The legend grows. In 1950, relatively few Americans knew, and still fewer cared, that an unlikely group of United States soccer players had scored the greatest upset in World Cup history by beating England, 1-0. With time, more and more people have come to hear of that classic game in the mining town of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and appreciate the enormity of the victory.
Only five players from the 11-man U.S. team are living. Lately, they've been interviewed and honored like never before. Americans are talking soccer slightly more than usual for two reasons. For the first time since 1950, the U.S. has gained a berth in the World Cup tournament, which begins June 8 in Italy. And the World Cup is coming to the U.S. in 1994.
"Another 50 years and we'll really be famous," said Walter Bahr, 62. Better known as the father of football place kickers Chris and Matt Bahr,he himself should have been famous as an athlete. He was part of an outmanned, undertrained, patchwork group that was given no chance to beat England. But Bahr took the shot that was heard around the world -- except in most of the United States.
The shot changed directions when it hit the head of teammate Joe Gaetjens and zinged into the net as the English goalkeeper went the other way. Goal to Gaetjens. Did Gaetjens mean to head it in? Or did the ball just bang him in the head? No one can say for sure. He's been missing since 1963 and presumed dead.
But the U.S. team won just the same -- only to return home to America as obscure as ever. "Hey, Davies," said Bahr, calling to his wife in their home in Boalsburg, Pa., near Penn State, where he used to coach soccer, "did you pick me up when I got to New York?" Talk about no ticker-tape parade. Neither could quite remember how Bahr got home from the airport. Yes, Davies Bahr thought, she had met him. "She must have," Walter concluded.
When the score came in on the wires back in the States, the few sportswriters who cared about soccer could hardly believe it. Some, in fact, thought it was a hoax or a typo. Maybe the correction would come in soon: England 10, U.S. 1. But preposterous as it was, the Americans had won. Had the World Cup matchmakers expected something more than a British tuneup at the Americans' expense, the game likely would have been held in Rio instead of 500 hard miles from there.
There simply had been no thought that the Americans had a chance. "The English players were famous," said Harry Keough, the right fullback, one of five players from St. Louis. "In terms of fame, I don't know of any game where there was such disparity between the teams." The U.S. players were mostly humble men scratching out a living. They included a cannery worker, brickyard worker, office clerk.
Gaetjens had washed dishes part-time in New York before his historic goal and later, so his teammates believe, was killed during a visit to his native Haiti by the Ton-Tons Macoute, Papa Doc Duvalier's secret police. Gaetjens's two brothers had participated in anti-Duvalier activities. All Joe ever cared about, his teammates said, was a good time.
A good time was all the Americans hoped for on their trip to Brazil in 1950. Yet the joyful experience lives on for Bahr; Keough, who went on to coach soccer at St. Louis University from 1967 until 1982; two other St. Louis natives, Frank Borghi, the goalkeeper, who today operates a funeral parlor close to where he grew up, and Gino Pariani, now retired, and, finally, John Souza, from Fall River, Mass., who is retired and living in Florida.
The others were Gaetjens, who had a Belgian father and Haitian mother; two more from St. Louis, Charlie Colombo and Frank (Pee Wee) Wallace, a liquor truck driver who learned his named was Valicenti when he applied for a passport; Eddy Souza, from Fall River but not related to John Souza; Scottish-born Ed McIlvenny, a friend of Bahr's when the two were growing up and living in Philadelphia, and Joe Maca, who was born in Belgium and lived in Lynbrook, N.Y.
Gaetjens was considered a "free spirit on the field and the way he lived," according to Bahr. The others were a settled group. "The average age was 26 1/2," said Bahr. "Several of the players were 30. Everybody had a job. Most were married, with kids."
Being on the team, he said, meant that "you got away from work and were paid $100 a week to do something you loved. What could be better?"
But beat the English? The coach, Bill Jeffrey, told the players, "Do the best you can."
