One year later, Miracle of the Millennium still hurts

02 Sep, 2020 - 00:09 0 Views
One year later, Miracle of the Millennium still hurts

The Herald

Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
IT was the worst of times, the age of darkness and the spring of despair — a tale of two teams, one basking in the sunshine of positive global headlines, the other staggering in the mist of humiliation.

For Zimbabwean football, this was its Belo Horizonte moment.

A painful throwback to that day at the FIFA World Cup finals, in Brazil in 1950, when the rag-tag underdogs of the United States wrote one of the game’s greatest fairytales.

Somehow, a team which featured a high school teacher, a man who drove a hearse for his uncle’s funeral home, a number who delivered mail for a living and some dishwashers, found a way to catapult themselves into sport’s folklore.

One of the American players, Ben McLaughlin, was even forced to withdraw from the tournament because he couldn’t get time off from his workplace and was also planning to have a wedding.

Having featured in two matches, in 1948, when the Americans were thrashed 0-9 by Italy and 0-11 by Sweden, McLaughlin was probably right to believe their 1950 World Cup adventure was not worth the trip.

The team, which only trained on the eve of their departure to the World Cup, also featured three Haitians.

Their first game, in Brazil, would be against England, a team packed with professionals, widely regarded by many, back then, as the finest national football side in the world.

The English had won 23 matches, drawn three and lost only four games, in the post-World War II period, hammering the Italians 4-0 and destroying the Portuguese 10-0, in Lisbon, just two weeks before the World Cup.

England team manager, Walter Winterbottom, even rested his star forward, Stanley Matthews, to keep him fresh for the next battles.

But, when the two sides met at the Estadio Independencia, in Belo Horizonte, the Americans found a way to repel the English attack. Then, Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian citizen, who was a dishwasher in New York, struck the decisive blow for a 1-0 win for the underdogs.

It was, back then, considered the greatest upset in World Cup history.

“England arrived at their first FIFA World Cup in 1950 oozing confidence, tipped by many to ride the dazzling wing play of Stanley Matthews, to win the first tournament following the end of World War II,’’ FIFA recalled on their website.

“USA, on the other hand, made a long boat trip south to Brazil with a hopeful smattering of part-timers and were expected to do little more than make up the numbers.

“What happened on 29 June 1950 is still considered one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, when an unknown Haitian-born student, a dishwasher, a hearse driver and, no mean amount of good fortune enabled, David to fell Goliath.’’

The result was also so unexpected, across the Atlantic in England, the media back then, chose not to publish it, when the telegrams of the match reports started arriving, fearing there had been a mistake.

As far as they were concerned, the English had won 10-0 or 10-1 and, during transmission, there had been a typing error on the result of the match.

“We hit the post several times in the first-half and twice again in the second,’’ said England winger, Tony Finney. “They got the goal, an absolute fluke of a goal, and our heads dropped.

“We could have played them 100 times and beaten them comfortably on 99 occasions.”

Sixty nine years later, on the neutral fields of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, an identical band of part-timers produced the Miracle of the Millennium to win their first World Cup qualifier.

The Somalis, without a home, and ranked 202nd in the world, had lost a record run of 18 successive matches, and had never won a World Cup qualifier in their history.

Barred from playing at home, in Mogadishu, because of security concerns, the Ocean Stars were not expected to be any match to the Warriors.

However, amid the confusion within the Warriors camp, with reports claiming a number of regular players had been barred from featuring for the team for their role in the in-house chaos which blighted their stay in Egypt, the Somalis struck.

Anwar Sid Ali Shakunda headed home the only goal, three minutes from time, to give them victory, a 1-0 win that matched the result of the Americans against the English in that game in 1950, and a date with positive global headlines.

The Ocean Stars side had seven debutants, among their army of new players drawn from their huge immigrant communities in Europe and in the United States and Canada, and they were the lowest-ranked African side in the qualifiers.

One of them, centreback, Mohamud Ali, was a driving instructor in Manchester.

“It’s a giant-killing when you think about it,” he said. “It was very emotional, very emotional, just knowing that millions of people would be watching the game in every single corner of the world.’’

FIFA said it was the result which captured the imagination of the world.

“It’s the upset everyone has been talking about,’’ FIFA said on their official website. “The highest-ranked team in the first round of African preliminaries beaten by the lowest, as Somalia earned their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualifying win.’’

The statistics made miserable reading for the Warriors — there were 90 places, on the World Cup rankings, between them and the Ocean Stars, 10 years had passed, since the Somalis had won a match while 35 years had passed since the East Africans had last won an AFCON qualifier.

They had featured in 27 win-less matches, since beating Tanzania in January 2009, and they had suffered 18 straight defeats ahead of their battle against the Warriors.

This week, on Saturday, the clock will mark exactly one year since the Ocean Stars produced the Miracle of the Millennium.

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