RUSTENBURG, South Africa (AP) — When they emerged victorious the last time, they wound up calling it “The Game of Their Lives.”
Once-unknown players have spent a lifetime reliving memories of that unexpected night in Belo Horizonte, when the United States rose up and defeated mighty England in the World Cup.
Sixty years removed and 4,449 miles from that stadium in Brazil, the nations finally meet again Saturday in a game that matters, a rematch in this year’s World Cup opener for both teams.
Once again, England is stocked with the talented and the wealthy, carrying the hopes of long-suffering supporters who still believe even though 44 years have passed since the Three Lions’ last and only World Cup title.
And while the Americans are no longer obscure, and many have gained experience with the very Premier League clubs that produced England’s stars, they remain outsiders, eager to earn the respect of not only the soccer powers but of a skeptical public back home.
So, in refurbished Royal Bafokeng Stadium, in the open savannah bushveld near platinum mines and game parks filled with elephants and baboons, soccer’s English-speaking power and English-speaking upstart face off for pride, and more importantly, three points toward reaching the second round.
“We believe we’re going to win,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Friday night. “It’s said with no disrespect to our opponent. We certainly know that it will take a strong, strong effort on our part.”
Far, far away from home, the setting is most unusual. This is the first World Cup match for the Americans in the southern hemisphere since that trip to Brazil ended with a 5-2 loss to Chile. On Friday, the U.S. bus was blocked twice when leaving the team hotel, the Bakubung Bush Lodge, and it wasn’t exactly because of traffic.
“It was cool,” American captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “A big elephant was just eating, I think, on the path.”
For England, the U.S. seems to be sort of a generic opponent, like the teams that lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. During coach Fabio Capello’s nine-minute prematch news conference, there was not a single reference to the Americans. While England is ranked eighth in the world and the U.S. 14th, it might as well be first and 207th.
“We are sure that we go forward in this competition,” Capello said.
Americans like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard have succeeded in the fast-paced English club game. And last year they finished second in the Confederations Cup, beating African champion Egypt 3-0 in this very stadium and before defeating European champion Spain 2-0 in the semifinal.
“The USA are very hard working — very fit and physical,” England captain Steven Gerrard said. “They will be trying to deny us time and space on the ball. They know we have quality on the ball. We are expecting to be pressed really quickly. I’m sure it will be a good physical battle.”
There was no live broadcast in the United States of the 1950 game. Indeed, when the initial account came across, some assumed it was a mistake and that the English had won 10-0 or 10-1.
But, as was celebrated in a movie, the U.S. won 1-0 on a 38th-minute goal by Joe Gaetjens, a Haitan immigrant who wasn’t even an American citizen, so lax were the rules of that era. Gaetjens disappeared in 1964, presumed killed in Haiti by forces of dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
American players who triumphed, like Walter Bahr, Harry Keough and goalkeeper Frank Borghi, have gained increased prominence.
“I say the older I get, the more famous I become,” Bahr said. “I wasn’t for famous for 50 years.”
Just one U.S. reporter made the journey in 1950, Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who paid his own way to South America. This time, there will be a live telecast on ABC starting at 2:30 p.m. EDT, and viewing parties were scheduled across the country, with stadiums opening for live screenings in Chester, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; Frisco, Texas; Harrison, N.J.; and Sandy, Utah.
FIFA told the U.S. Soccer Federation that 8,000 American fans purchased tickets, 2,000 more than English supporters, and groups such as Sam’s Army and American Outlaws were expected to fill the 38,646-capacity stadium with sections of red, white and blue.
Following the 1950 tournament, the Americans failed to reach the World Cup again for 40 years. Now they’re in for the sixth straight time.
Hopes were raised after they reached the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea in 2002, their best finish since the initial tournament in 1930. But they dropped out in the first round in Germany four years ago, and Bradley was hired to replace Bruce Arena as coach.
Grouped with England, Slovenia and Algeria, with the top two nations advancing, the U.S. faces its toughest opponent first. The Americans are 2-7 in head-to-head matchups, getting outscored 35-8. The other win was 2-0 in a 1993 exhibition at Foxborough, Mass.
Some of Bradley’s lineup decisions were unclear, although he did say Jozy Altidore had recovered from a sprained ankle to start at forward and Bocanegra will start on defense.
But would he start Oguchi Onyewu or Clarence Goodson in central defense with Jay DeMerit? Onyewu is coming off knee surgery last October and without a 90-minute match in eight months. Would Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu or Jose Torres start in central midfield with Michael Bradley?
And would Edson Buddle or Robbie Findley start up front with Altidore?
Stopping the speedy and strong yet tempestuous Wayne Rooney will be the key. The striker has 25 goals in 60 international appearances, giving England hope that it can win its first World Cup title since hosting the tournament in 1966.
The Americans have other ideas.
“Historically,” Donovan said, “it’s an incredible game.”
Associated Press Writer Genaro Armas in Boalsburg, Pa., contributed to this report.