At least Rob Green can laugh about it now. “I was doing the school run when I found out England had drawn USA in their group at the World Cup,” the former goalkeeper wrote in the Mail on Sunday this week. “I had just enough time to send one tweet, with one emoji, a pair of eyes. As if to say: ‘Well this is awkward.’”
But despite his blunder that helped the United States hold Fabio Capello’s side to a 1-1 draw in their opening match in 2010, Green – who is working as a pundit for BBC radio in Qatar – is not the only England goalkeeper to have bitter memories of facing them at a World Cup.
A few months before that last meeting at a World Cup, 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. It’s taken a lot of forgetting as far as I am concerned.”
Despite being more than 72 years in the past, that victory in Belo Horizonte is acknowledged as one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history. Stanley Matthews later said: “I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t been a part of it,” having been controversially left out of the starting lineup after missing England’s opening game against Chile.
Even though they reached the semi-finals of the inaugural World Cup in 1930, it was the first time the United States had faced England, who were highly fancied as they featured Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen. By contrast, all of the US team were amateurs while their goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, was a former baseball player who needed his defenders to take the goal-kicks because he never kicked the ball.
However, an inspired performance from Borghi – who drove a hearse for his day job – somehow managed to keep England at bay. “For the first 20 minutes, England were all over us. I think they hit the woodwork,” said the USA’s Walter Bahr in an interview with the Guardian in 2010. “As the game went on, England began to get desperate.”
The winning goal, in the 38th minute, was scored by Joe Gaetjens – a Haiti-born dishwasher from New York who went on to play professionally in France – even if there remains a debate if he meant it. “It should have been 10-1,” Williams said in 2009. “The American team turned up wearing sombreros, smoking cigars and they only had about six kicks of the ball in 90 minutes. Unfortunately, one of them took a big deflection and wrongfooted me for the winning goal.”
His memory has been disputed by several American players, including Bahr, who took the shot. “He didn’t get a clean head at it, but he definitely made a concerted effort,” Bahr said. “Joe was a guy who had a nose for the goal. He scored goals where you didn’t know how he got to the ball, let alone scored the goals.”
Gaetjens’s life ended in tragedy after being arrested in Haiti, in July 1964, by the Tonton Macoute, the militia of the dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He was never seen again.
Only two members of the American side – Bahr and the defender Harry Keough – faced England in their next meeting, three years later in a friendly at Yankee Stadium in New York. A few months before they suffered defeat by the same scoreline against Hungary, two goals from Nat Lofthouse sealed a 6-3 win for the visitors. It was the start of a series of one-sided contests including a 10-0 thumping 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 apiece from Gary Lineker and Kerry Dixon sealed a 5-0 win for England. But with the USA having failed until 1990 to qualify for the World Cup after their exploits in Brazil, the 2-0 win over Graham Taylor’s side in the US Cup a year before the 1994 tournament on home soil was the springboard for making it through the group stages for the first time since 1930.
The match in Boston also included Paul Ince becoming England’s first black captain, a significant moment the midfielder later said led to him being sent “letters from people who weren’t even into football”. “They’d written to me saying, ‘We have got kids who come from the kind of background you’ve come from. You captaining the country is a shining light for our children.’”
Alan Shearer’s double did for Bora Milutinovic’s side on their first visit to Wembley in September 1994 and the United States have still 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 Green and the story of Belo Horizonte, Jordan Pickford should be wary of taking anything for granted this time around.