In their first game, the Americans played well, losing to Spain, 3-1, after leading, 1-0. And in their third and final game, they lost to Chile, 5-2, on three late goals. The U.S. team was blessed, in Bahr's estimation, with a certain "chemistry," remarkable in that the coach didn't even get to pick the players he wanted. The squad was put together by a committee. It had little training. To beat the British, there had to be -- and there was -- luck involved.
"Soccer," said Bahr, "is a game made up of pairs playing together." The Souzas manned the left side. The two Philadelphians, Bahr and McIlvenny, worked the midfield. The St. Louis combination of Wallace and Pariani operated on the right. The fullbacks, Joe Maca and Harry Keough, played together as if they'd known each other for years. "The center forward doesn't need a partner," said Bahr, "and Gaetjens was perfect. I don't know that he could play with a lot of regimentation." In the 37th Minute
Gaetjens's header came in the 37th minute of a first half that had been played mostly in the Americans' end. The English had threatened repeatedly, but never scored. Suddenly, the Americans had a chance. Bahr shot and Gaetjens, a nimble, creative player with a scoring instinct, stretched out in midair, his head and the ball arriving together.
"It would be a disservice to him to say that the goal was an accident," said Bahr. "I took a shot from 25 to 28 yards out. Gaetjens had to move to get to that ball. He had to come through traffic and it took one great effort for him to get a piece of it."
But after the Americans scored, they thought the English would be so mad there'd be no stoppng them. "We thought it would be just a matter of time before they'd tie the game and run up the score," said Bahr.
But it was to be one of those improbable days in sports. Overconfident, the English had decided to rest their best player, Stanley Matthews -- they'd left him in Rio. As the game progressed, their frustration grew with each missed shot. At length, the Americans believed they could win. And with the help of two controversial plays, they did.
With eight minutes remaining, the Englishman Stan Mortensen broke around Colombo and headed alone toward the U.S. goal. Determined to stop him, Colombo threw himself at his opponent from behind, bringing him down with a crashing tackle across the back of the legs. "Understandably, Mortensen was very teed off," said Keough, the American fullback who was running up and had a close view. "We wouldn't have been surprised if Colombo had been kicked out of the game."
Keough still has to laugh when he recalls McIlvenny's reaction. "I don't want to portray myself as lily-white," said Keough, "but I wouldn't have done that. Eddie said to me, in his little Scotch accent, 'Haddy,' you know, for Harry, 'you or I never would have made that play that way. But it saved the game.' "
England was awarded a free kick -- which involved more controversy. "Alf Ramsey came in and took it, a curving ball that came down toward Jim Mullen, who headed it," said Keough. The ball looked to the English as if it had crossed the goal line. Did it?
"No," said Keough. "When Borghi dove for the ball, he dove straight to his right. With his right hand, he reached back maybe 10 or 12 inches and his hand bent toward the goal. It looked from where the English were that it had crossed the line. But Borghi was a yard or so off the goal line. It was a good thing."
"If I had been on the line, it would have been in there," said Borghi. "For the kick, I had moved up a little bit. I lunged for it. How I grabbed it I don't know. I kind of shoved it out. It was a quick play."
"They started pressing. We played them tight defensively. Before you knew it, the whistle blew." 'They Were Very Nice'
Colombo rushed into the locker room, saying: "It's about time we beat those guys." But for the most part, the Americans felt sorry for the English. Losing to the Americans was an embarrassment they had to live with. Borghi remembers seeing them at the airport. "They were very nice," he said.
As ever, the U.S. players are content with their thoughts about that game, which Borghi has likened to the 1927 Yankees losing in baseball to a group of Englishmen. Keough is planning to see some of the final games of this year's World Cup, and is scheduled to leave for Italy June 29 -- the 40th anniversary of the upset. Most soccer authorities believe that, by then, the current American team will have been eliminated. But none who think that way played for the U.S. in 1950.