AAt least Rob Green can laugh about it now. “I did the school run when I found out England had drawn USA into their group at the World Cup,” the former goalkeeper wrote in the Mail on Sunday. “I had just enough time to tweet, with an emoji, a pair of eyes. Like to say, ‘Well, that’s awkward.’”
But despite his blunder that helped USA defeat Fabio Capello’s side in the opening game of 2010 in a 1-1 draw, Green – who works as a pundit for BBC radio in Qatar – is not the only England goalkeeper who has bitter memories of facing them at a World Cup.
A few months before that last World Cup meeting, Bert Williams, who conceded the only goal of the game when the two countries met in Brazil in 1950, said: “It’s been 60 years. As far as I’m concerned, it took a lot to forget.”
Although it’s been more than 72 years, this victory in Belo Horizonte is considered one of the biggest shocks in the history of the tournament. Stanley Matthews later said: “I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t been there” after being controversially left out of the starting XI after missing the opening game against Chile.
Despite reaching the semi-finals of the first World Cup in 1930, the United States met for the first time England, well-respected with Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen. In contrast, all US teams were amateurs, while their goalie, Frank Borghi, was a former baseball player who needed his defenders to take goal kicks because he never kicked the ball.
However, an inspired performance by Borghi – who drove a hearse for his job – somehow managed to keep England at bay. “In the first 20 minutes we were overwhelmed by England. I think they hit the wood,” said USA’s Walter Bahr in an interview with the Guardian ahead of the 2010 game. “As the game progressed, England began to despair.”
The decisive goal in the 38th minute was scored by Joe Gaetjens – a Haiti-born New York rags-to-riches player who went on to play professionally in France – although there is debate as to whether he meant it. “It should have been 10-1,” Williams said in 2009. “The American team came in with sombreros, smoking cigars and only had about six shots in 90 minutes. Unfortunately, one of them took a big rebound and wrong-footed me to the winning goal.”
His memory has been disputed by several American players, including Bahr, who took the shot. “He didn’t clear his head, but he definitely made a concerted effort,” he said. “Joe was a guy who had a nose for goal. He scored goals that you didn’t know how he got the ball off of, let alone scored the goals.”
Gaetjens’ life ended in tragedy after he was arrested in July 1964 in Haiti by Tonton Macoute, the militia of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He was never seen again.
Only two members of the American team – Bahr and defender Harry Keough – met England in their next meeting, three years later in a friendly at Yankee Stadium in New York. Two goals from Nat Lofthouse sealed the visitors’ 6-3 victory a few months before the tie defeat by Hungary. It was the start of a series of one-sided struggles, including a 10-0 win in 1964 as the United States struggled on the international stage.
The two countries did not meet again until 1985 in Los Angeles, when two goals from Gary Lineker and Kerry Dixon each sealed a 5-0 victory for England. But after USA’s successes in Brazil failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, a 2-0 win over Graham Taylor’s side in the US Cup a year before the 1994 tournament on home soil was the stepping stone to progress Group stage for the first time since 1930.
The Boston game also included Paul Ince becoming England’s first black captain. A significant moment, as the midfielder later said, resulted in him being “sent letters from people who didn’t even care about football”. “They had written to me and said, ‘We have children who come from the same background as you. That you are captain of the country is a shining light for our children.”
Alan Shearer’s double was achieved by Bora Milutinovic’s side on their first visit to Wembley in September 1994, and the United States have yet to score in three visits to London – most recently in a 3-0 defeat in November 2018. But after Clint Dempsey’s goal in Rustenburg embarrassed by Green and the history of Belo Horizonte, Jordan Pickford should be careful this time around not to take anything for granted.