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In the summer of 1950, a most unlikely group was assembled to represent its country in the first soccer World Cup since World War II. The Americans were outsiders to the sport, the underdogs of the event, a 500-to-1 long shot. But they were also proud and loyal men — to one another, to their communities, and certainly to their country. Facing almost no time to prepare, opponents with superior training, and skepticism from the rest of the world, this ragtag group of unknowns was inspired to a stunning victory over...
In the summer of 1950, a most unlikely group was assembled to represent its country in the first soccer World Cup since World War II. The Americans were outsiders to the sport, the underdogs of the event, a 500-to-1 long shot. But they were also proud and loyal men — to one another, to their communities, and certainly to their country. Facing almost no time to prepare, opponents with superior training, and skepticism from the rest of the world, this ragtag group of unknowns was inspired to a stunning victory over England and one of the most thrilling upsets in the history of sports.
Written by critically acclaimed author Geoffrey Douglas, and now a film directed by David Anspaugh (Hoosiers), The Game of Their Lives takes us back to a time before million-dollar contracts and commercial endorsements, and introduces us to the athletes — the Americans — who showed the world just how far a long shot could really go.
Contested every four years, the World Cup tournament breeds a worldwide fanaticism that has no equal. Until recently, however, when the US hosted the tournament, the World Cup barely registered a blip on Americans' sports radar. Douglas (Class, 1992, etc) ably demonstrates that this was even more the case in 1950, when the US sent, absent of fanfare or press coverage, a hastily assembled band of amateur and semipro players composed chiefly of working-class immigrants. Listed as a 500-to-1 shot by one London bookmaker, the Americans were prohibitive underdogs to an English squad considered by all as the team to beat. From the opening kickoff, the Americans frustrated their foe's attack and late in the first half scored the match's only marker—a shot that caromed into the English net off the head of forward Joe Gaetjens. This goal would prove to be the margin of victory, as the Americans held their opponents in check over the balance of the contest. In his profiles of individual team members (among them an undertaker, a gym teacher, two mail carriers, a dishwasher, and a bricklayer), Douglas recreates a more innocent era in international sports competition. Without beating us over the head with it, the author makes clear that these were men who played for fun and cherish every moment of their soccer careers. Refreshingly, the players profiled—who have mostly moved on to fulfilling lives—begrudge today's wealthy athletes nothing.
Worthy of comparison to such classics of sports reporting as David Halberstam's Summer of '49, this book should be a real kick for soccer rooters and nonfans alike.
The playing field wasn't much to look at or to play on. There would be reports later in the British press that it was a converted bullring, but this couldn't have been so—they have never fought bulls in Brazil. Still, the grass was parched and patchy, and far too high in spots. The ball, instead of settling, teed up unnaturally on the tufts. There were likely to be overkicks.
The stands were of brick and timber, built a generation before the war. It was said that they groaned and swayed slightly when full—thoughit took only 30,000 to fill them, not the 50,000 or 60,000 that would be reported in the press. Even so, there wasn't an empty seat that day.
The locker rooms were cramped, foul smelling, and cobweb-filled. The English had disdained them; they'd arrived already dressed. The Americans were less fussy. They'd seen worse.
Of all of Brazil's major stadiums, this one was the humblest. Only first-round matches were to be played here, and only the least of those—the mismatches and second-level games. In this case a mismatch: the worst against the best.
The place was Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon), a mining city of two million, three hundred miles north of Rio—though there was no horizon in sight. The city, founded in the gold rush of the 1790s on the backs of Indian slaves, is a day's drive inland and surrounded on every side by hills.
"From the moment we landed there," Tom Finney, who played outside-right for the English team, would tell reporters later, "nothing was real, nothing was quite right. It was as if we had flown into some strange, impossible fantasy land."
Thecrowd had come to root against the English. Or at least to vilify them—there being no chance, none at all, that they would lose. They were the "Reyes de Futbol" (Kings of Soccer), as the localpaper had called them that week. It would take a miraculo for the "Pobres Americanos" to stay within six goals.
