The road to Belo Horizonte

The United States' famous victory over England in the 1950 World Cup might not have been possible if it weren't for the efforts of Peter Matevich. Who? Nobody by that name played that day in Belo Horizonte. In fact, there was no Peter Matevich on the United States roster at that World Cup.

So who was Peter Matevich? He was a forward from the Slovak club of Chicago who was one of the six men who played for the United States in qualifying for that World Cup but who did not make the squad for the World Cup itself. He scored two goals in the United States' key qualifying victory.

It has to be said that on paper the United States' World Cup qualifying route in 1949 doesn't look particularly terrifying compared to the worrisome journeys of recent years. Only three teams were entered in what was then called the North American section of qualifying, Mexico, the United States and Cuba. Two of them were to qualify from the double-round-robin tournament. First place was generally conceded to Mexico, and would have been even if the tournament hadn't been played in Mexico City, so the United States' assignment was to beat Cuba for second place.This wasn't completely the cakewalk that it might sound like. Cuba had been in the previous World Cup, in 1938, upsetting Romania in the first round before being routed by Sweden in the quarterfinals, and it had beaten the United States in the previous North American Championships, in 1947. Even so, Cuba in Mexico City in 1949 was nowhere near as daunting as, for instance, Costa Rica at Saprissa or Jamaica at The Office are today.

The United States began on Sept. 4 with a 6-0 defeat against Mexico that was watched by a crowd of 65,000, the second largest the United States had ever played before. Mexico took 22 minutes before Nino Flores scored the first goal, but then it opened up. "Pirata" Fuentes scored in the 37th, 55th and 58th minutes as Mexico pulled away. Mexico's magnanimous gesture of intentionally missing a penalty kick early in the second half didn't make much difference.

The Americans' second game wasn't until 10 days later. They were aided by the fact that the game was played at night, in cooler temperatures than the first, but still, the 1-1 tie with Cuba was less than they would have liked. Frank Wallace's goal in the 25th minute was matched by Cuba's Pepe Gomez five minutes later. Jackie Hynes, who had been the greatest American threat in the first game, continued to shine in this one, but the result left the Americans in third place, trailing Cuba on goal difference.

Four days after that, on Sept. 18, Mexico clinched its World Cup berth with a 6-2 win over the United States. Horacio Casarin had a hat trick for the hosts. Second-half U.S. goals by John Souza and Ben Watman were too little and too late. Following this result, it appeared that nothing less than a win over Cuba in their final game would get the Americans through to the World Cup.

During their stay in Mexico City, the Americans had been gradually acclimating to the heat and altitude. It paid off in that final game, on Sept. 21, in which they broke loose for a 5-2 win over Cuba. The United States' cause was helped by the fact that Cuba started a second-string goalkeeper, whose indecisiveness contributed to all four of the Americans' first-half goals. Walter Bahr, the captain of this team, started the scoring in the 15th minute. Souza got the second goal in the 23th minute, and then Matevich made his contribution, scoring in the 25th and 35th minutes. After a Cuban penalty narrowed the score just before halftime, Wallace got a fifth American goal early in the second half.

Cuba could still have edged the United States for the second World Cup qualifying spot by upsetting Mexico on Sept. 25, but lost, 3-0.

Besides Matevich, the others who played for the United States in this qualifying tournament but did not make the trip to Brazil the following year were Hynes, Watman, Manuel Martin, Bill Sheppell and Benny McLaughlin.