England easily made it through the group stage of the World Cup, and having lost to Belgium in its final group-stage match will play Colombia next in the round of 16.
On this day (June 29) 68 years ago, however, things could not have gone worse for the English.
In 1950, England suffered a World Cup upset on par with Germany’s 7-1 drubbing of Brazil in 2014 and North Korea’s defeat of Italy in 1966. The US national team—currently watching the World Cup from home, having crashed out of qualifying with a loss to Trinidad and Tobago—beat mighty England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The English were favorites to win the tournament; the US were 500-1 underdogs.
The American team was a ragtag collection of amateur soccer players whose day jobs included mailman and teacher—reminiscent of this year’s Icelandic team, which features a coach who moonlights as a dentist (paywall) and a goalkeeper who works as a filmmaker.
In 1950, England and the US were drawn in a group with Spain and Chile, and under FIFA rules at the time, only the top team from each group advanced to the next round. The US lost its first match to Spain 3-1 (after taking a 1-0 lead), and England beat Chile 2-0.
“We were still feeling pretty good about ourselves, because we had really scared the hell out of Spain,” Harry Keough, the right-back for the American team, told FIFA. “We certainly didn’t entertain any ideas we were going to beat (England), you know, but we figured we could give them a battle for it.” When he wasn’t appearing in international soccer tournaments, Keough was a letter carrier in St. Louis.
England dominated the first half in terms of possession and shots on target, but in the 37th minute, Haiti-born center forward Joe Gaetjens scored for the US. The Americans clung to the lead and the rest is history. In its match report the next day, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the result a bigger upset than Sweden’s defeat of Italy or Switzerland’s draw with Brazil in the same tournament. So unfathomable was the score that the New York Times thought that the wire report of the game was a hoax.
Neither England nor the US, however, advanced to the next round of the 1950 tournament—which was won by Uruguay. The US did not qualify for another World Cup until 1990. Since that first meeting in 1950, the US has beat England one other time, in a fairly meaningless tournament in 1993—it has lost seven times and drawn once.
The US victory in 1950 received only a muted response back home. Not all of the American players, however, receded into a quiet life after that victory. Gaetjens, who scored the winning goal, returned to Haiti later to coach soccer, but he and his family soon became embroiled in the chaos of the Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime. Under Duvalier, tens of thousands of opposition supporters were killed—including members of Gaetjens’ family, and Gaetjens himself, who was held in a prison notorious for torture, according to the BBC, citing Gaetjens’ son. The exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, but shortly after Duvalier’s death Gaetjens’ wife received confirmation that her husband had been murdered.
Keough, who continued to coach soccer after the 1950 World Cup, died in 2012 (paywall) in St. Louis at the age of 84. He was inducted into the US National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976, along with other members of the 1950 team. “They didn’t ever dream we could beat them,” he said of the famous upset against England. “Neither did we, for that matter.”