World Cup History's Greatest Unsung Heroes
Maradona has nothing on these guys.
The World Cup is synonymous with players like Diego Maradona, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. Era-defining talents who steered their countries to world domination and gained God-like status along the way.
But you don't have to lift the trophy to be a World Cup legend. You don't even need to get out of the group stages, truth be told. It only takes one match, or one glorious moment, to lift your entire nation to unheralded heights.
We've rounded up some unsung football figures who managed to shock the world, but whose legacies have been unfairly lost outside of their own country. They might not be the men of a million YouTube montages, but they're heroes all the same.
Joe Gaetjens: England VS USA, 1950
Nobody gave the USA a chance. It was England, after all – the ‘Kings of Football’, the founders of the game and the clear favourites to win the 1950 World Cup. How could America’s hastily-assembled, part-time team of postmen, teachers and mill workers compete with Stanley Matthews and co?
Granted, it was England’s World Cup debut following a boycott over payment disputes, but they had a near-perfect international record and started off with a 2-0 win over Chile. The USA, on the other hand, had lost their last eight international matches by a combined score of 45-2 and only trained together once. Speaking before the group stage match, downhearted USA boss Bill Jeffrey described his players as “sheep ready to be slaughtered.”
The 500/1 outsiders were under the cosh from the first whistle in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, as England pummelled the post with shot after shot. But as the Three Lions’ frustration grew, so did America’s self-belief. In the 38th minute, midfielder Walter Bahr received the ball from a throw-in and unleashed a shot from 25-yards. England keeper Bert Williams managed to push it out, but only as far as Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian immigrant, student and part-time dishwasher, who rippled the net with a diving header. As the news of America’s surprise goal spread, thousands of Brazilians poured into the stadium to roar on the underdogs. England failed to fight back, and the USA’s 1-0 win went on to be known as ‘The Miracle Match’.
Nobody in America particularly cared about the result, and Gaetjens returned to his native Haiti to no fan fair after his team crashed out in the next round. He didn’t receive any awards, honours or newspaper space, and the US government ultimately refused to intervene when he was tragically imprisoned and killed in Haiti by the militia of dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier thirteen years later. “He thought the goal would protect him,” his niece, Mary Gaetjens, told The Guardian in 2010. “He was a national hero.” The US federation eventually agreed, inducted him into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.
Mario Americo: Brazil's secret weapon
When you think of Brazil’s legendary World Cup teams of the sixties and seventies, you conjure images of Pele holding the trophy aloft in green and gold. You certainly don’t picture Mario the masseuse and his trusty medical bag scurrying onto the pitch – but Brazil’s former physio more than deserves his place in the annals of Brazilian football history.
Known as pombo-correio (“carrier pigeon”) for his leather pouch, Mario Americo was an invaluable presence within the Brazilian national team throughout their period of era-defining dominance. He joined as a physio shortly after Brazil’s disastrous 1950 home tournament, known as the ‘Marazana Blow’, and his impact was felt at Switzerland '54 when he was sent on a reconnaissance mission to the Hungarian training ground, who were receiving plaudits for their trailblazing, attractive playing style. He learned that the Europeans were stretching before games, and the Brazilian national team immediately took up their own regime of ‘alongamento’ on his advice. Not that it did much good at the time, mind. Brazil lost 4-2, had two players sent off and started a punch-up with the Hungarians after the final whistle.
Still, Americo emerged as a strong, trusted leader and was pivotal four years later in Brazil’s triumphant 1958 campaign in Sweden, where manager Vicente Feola used to send him on to the pitch to issue tactical instructions under the guise of his physio work.
His most glorious moment came after Brazil’s win over Sweden in the final, when he stole the match ball away from the French referee Maurice Guigue as he was walking off the pitch. Security gave chase, but they couldn’t stop him from swapping the balls and ensuring that the Brazilian national team could hold onto it forever. He ultimately took part in seven World Cups, three of which Brazil won, before embarking on a career in politics in Sao Paulo.
Pak Doo-ik: North Korea VS Italy, 1966
Take a wander around the Turnstile housing estate in Middlesbrough, and you might just stumble across a piece of bona fide World Cup history: cast-iron stud prints, marking the exact spot where North Korean striker Pak Doo-ik became a legend.
In place of the estate back then was Ayersome Park, Middlesbrough’s home ground for 92 years and the scene of a group stage match between Italy and North Korea. The communist state were almost banned from the tournament, thanks to their lack of diplomatic relations with the UK following the Korean War, but the FA relented on the condition that their national anthem was replaced with another song before games.
Italy might not have been the globe-conquering powerhouse they once were, but the idea of crashing out to North Korea was still inconceivable. They possessed five Inter Milan players who won consecutive European Cups in the preceding years, and they only needed a draw to advance to the next round.
North Korea might not have had Gli Azzurri’s quality, but they’d won the support of the locals, who took to the team thanks to their Middlebrough-esque red and white kits. They also trained at the city’s chemical works, where the 30,000-odd staff gathered to watch them play.
When the match began, fans were shocked to see North Korea take the game to the Italians. At the half-hour mark an injury to Bologna midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli left Italy with ten men (substitutes weren’t allowed back then, bafflingly), and Kim Il-Sung’s boys made their extra man count 12 minutes later when Pak Doo-Ik found himself through on goal. The 24-year-old cooly slotted it away. Italy couldn’t muster a comeback, and North Korea pulled off one of the most astonishing World Cup wins ever.
Pak returned to Middlesbrough with the victorious North Korean squad in 2002, and spoke of the great affection he has for the city. “It was the day I learnt football is not all about winning," Pak, who went on to become an army corporal and gymnastics instructor, told the Guardian. "When I scored that goal the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace."
Pickles the Dog: World Cup 1966
On 20 March 1966, four months before England was set to host its first World Cup, the Jules Rimet Trophy was swiped from an exhibition in Westminster.
The thief only had eyes for the famous prize, and actually swerved over £3 million-worth of stamps to steal it. Not long after, Chelsea chairman Joe Mears received a £15,000 ransom demand in the post, asking for the full amount in £1 and £5 notes, alongside a piece of lining from the trophy.
The police didn’t have a hard time tracking him down – Edward Betchley, a petty thief and former soldier, walked right into a set-up and was duly arrested – but finding the trophy would be a whole different matter. Betchley refused to budge, claiming that he was just a middleman working for a thief known only as ‘The Pole’, but an unlikely hero stepped forward to save the day two days later.
Pickles, a four-year-old collie dog from Upper Norwood, South London, was digging around a garden hedge when he found a hunk of metal wrapped in newspaper. His own, David Corbett, walked over to find that, amazingly, it was the missing trophy.
He received a £5,000 reward for the find, but Pickles shot to international stardom. He appeared on Blue Peter and Magpie, and starred alongside Eric Sykes and June Whitefield in the 1966 film The Spy with a Cold Nose. He even shared the same agent as Spike Milligan.
Later that year, when England won the World Cup with a 4-2 victory over West Germany, Corbett carried his heroic dog to Kensington, where the players were celebrating their win out on a hotel balcony. When news reached the squad that Pickles had arrived, they brought him up to the room to hold him aloft, joined by their gleaming Jules Rimet.
From: Esquire UK