensen beat our centre-back Charlie Colombo and was going directly to goal and Charlie brought him down from behind with an out-and-out [American] football tackle. No one would have complained if Charlie was thrown out of the game. It was called a foul but they deserved a penalty."
When the final whistle blew, Finney turned to Bahr and admitted: "We could have played until next week and not scored." England's elimination was sealed with a 1-0 defeat against Spain. "The despondency that crept into the camp after we lost affected the last game," says Williams. "Nine out of 10 times we'd have beaten them. All the players who played in that match had to live with it ever since."
If England returned red-faced, there was hardly a hero's welcome for the Americans, who had taken just one reporter to Brazil. "Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the States at that time couldn't care less about soccer," says Bahr. "For 25 years I didn't do any interviews about the game."
The US did not play another fixture until 1953 and did not appear in the World Cup until 1990. Events when they next faced England, in a New York friendly in June 1953, underlined the one-off nature of that unlikely triumph. England ran out 6-3 winners at Yankee Stadium, albeit 24 hours later than planned after the New York Yankees decided they did not want the game played during a heavy downpour for fear it would ruin their pitch.
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