1950: The Game Of Their Lives And The More Interesting Story

Two weeks ago I watched “The Game of Their Lives” (distributed on DVD as “The Miracle Match”, but I will go by the original title) about the United States Football Team’s shock victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.  As a fan of the World Football Phone-In, it was great to see Tim Vickery on screen (and I guess also Sean Wheelock, although his role was kind of unnecessary.)  The movie is mediocre, and got quite a bit wrong–particularly the insulting “noble savage” image of Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian national who scored the winning goal (Voodoo?  Really?).  Because this is Hollywood, the English had to be made into villains.  The character assassination of poor Stan Mortensen (portrayed by Gavin Rossdale) would be laughable if it were not outright slanderous.

The United States team’s upset of England in 1950 was epic.  As I mentioned in a previous post, even when I knew nothing about the beautiful game, I knew about this victory.  However, the match was no Miracle on Ice.  For one thing, the Americans lost their other two group matches and finished at the bottom of the group.  For another, despite its magnitude, the upset did nothing in the long term for football in America.  The United States would not return to the World Cup for 40 years.

The United States actually had performed well at the World Cup before 1950.  The Americans placed third at the first World Cup in 1930.  Granted there were at least five or six Brits on the 1930 squad (mostly expatriate Scots.)  And also granted almost all of Europe’s strongest teams did not participate.  That should not however, take away from the fact that the United States was at one time, very much a participant in the world’s game.  Despite what The Game of Their Lives would have its audience believe, the 1950 United States squad was not some makeshift team of players with no international experience (or knowledge of the World Cup) called up a week before the tournament started.  In 1950, just as today, national squads have to qualify for the World Cup.  Some of the players had represented the United States at the 1948 Olympics.  This is not to say that the Americans were of the same caliber as the rest of the world.  It just means that the movie tried too hard to make the 1950 team like the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team by underplaying the Americans’ experience.

As I mentioned above, the movie turned Stan Mortensen into a pantomime villain.  In the movie Mortensen toasts to the American squad after playing them (and beating them) while on an exhibition tour in the United States with a team of players not good enough to make the England squad.  Mortensen’s “toast” was a barely disguised put down of Americans for being too stupid to appreciate the subtleties of football and cricket.  This scene is meant to rouse the patriotic fervor in the (American) audience and to reward with the satisfaction of Mortensen’s and England’s inevitable fall.  Here is the biggest problem with Mortensen’s toast: it never happened and it never would.  First, it never happened because Mortensen was not in the United States for that exhibition tour.  Second, Mortensen, who was born into a working-class family in a town near Newcastle upon Tyne, would never have given that speech even if he had the opportunity.

The movie beats its audience over the head with the fact that Stan Mortensen was the greatest player of the century if not all time.  This was simply not true.  Mortensen was undoubtedly a great English player.  He is to date the only player ever to score a hat trick in an FA Cup final (when his Blackpool team beat Bolton Wanderers in 1953.)  However, the movie conflated Mortensen with Sir Stanley Matthews, who was one of the greatest early players of the game.  It was Matthews who went on tour with that England B Team that beat the United States (although Matthews did not play that day.)

Stanley Matthews is a towering figure in English football.  Although he won exactly one major prize (the 1953 FA Cup), he is one of England’s greatest players.  So great and so beloved was Matthews that the 1953 FA Cup final is called “The Matthews Final” despite the fact that Mortensen scored that hat trick, and they both played for Blackpool.  Matthews was also known as one of the true gentlemen of the game.

So why did the movie basically ignore almost all existence of Sir Stanley Matthews?  Probably the main reason is that he did not play in the England/US match.  The movie makes exactly one mention of Matthews–the Americans find out that he is not playing because he is still in Rio de Janeiro (i.e. the match was not important enough to make the trip out to Belo Horizonte.)  Matthews actually was in Belo Horizonte for the match; he did not play for tactical reasons–a managerial mistake in hindsight.  Because the movie needed to play up the greatness of the English, the filmmakers could simply not acknowledge that England’s greatest player sat out.

The movie also overdid the whole “England are the greatest team in the world” bit (something the British press continues to do before every World Cup.)  Certainly England were among the bookmakers’ favorites.  The Brazilian crowd also feared England, and rooted for the Americans in the hopes that England would not advance.  But the truth is by 1950, the rest of the world had long since passed England (the only reason England did not realize it was because they always readymade excuses for losses–usually the weather.)  The loss to the Americans was humiliating, but did not change England’s view of itself.  England lost to Spain in the next match, thus ensuring they did not qualify for the next round.

The real dismantling of England’s inflated self-image came when Hungary’s Golden Team mauled the Three Lions at Wembly three years later.  With that loss, and the even more humiliating 7-1 loss to the Hungarians in Budapest in 1954, even the English had to admit they were bested.  They could not blame the heat for their shortcomings anymore (although it does continue to a popular myth to this day to explain why England underperform.)

