Nights of the underdog

The United States stunning England in Brazil '50 and North Korea shocking Italy in England '66 must rank at the top of any World Cup upsets list, writes Gulu Ezekiel

Football's greatest festival, the FIFA World Cup, has produced plenty of surprise results ever since it was launched in Uruguay in 1930. Fans could debate for hours on the biggest upset of them all. But, surely, the United States stunning England in 1950 and North Korea shocking Italy in 1966 must rank at the top of any list.

England, which had given birth to the game, stayed away from the first three editions of the World Cup in 1930, 1934 and 1938 due to a dispute with FIFA, the world body. But when the championship was revived in 1950 following World War II, the English started as one of the favourites for the title. Italy, the holders, and hosts Brazil were also favoured.

England had in their ranks the peerless Stanley Matthews as well as other star performers in captain Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen and Tom Finney. Spain, Chile and the United States were the other teams in the group and England started off confidently, beating Chile 2-0 in their opening match at Rio. Spain meanwhile recovered from the shock of conceding an early goal to get past the US 3-1.

England and the US then travelled to Belo Horizonte where the match — most experts considered it a mismatch — was played four days after their respective opening encounters.

As the English squad flew over the mountains to cross from Rio to Belo, Wright commented to teammate Jimmy Dickinson that Brazil must have more surprises for the traveller than any other country. He could hardly have guessed what a surprise lay in store for him and his team on June 29!

The Americans were happy to dismiss their own chances, being a motley bunch of players gathered from around the football world and given barely 10 days to prepare for the event. They partied late into the night, convinced they stood no chance against one of the game's acknowledged masters. Captain Wright would insist that they did not take their opponents lightly. Many of the American players had shown great promise during the Olympics in London two years earlier.

England virtually camped in the rival half coming close on a number of occasions to scoring. But Frank Borghi under the US bar kept them at bay. Then, eight minutes before the break came the goal that stunned the world of football.

Walter Bahr's kick from 25 yards found the head of Joe Gaetjens and the header — whether it was deliberate or just a lucky deflection is still disputed after all these years — went past goalkeeper Williams into the net. Bahr himself 50 years later described the goal as "lucky." "We were surprised, although not upset," Wright recalled in his 1956 autobiography titled Captain of England. The scoreline at half-time amazingly showed US 1 and England 0. Surely England would bounce back in the second half.

That was not to be, though once again there were chances galore for the English forwards including a disallowed `goal' by Mortensen. He claimed it had cleared the goalline only for it to be whipped back into play before the referee could spot it.

Though England pressed desperately for the equaliser, the Americans too had their chances and close to the end of the match Alf Ramsey was forced to clear the ball off the line. As the whistle sounded, the handful of American supporters present at the ground surged onto the field and carried their heroes off on their shoulders. "To be defeated by the United States at football was like the MCC being beaten by Germany at cricket!" was how Wright summed up the upset. "Over-anxiousness proved our biggest enemy as the minutes ticked away, and this, probably as much as anything, played a big part in the most humiliating defeat English football has ever suffered."

That remains the case even after 55 years and while the defeat created a sensation back home in the UK, for the triumphant Americans their feat barely merited a paragraph in their own newspapers.

Both the sides lost their next group match and made their exits from the tournament, which would be won by Uruguay. The Haitian-born Gaetjens moved back to playing for his own country where he was murdered by the State police in 1964. Only a handful of the Americans, including Bahr, survive today. The extraordinary match was the basis for a feature film released last year titled The Game of Their Lives.

That was also to be the name of a documentary released in 2002, which focused on the lives of the North Korean players who in England in 1966 had scripted that other great World Cup upset. Little was known about the `Hermit Kingdom' and the Koreans were still in a state of war with the West when they became the first Asian nation to qualify for the finals.

Despite the hostilities, the Koreans with their refreshing style of play became favourites of Middlesbrough where they played their group matches. But after being beaten 3-1 by the Soviet Union and drawing 1-1 with Chile, it looked like the end of the road when they came face to face with Italy.

The Italians too had lost their previous match to the Soviet Union, though a win against Chile meant their hopes of advancing were very much alive. The former champions certainly took their opponents lightly and paid a heavy price for their cockiness. Three minutes before half-time, Park Doo Ik tackled Rivera, raced forward and beat goalkeeper Albertosi with a searing shot. That would be the only goal of the match.

The Italians returned home humiliated, met by a volley of tomatoes and abuse from their furious fans. To this day, memories of the defeat rankle in this proud football nation with a glorious history of achievements.

The Koreans had by now become the darlings of all England and stunningly led by three goals within the first 25 minutes in the quarterfinal against Portugal. The Liverpool crowd were roaring them on as another huge surprise looked imminent. Then Portugal's magician Eusebio struck with four goals as the Koreans were finally beaten 5-3. The British documentary team were the first from the West allowed into North Korea. They found the coach and seven survivors from that famous squad. The fate of the rest of the players remained a mystery.

Park, one of the heroes of 1966, was originally a painter but was now an advisor with the Sosan football team in the capital Pyongyang. His son and grandson also followed him into football. In the documentary Park recalled with warmth how the crowds had backed the team. "They waved our flag, they clapped. I am convinced the attitude of the crowd affected our games."

There is nothing to link the United States team of 1950 and the North Koreans of 1966 save for the fighting spirit of the underdog that prevailed.

Germany 2006 could well provide more shocks and sensations. But football lovers will always have a special place in their hearts for these two unheralded teams.