England’s bad World Cup day at Belo Horizonte

The England soccer team qualify for a major tournament and bomb? It's been happening for some time ...

Joe Gaetjens, the dishwasher who cleaned out England in Belo Horizonte in 1950

The other morning my 11-year-old son was telling me he read something on Instagram about the USA beating England in soccer once. Was this true, he asked me, incredulously.

Yes, in the World Cup of 1950, in Brazil, I told him, his eyes still not convinced. For me, it’s just one of those never-forgotten facts picked up as a kid devouring soccer magazines like Shoot and Goal. A shock to beat all shocks, mighty England brought down by a bunch of part-timers in Belo Horizonte. Like something out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Impossible but true.

Even the name of the United States’ goalscorer, Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian dishwasher, as I informed my son, is saved to my memory’s hard-drive.

My son couldn’t get his head around it: England beaten by the USA minnows. So the legend goes.

Despite witnessing with his own already discerning eyes England’s latest comeuppance, in the Euros just gone by, my son, just like me as a kid, is still buying the age old guff about England being the sleeping giants of the game, just one good manager away from repeating the immortal feat of Alf Ramsey and the boys back in 1966.

Is it any wonder other countries, not just their wild colonial conquests, revel in seeing them lose? Not something I share actually, as I loved England doing well in the  1990 World Cup –  Nessun Dorma and Gazza’s tears equally unforgettable –  and the 1996 Euros, when football came coming home. Seeing those familiar faces and them doing well made for a much richer viewing experience.

I can still effortlessly summon up the fevered  build-up to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the first big tournament I would follow on TV. Collecting those Esso World Cup coins – “not Jack Charlton again! – and feeding on the words of Bobby Moore in his weekly column in Shoot, and devouring the reports and stories in every newspaper or magazine I could get my hands on. England was dreaming and victory was a forgone conclusion.

Even Johnny Foreigner’s sleazy efforts to stitch up Moore for allegedly robbing a bracelet in Bogota weeks before the big kick-off only made them even more determined to win. Sure didn’t they  win the war on their own every week in the Victor comic?  

We all know what happened, of course. Not that they went down easy, with many convinced England would have beaten old foes West Germany  in that fateful quarter-final if Gordon Banks hadn’t gone down with food poisoning and poor old Peter Bonetti let in those awful goals as a 2-0 lead became a 3-2 defeat.

Still the hype machine rattles on, swelling England’s qualifying progress from easy groups into a tsunami of anxious expectation, followed by the inevitable crash against the rocks of public opprobrium. Maybe one day, with realistic expectations, a decent manager, and players in real form, not puffed-up UTV pundit form, their fans might witness an actual Belo Horizonte, or beautiful horizon. Maybe in my son’s time.

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