You can forgive American fans for forgetting that the United States played more than one game at the 1950 World Cup. The glare of the victory over England tends to blot out everything else.
There was more, however: An unmemorable game against Chile and one against Spain that deserves to be remembered far more than it is. On paper, it looks like a fairly routine 3-1 defeat, but it was far from routine.
England had every reason to be confident at this World Cup. They had been the kings of the sport for decades, if uncrowned ones, since they had chosen not to enter the first three World Cups. So their defeat by the United States in Belo Horizonte on June 29, 1950 came as a major shock, but it probably was less so to anybody who had been paying attention when the United States played Spain in Curitiba four days earlier.
The United States actually led Spain for longer than it did England. In Belo Horizonte, the Americans led for 53 minutes, from Joe Gaetjens’ goal in the 37th minute until the final whistle. In Curitiba, they led for 62 minutes, from Gino Pariani’s goal in the 18th minute until Spain finally equalized in the 80th.
The United States fielded nearly all of the same team against Spain that it did four days later against England. The only difference was at one of the forward spots, where Adam Wolanin played against Spain but was replaced by Ed Souza for the England game. The rest were the same, goalkeeper Frank Borghi; defenders Harry Keough and Joe Maca; midfielders Charlie Colombo, Walter Bahr and Ed McIlvenny; and forwards John Souza, Joe Gaetjens, Frank Wallace and Pariani.
Spain was one of the top teams in the world in 1950, and eventually finished fourth in that World Cup, but the Americans outplayed the Spaniards for the first half. The goal that gave them the lead came when Pariani first-timed a low cross from the right and put it into the net from just outside the penalty area.
After halftime, Spain took control of the play, but the Americans hung on, just as they later did while holding their one-goal lead against England. The dream of an upset ended in the 80th minute. Colombo hesitated momentarily as the ball appeared to be rolling out of bounds, but a Spanish player got to it in time to cross for Silvestre Igoa to score with a header. That broke whatever spell the Americans had held over their opponents. Two minutes later, Estanislao Basora gave Spain the lead, and three minutes after that Telmo Zarra added the final goal.
It was a big one that got away, and it has been mostly forgotten in the glare of the bigger one that didn’t get away four days later. However, it should have served as a warning to the English that their meeting with the Americans in Belo Horizonte wasn’t going to be a stroll in the park.
A version of this article first appeared at Roger’s blog at Big Soccer in August, 2010