The Americans and the English remember the 1950 World Cup for their encounter.  The rest of the world however, remembers 1950 for a far more dramatic and interesting match–the Maracanazo, the final contested by Brazil and Uruguay.  All Brazil needed to do to win the tournament was draw Uruguay (technically it was not the final because it was a round-robin match, but it was the de facto final as well as the last match of the tournament.)  Brazil expected to win.  The home crowd and the media expected the team to win.  The match was held in the Maracanã, the giant football stadium in Rio de Janeiro built specifically for the World Cup.  The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, before the match began, exalted the Brazilian team, calling them the victors.  The Uruguayans were so nervous that allegedly one team member wet himself during the pre-match lineup.

In the real biggest upset of 1950, Uruguay won the match 2-1.  The loss devastated the host nation.

The Maracanazo (“Maracanã blow”) was a national tragedy that haunted Brazil’s collective psyche.  The  Maracanã held somewhere around 200,000 people, maybe more, and some fans committed suicide following the loss.  The Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues made the following (overwrought) comparison: “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”  Ironically, the second place finish in 1950 was Brazil’s best World Cup result to that date.

The loss deeply affected the Brazilians; to an extent they are still haunted by the Maracanazo.  God help the 2014 team if they do not win the World Cup, which will be held in Brazil.  The Maracanazo is still considered to be the saddest day in the country’s history (in that sense Brazil is fortunate; it never had a destructive war on home soil.)  Following the loss, the Brazilian people looked inward and tried to figure out why their national team could not beat Uruguay–the idea that Uruguay was better or played more effectively never seemed to come up.  They conveniently forgot that their team had won the South American Championships the year before and beat Uruguay 5-1.

The Maracanazo was proof, or so the Brazilians claimed, that they an inferior race because of their multi-racial makeup.*  Racism became the subtext of the loss.  Three players were blamed above all others: the defender Juvenal, the left-half Bigode, and more than anyone else, the goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa.  All three were black.  The cruelty that was displayed toward Barbosa is, I believe, unparalleled in football. Barbosa was turned in a national scapegoat, a Dostoyevskyan punishment; he became an outcast and a pariah, not just from football, but from society.  Twenty years after the match, a woman in a shop spotted Barbosa and told her son (in front of the former goalkeeper) that Barbosa was “the man that made all of Brazil cry.”  Even as late as 1993, he was not let near the national team’s training camp because he was thought of as a jinx–Barbosa had not been forgiven even after Brazil won three World Cup titles (and was en route to a fourth).

Race is a complicated subject in football, especially in Brazil.  Because of 1950, general consensus held that blacks were not able to be goalkeepers (Dida was the first truly great black Brazilian goalkeeper to appear on the international scene after 1950.)  Black sports players in Brazil had, to that point, had a far easier path than in most other countries.  When football began in Brazil it was all white.  Slowly mixed-race players began to trickle through, although they were looked down upon.  The first great Brazilian footballer of note of any color, Arthur Friedenreich, was the son of a German businessman and a black washerwoman (herself a daughter of freed slaves, slavery having been abolished in the Kingdom of Brazil in 1888.)  Friedenreich used brillantine to flatten his hair.  Another mixed-race player who played for the club Fluminense whitened his face with rice powder (rice powder is still associated with Fluminense to this day.)  The Portuguese club Vasco da Gama was the first to open up its doors to black and mulatto players without reservation.  Following Vasco’s success in the early 1920’s the other clubs were forced to open up their doors too.  Once the doors were opened, black and mulatto players became integral to Brazilian club sides and the national team.  (For American audiences, this is well before Jackie Robinson.)

Following the 1950 World Cup, it was deemed that the national kit (white with blue trim) was not patriotic enough.  A contest was held for new designs.  The winner was a young man named Aldyr Garcia Schlee, who ironically preferred Uruguay over Brazil.  Nevertheless, the kit he designed (yellow jersey with green trim, blue shorts with white stripes, white socks) is the iconic uniform that Brazil still wear today.**

Despite the change in kit, Brazil actually had a worse showing at the 1954 World Cup.  They lost to Hungary’s Golden Team (4-2) in a match so ugly and violent it is known as “The Battle of Berne.”  Not until 1958 in Sweden did Brazil finally won their first World Cup.***  Brazil introduced the world to Jogo Bonito and to the nation’s two greatest players: Pelé, and Garrincha.  Pelé, who witnessed his father crying after the Maracanazo, swore that one day he would win the World Cup.  The 1958 side is possibly the greatest national side ever assembled, maybe greater than even the 1970 side.  The Brazilians question of race in sport receded–Pelé was black and Garrincha was of indigenous descent.  With mixed raced teams, Brazil became the world’s preeminent footballing nation, and to date has won more World Cups than any other country.

Please think of this should you ever watch The Game of Their Lives.  You are getting the American (and English) story, but missing out on the more interesting one.


* The scapegoating of Barbosa, Juvenal, and Bigode, and the blame shifted to black players in general, was completely unwarranted.  Uruguay won international championships as far back as 1916 with squads that featured black players, including the great José Leandro Andrade.

** If you are interested in the Maracanazo and all the fallout in Brazil, and it is indeed a fascinating subject, read Alex Bellos’s book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life.  A whole chapter is devoted to that one final.  The book is brilliant.

*** Ironically, Brazil did not wear their famous kit in the 1958 final.  They played Sweden (the home team), and the Swedes wore their national colors: yellow and blue.  The world did not really see Brazil play in their full technicolor brilliance until the 1970 World Cup.