Saturday, June 05, 2010

Miracle on Grass

Will history repeat itself?

This is the million-dollar question that has gripped soccer aficionados in America as the 2010 World Cup Soccer kicks off.

On June 12, the United States will face England in Rustenberg, South Africa. Sixty years earlier, in June 1950, the underdog U.S. team beat heavily-favored England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in what is still considered the greatest upset in World Cup history. (For details, see Sports Illustrated, March 8, 2010, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010).

England was led by Stanley Matthews, regarded as the best player in the world at the time. Winning the World Cup seemed to be the English team’s birthright and the match with the Yanks, as the U.S. team was called, would be no more than a demonstration of English superiority.

So it appeared to be. The American goalkeeper, an Italian-American from St. Louis named Frank Borghi, made one desperate save after another as England attacked. English strikers hit the crossbar and the posts several times, but nothing went in.

Then, thirty-seven minutes into the game, Walter Bahr of the U.S. sent a shot toward the far post from about 25 yards on the right side. English goalkeeper Bert Williams moved to his right, anticipating a routine save. But Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian émigré who worked as a dishwasher in New York City and who was a last-minute addition to the team, laid himself out in a dive around the penalty spot through a cluster of defenders. The ball grazed his head and went past Williams into the back of the net.

When the goal stood after 53 more unbelievable minutes, the 15,000+ Brazilians at the Independencia Stadium erupted in wild celebrations, less because of the Yank’s victory and more because Brazil’s nemesis had been defeated.(Uruguay ended up winning the Cup, shocking Brazil 2-1 in the final.)

The “Miracle on Grass” did nothing, however, to popularize soccer in the U.S. For the next forty years, the Americans did not make an appearance in World Cup and didn’t win another World Cup match until 1994 when it defeated Colombia 2-1.

Sixty years later, England would like to erase the ignominy of its 1950 defeat. Led by Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and its mercurial striker Wayne Rooney, the English team knows that its chances of winning the Cup against Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Spain is slim but that to defeat the Yanks would still be a national redemption.

The U.S., of course, has plans of its own. With world-class players like midfielder Landon Donovan and goalkeeper Tim Howard, the team would like to prove that it can face any team in the world with confidence and a fierce desire to win.

On paper, however, the Americans are the lesser team against England. But just as Frank Borghi did 60 years ago, they are counting on the superb Howard (who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system) to thwart the English attack and capitalize on counterattacks led by Donovan to pull off another monumental upset. For the U.S., a draw would be a victory. For England, nothing but a decisive victory will be enough.

The world will, of course, be riveted by the anticipated wizardry of Lionel Messi of Argentina (although how he will fare under the unpredictable coaching of soccer legend Diego Maradona is anybody’s guess), the playmaking flair of Brazil’s Kaka or the explosiveness of Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba (who may unfortunately miss the World Cup because of a dislocated elbow).

But the first match of the beautiful game – U.S. against England - will be compelling in its own right, given the burden of sixty years of history. Both teams are aware of its significance, and while Bill Jeffrey, America’s coach in 1950, described his team before the match as “sheep ready to be slaughtered,” no such inferiority complex infects the current U.S. team. No question about it: 2010 World Cup Soccer should get off to an explosive start in more ways than one.

There is a tragic postscript to the 1950 Yanks. Joe Gaetjens, hero of the American team, returned to Haiti in 1953 and became a soccer coach for kids. He kept away from politics but politics found him. In 1964, the dreaded Tontons Macoute militia of Dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier picked up Gaetjens on bogus charges of rebellion and took him to a place from which he never returned.

For eight years, the world knew nothing of what happened to the lone goal scorer against England. Then, under pressure from Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Haitian government finally confirmed in early 1972 that Joe Gaetjens had indeed died at the hands of Tontons Macoute.

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