In 1950, and after one of the saddest and darkest periods of the 20th century, Fifa once again organised a World Cup, which had not been held since 1938.
The chosen continent was South America and the country, Brazil, which prepared for the occasion by building the largest and most impressive stadium known so far: Maracanã. A new curiosity brought about this event: for the first time, national teams competing in the tournament should wear numbers on their jerseys, a trend that would soon become global. However, squad numbers for the duration of the championship were not used – these wouldn’t become mandatory until 1954.
Each national team could decide how the numbers would be distributed in the line-ups, which could vary from game to game. Generally, the players wore the numbers that corresponded to the tactical system used by each team, with 2-3-5 being the most common, from number 1 (the goalkeeper) to number 11 (the left-winger). For example, Uruguay, in its four matches, presented two number 1s (Máspoli and Paz), two number 4s (González and Gambetta), and two number 11s (Vidal and Morán). The remaining eight players, who played every game in the same positions, maintained their number throughout the tournament. The central backs M. González (2) and Tejera (3); the left-half R. Andrade (6); the centre-half Varela (5) and the forwards Ghiggia (7), Pérez (8), Míguez (9) and Schiaffino (10). Brazil made more changes, and even in one game, a player wore a number and the next, another, according to the change of position that the coach had available (Ademir wore number 8 and number 9; Zizinho wore number 8 and 10, for example).
However, there was one national team that deviated from any canon: the United States. To begin with, the team did not even register 22 players for the tournament, which was recommended (some teams brought up to three goalkeepers), but not a fixed rule: only 18 men travelled to Brazil. England was another case, but less serious since it took 21. In a country where football (otherwise called ‘soccer’) never got to be a passion of the crowds and which was already totally displaced by other sports, many of its selected players were either direct descendants of Italians (Frank Borghi, Charlie Colombo – born in England- Gino Pariani, Nicholas di Orio) or were not even born in the United States: Joe Maca was Belgian, Ed McIlvenny Scottish, Geoff Coombes English, Gino Gard was born in Fiume (today Rijeka, Croatia), Adam Wolanin was Polish and Joe Gaetjens was Haitian.
Precisely, Gaetjens was one of the greatest heroes of the World Cup by being the author of the goal with which the United States beat England 1-0 on the second date of Group 2, one of the greatest blows in football history. The fathers of football, the historical professionals, succumbed to an amateur team that could hardly be described as modest (in fact, they lost 3-1 to Spain before that game and, after that, 5-2 against Chile; the most experienced player of Americans did not reach ten official matches with his team). Even more: Gaetjens arrived almost by chance, as he was one of the last additions to the national team.
Through the few images that survived from that World Cup, it is possible to appreciate that Uruguay, Brazil, Spain and England, all wore jersey numbers from 1 to 11 in their matches. Even without being certain what number this or that player wore, the doubt can be corrected by looking at the line-up and applying the old 2-3-5 system. However, the United States was a total anarchy and it is difficult to know the truth because, since there is no official list, the numbers were lost in time. Or so we thought – when observing images of the games of the United States national team, not only can it be perceived that, in general, there is no correlation between number and position, but that many numbers were used outside the 1-11 system.
One might think that each player chose a number – or was assigned to it – for the entire tournament, because some players can distinguish themselves by wearing the same number in different matches, although a few seemed to have changed it. In recent years, the rescue of those heroes led the American press to carry out tributes, films and publish books of the historic feat, and all were invaded by the doubt: “What number did the great hero Gaetjens wear when he scored the goal for England?” ESPN wondered. The unusual thing is that they spoke with the still living protagonists of the epic feat, with relatives of Gaetjens (owner of a particular story and whose disappearance was tragic, but that exceeds this article), with specialists and others, and they all pointed out different things.
However, only two nailed it: The US Soccer Hall of Fame, which cited one of the 1950 captains, Walter Bahr – who later did not recall giving that information – and an ESPN producer, who claimed to be sure to “98 or 99 percent”. The number, at 100 percent, was 18 and, strangely, there was such a search since the video and photography images, in an absolutely clear way, allow us to answer that question. It is detected in his position on the field (always in the rival area, acting as a striker, very close to the opponent’s goalkeeper); the poor image of the goal against England; walking backwards and distinguishing him by his body and his skin color. The confirmation comes with a photograph rarely released to the general public.
Curiously, though, against Spain, Gaetjens wore 15, a number that was not worn by any footballer against England. Anyway, the sure thing is that the numbering system was from 1-18, which would at least satisfy later Fifa requirements (that is, there should not be numbers that exceeded the number of players in the squad). And the rest of the numbers? The game against England, again, is the one that gives us the most answers.
By doing a patient review of video images and photographs and, paying attention to bodies, heights, hairstyles, gaits and positions in the field, we were able to distinguish 10 of the numbers. Goalkeeper Borghi (1, luckily!), central backs Keough (3, acceptable number for a back) and Maca (17), right-half McIlvenny (14), centre-half Colombo (4), left-half Walter Bahr (11), right-winger Frank Wallace (6), inside-right Pariani (9), striker Gaetjens (18) and left-winger Ed Souza (10). Then… John Souza’s number is not detected in that game.
Against Spain, it is almost certain that he wore 16 (double-digits, certainly) and McIlvenny, probably 8. The number of forward Adam Wolanin – he only played against Spain – remains unknown. So – Frank Borghi (1) Harry Keough (3) (c), Joe Maca (17) Ed McIlvenny (14), Charlie Colombo (4), Walter Bahr (11) Frank Wallace (6), Gino Pariani (9), Joe Gaetjens (18), John Souza (16*) and Ed Souza (10).
That was the curious US numbering system, the first of the many ‘crazy’ layouts that would come over the years. In this way, the United States left us the first of the unconventional cases of jersey numbering in the history of football (at least, for those of us who are traditionalists). Was there any pattern, any logic? Or was the numbering of jerseys the least important to the Americans? The latter seems to have been the answer.
- In summary, these were the numbers worn by 11 of the 12 American players who featured at the World Cup:
1. Frank Borghi
3. Harry Keough
4. Charlie Colombo
6. Frank Wallace
8. Ed Mcllvenny
9. Gino Pariani
10. Ed Souza
11. Walter Bahr *
14. Ed McIlvenny
15. Joe Gaetjens
16. John Souza
17. Joe Maca
18. Joe Gaetjens
Unknown: Adam Wolanin, Gino Gard, Bob Annis, Geoff Coombes, Frank Moniz, Bob Craddock, Nick di Orio (of these, only Wolanin played)
Coach: Bill Jeffrey