The 2010 World Cup draw has revived US interest in a meeting with England 60 years ago, as Ian Plenderleith reports

In an era when English football seems to carelessly treat its pre-1992 history as an embarrassment that only serves to complicate clean-cut Premier League records, the United States is paradoxically looking to resurrect a past that will help it to feel more accepted in the global game. Unfortunately for the US, that past largely consists of a single game – the 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup.

When the two countries were drawn in the same group for South Africa, it was anticipated that levels of trans-continental banter – powered by that special love-hate relationship based almost entirely on mutual misconceptions – were going to soar to unprecedented heights of mild amusement. This duly kicked off when Hugh Grant, the most talented actor ever at portraying someone who’s just soiled his pants, appeared as a guest on the Daily Show, hosted by football-loving, left-leaning comedian Jon Stewart.

Grant claimed “there was a horrible moment in 1962 when I think you beat us” only to be told that the game was 12 years earlier. “It’s the one thing we have in soccer,” said Stewart. “We have to get it right.” Grant made a feeble jibe about football being “a little girls’ game” in the US before they moved on to plug his latest execrable film.

Stewart is not entirely correct that this is the only event worth mentioning in the history of the US national team, which advanced to the semi-finals of the 1930 World Cup after winning a group of three and then losing 6-1 to Argentina. That means the country has reached only one fewer World Cup semi-final than England. Yet the 1950 victory is the game that US fans and journalists understandably clamoured to mention after the draw. Hacks beat a path to the door of Walter Bahr, one of the team’s surviving members and a US captain of that era. “The older I get, the more famous I become,” the 82-year-old remarked drily.

The same applies to the game itself. There was only one US reporter at the game in 1950 and he had paid his own way to get there. The game was almost completely ignored by the home press and only since the South African draw has it enjoyed coverage in the mainstream media, 59 years late. A 2005 US-made film, based on the book The Game Of Their Lives, was a stillborn flop, costing $20 million (£12m) to make, and earning less than $400,000 worldwide.

It would be a shame if the movie undergoes a revival in the run-up to the competition, because it plays extremely loose with the truth, criminally portraying Stan Mortensen as an arrogant, upper-class snob in the spurious interests of plot tension. It also fabricated a hackneyed patriotic sendoff ceremony for the US team at an air force base and relieved Scotsman Hugh McIlvenny of the captaincy, restoring it to Bahr. In fact Bahr had agreed to give up the captaincy to McIlvenny for the day, at the behest of coach Bill Jeffrey (also a Scot), precisely because England were the opponents.

Why is this important? Because the film glosses over the fact that the greatest victory in US football history was engineered with the help of two Scots and a Belgian (Joe Maca), although it can’t avoid the fact that the winning goal was scored by a Haitian, Joe Gaetjens, who would not qualify to play for the country under current FIFA regulations. This is not to denigrate the team’s astonishing achievement but serves rather to explain why the game remained hidden from America’s sporting consciousness for more than half a century – football was simply a foreign game played by migrants. Now football is deemed less foreign and on its slow but relentless path to widespread acceptance in the US, the belated and slightly desperate search for a history throws up nothing much besides this freak result achieved by a team that most Americans at the time would not have deemed truly “American”.

Bahr called the game “ancient history. You want to honour it but you don’t want to live in it.” Banter aside, US football will have to follow Bahr’s advice and concentrate on the task ahead. The team’s quarter-final showing in the 2002 tournament and last year’s victory over Spain in the Confederations Cup were far more substantive milestones in the country’s football progress.

“History is merely a list of surprises,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote. “It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” Further surprises should be the main aim of Bob Bradley’s team, up until the point where outsiders and sceptical US sports fans cease to be surprised. Its brittle history would be bolstered many times over if the US doubled their World Cup stats against England to played two, won two. When they make the film, I nominate Hugh Grant to play uppity ex-Etonian Wayne Rooney.

From WSC 276 February 2010

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