But that was only part of the point. As the youngest boy in the stands that day knew, if there were any team on Earth that could challenge the English, it would be the Brazilians themselves. That match would come later—in the final round-of-four—though none doubted that it would come. In the meantime, the 30,000 were there that morning as much to measure as to root.
The date was June 29, 1950, a Thursday. The year and the century were half done. Across most of Brazil, inflation had flattened the dreams raised briefly by a wartime boom. Its people, in a national election three months hence, would return their hopes to a deposed dictator, Getulio Vargas, who would end his term in disgrace, then suicide, less than four years after that.
In the United States, meanwhile, the headlines were of one thing only. North Korea, four days earlier, had crossed the thirty-eighth parallel. Before nightfall the next day—June 30—President Truman would commit forces, and America would be at war.
In New York, the Yankees, behind Berra, Rizzuto, and a fading DiMaggio (the Mantle years were still to come), were en route to another pennant, their tenth in fifteen years; three months later, they would sweep the Series from the Phillies in four straight. Willie Mays, a year shy of his rookie season, was a nineteen-year-oldoutfielder in the Negro National League. Joe Louis, thirty-six and rumored to be broke, was in training for a comeback—which would end sadly ten weeks later at the hands of Ezzard Charles.
The Brinks robbery, six months old and still unsolved, was "the crime of the century." Death of a Salesman had just closed on Broadway; All About Eve would be Best Picture of the Year.
And four months earlier, in Wheeling, West Virginia, an obscure forty-one-year-old senator from Wisconsin had made national headlines with the charge that the U.S. State Department was a hotbed of Reds.
The world's population was two and a half billion. For perhaps a twelfth of them that June morning, the only news that mattered was on the soccer fields of Brazil. It was week one, day six, of the World Cup—the first in twelve years, since play had been halted for war.
Every day for twenty-two days—from the twenty-fifth of June to the sixteenth of July—from pressrooms in the stadiums of Rio, Recife, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Curitiba, and Belo Horizonte, four hundred reporters from forty nations would transmit their accounts:
The Swedes, paced by the "wondrous" Nacka Skoglund, had shocked favored Italy and were now the tourney's "sleeping lion."
Spain was playing "timorously." Paraguay was "the Latins' mystery team." ...
England's Stanley Matthews, "the Wizard of Dribble," was to be "rested" against the United States. He had "limped briefly" against Chile—would he be ready against Spain? ...
The Brazilians, under coach Flavio Costa, were "sleeping under cotton wool" with a 10:00 P.M. curfew, a team psychiatrist, and no wives or girlfriends allowed...
All of which, no matter how trifling or bizarre—or outright bogus—was more than news. And infinitely more than a game. It was life itself. It still is: politics, religion, theater, war, and sport—brought together, quadrennially (except when real war intervenes), in ninety-minute matches on fields of grass and mud. Dying men will themselves to stay alive for it; thousands have been killed in its name—6,000 alone in the 1970 "soccer war" between Honduras and El Salvador, sparked by the on-field suicide of an eighteen-year-old girl. Defeat especially for the great teams, is ignominy. Victory is thesweetest vindication a team, or nation, can know.
(So sweet sometimes it can only be explained divinely. Twenty years later almost to the day, in Mexico City in June of 1970, Brazil would again face the world-champion English—and would defeat them, improbably, on their way to winning the Cup. The week following, in Rio's Jurnal dos Sportes, under the headline "Jesus Defends Brazil," the victory would be described: "Whenever the ball flew toward our goal and a score [by the English] seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out of the clouds and cleared the ball...."
The report was dead earnest. To buttress it, a drawing by the newspaper's artist depicted the Almighty's foot.)
Of the four hundred reporters in Brazil those two weeks, only one was an American—Dent McSkimming, sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
He was there, though, unofficially. Unable to convince his editors that the World Cup was news, he had put in for vacation and paid his own way down.
Copyright © 1996 Joanna Scott.All rights reserved.