In many ways World Cups have become slick marketing machines with undertones of corruption and farce, but if you think modern day tournaments are ridiculous, they have nothing on the the 1950 edition in Brazil.
Granted, in 1950 everyone was still recovering from World War II and football was probably a secondary consideration. None-the-less the teams who ended up in the tournament were almost there by default of being the only ones willing or able to take part.
Even the tournament format was cack-handed; it contrived to avoid a showpiece final with the winners being decided in a final round robin mini-league. Thankfully, the last game of the tournament; in which Uruguay beat Brazil turned out to be a winner-takes-all affair and therefore a de-facto final, but still, it was a mess.
West Germany and Japan remained under nationwide house arrest following the war and were banned from competing while East Germany were too busy unpacking the boxes following their annexation. The Soviet Union led Hungary and Czechoslovakia out of qualification while Argentina, Ecuador and Peru refused to take part in South America for reasons largely unknown. Scotland were given the opportunity to participate, but refused because they’d come second in the Home Nations tournament, which doubled up as a qualifying group. Miserable sods.
Even after the draw, teams pulled out of the tournament, the French, citing logistics of traveling around a vast country and India blaming cost – although it was more likely due to a ban on barefoot players.
England, presumably buoyed by being crowned World War Champions in 1945, were making their debut in the World Cup having previously exiled themselves from FIFA over a dispute around the payment of amateurs. At the time, England generally made their assessments on situations based on things which were, and weren’t cricket. For a long time, the World Cup wasn’t cricket.
It was a shame, because it seems very likely that England would have won one of the earlier World Cups as the dominant force in world football. The squad was a who’s who of 1950s football; Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Jackie Milburn, Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright all featured while Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey would become better known as great managers. England had only lost 3 internationals at that point, and hopes were high.
Things started well enough with a 2-0 win over Chile; four days later they faced USA, a group of amateurs cobbled together for the tournament with only seven international matches under their belt and an aggregate score of 2-45.
Matthews, at 35, was rested in preparation for tougher tests later in the tournament but the team, including Finney, Mortensen and Wright. England were still 1/3 on favourites with the USA 500/1 no-hopes.
The American team was captained by Ed McIlvenny, who had been drafted in just before the tournament, making his debut in their 3-1 defeat to Spain. McIlvenny wasn’t even American, he was a Scot who lived with his sister. He was only eligible to play because he said he intended to take American citizenship, although he never did. McIlvenny was made captain simply because they were playing England and he was British, Walter Bahr skippered their other two group games.
The game started as expected, England bombarded the Americans, hitting the post twice in the opening 25 minutes. In the 38th minute, Bahr got a shot away, with reports suggesting the move started with a McIlvenny throw-in. Bert Williams, the England keeper came to collect, but Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian also on a promise to become a US citizen, dived in to wrong foot the keeper and put the ball in the net. Astonishingly, the USA were leading.
As England withered in the heat and despite a couple of close calls, the Americans became increasingly comfortable and even had a goal bound shot cleared from the line five minutes from the end.
The Americans had pulled off the greatest shock of the age, and still one of the greatest shocks of all time. In England, papers reported the result initially as a 10-1 victory, assuming the 0-1 defeat wired back by the few journalists that had bothered to travel was a simple typo. But the general snootiness around the tournament meant that much of the coverage was overshadowed by a test match defeat by the West Indies.
In the US it was barely reported at all, only one reporter made the trip to Brazil and that was self-funded. With the Americans having little context with which to judge the result – presumably those who were aware just assumed it happened all the time.
It only came onto the US radar nearly forty years later when the America hosted the tournament, which inspired an academic Geoffrey Douglas to write The Game of Their Lives, the story of the win.
Which is all very nice, but what about the Oxford United connection? Well, McIlvenny aborted his plans for US citizenship when Matt Busby of all people offered him a contract at Manchester United. He lasted just two games before heading for the Waterford in the League of Ireland; four years later he headed back to England and to Headington United, where he spent just over a year and 39 games in Harry Thompson’s Southern League side. It was a moderate season in which Headington finished 9th.
It seems odd that the captain of the team who created the greatest upset in the history of the biggest sport in the world seems so unsung. Film coverage of the game is understandably scratchy with the ‘goal’ evidently contrived from bits of generic reportage footage. The Game of Their Lives book, which barely mentions McIlvenny, was turned into a film in 2005. In it McIlvenny is played by former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, and American, John Harkes – a role he was apparently uncomfortable taking due to the misrepresentation of his character. In the film, history is re-written with Baur (played by Wes Bentley) being made captain. McIlvenny seems destined to be put into the margins of football history. We should claim him as our own.