David Owen: Team GB's Rio 2016 preparation base has an unwelcome place in the annals of English sporting history
Tuesday, 25 December 2012
I don't doubt that the Minas Tenis Clube, complete with its indoor sports halls and "Lagoa dos Ingleses" (Englishmen's Lake) will provide a splendid base for the British team as they recuperate from their eleven-hour flight and acclimatise to the four-hour time difference.
However, this 5.5 million-strong city has an unwelcome place in British, or at least English, sporting history, as the setting for one of its most ignominious defeats.
Go back 62 years to 1950, two years after the second London Olympics, the so-called "Austerity Games".
An England football team including giants of the game such as Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen is in Brazil for the World Cup.
So strong is the team that it is widely seen as joint favourite to lift the famous gold Jules Rimet trophy, along with hosts Brazil.
The first game against Chile is won, comfortably enough, 2-0 in the Maracana Stadium.
Next up: a trip to Belo Horizonte for a match against a little-regarded United States of America team.
Victory should be a formality before the group decider, back in Rio, versus Spain.
That at least was the theory; in fact the US won 1-0 thanks to a first-half goal from Joe Gaetjens, their Haitian-born forward.
"Probably never before has an England team played so badly," lamented The Times, adding: "The small ground and the close marking of the United States defenders seemed to upset the English players in their close passing game".
I recently came across an interesting account of the disastrous World Cup campaign in an autobiography written by Charles Buchan, a former England international turned journalist.
The book was first published in 1955, but a new edition has recently appeared.*
According to this account, prior to the fateful match, the England team stayed at a "little mountain village" called Morro Velho, where they were guests of a "British gold-mining company".
"It was a British colony, a home from home, with British food and a whiff of home atmosphere," Buchan recounts.
He describes Belo Horizonte as a "flourishing new city...reached from Morro Velho along a road twisting breathtakingly around the side of a mountain with a sheer drop on one side.
"It was clouded with a red dust that, even with the windows clamped shut, filled the cars."
The pressmen present subsequently had to file their reports of the debacle via one of two telephone-lines.
Writes Buchan: "By the time the last message was through, the pitch was in darkness.
"When no one could find an electric torch there was the strange spectacle of half a dozen reporters grouped around the phone on an otherwise deserted ground, frantically making bonfires of newspapers so that the copy could be read to the cable office in Rio and thence transmitted to faraway Fleet Street."
The ex-pro rated the Americans "on a par with one of our Third Division teams, like Rochdale.
"Yet by sheer guts and enthusiasm they humbled mighty England."
No doubt British athletes - and journalists - will find conditions utterly transformed when they visit Belo Horizonte in 2016, assuming indeed, in the journalists' case, that they haven't already passed through during the second Brazilian World Cup in 2014.
But that first-ever English World Cup defeat remains hard to stomach.
Let's hope Britain's 2016 Olympians can give the country's sports fans some happier sporting memories to associate the fine city of Belo Horizonte with.
* A Lifetime in Football by Charles Buchan, published by Mainstream Publishing, 7 Albany Street, Edinburgh. Price £9.99.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.