The game that shook the world

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The United States may be flying high in Brazil right now, but it’s nothing compared to their greatest achievement which took place in the country, even if it didn’t cause the game to take off back home, writes Ewan MacKenna.

It’s still thought of as the great World Cup shock although these days most judge that based on limited crackling footage and ink on yellowed-over paper. “From our side,” says Walter Bahr, considered one of the best United States players of all time, “there’s just me and Frank Borghi that are still living. He has the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s and his wife answers the phone and she doesn’t put him on anymore.” It’s left the 87-year-old as the go-to guy, the focal point for what’s known as the miracle on grass and Bahr reckons he’s taken 100 times more calls this World Cup than he ever did when they beat England the last time the tournament was held in Brazil.

A native of Philadelphia, the midfielder already had a decent career come the 1950 edition. An Olympian from 1948 when his side lost 9-0 to Italy, Scotland’s Tommy Muirhead wrote in a column after a 1949 tour of the USA that, “Bahr is good enough to play for any First Division team in the United Kingdom”. But realistically he was alone on that count. “The leagues we had were usually because of two types of backers,” he notes. “It was either the industries – coal mining, steel mills, textiles – or just an ethnic neighbourhood who had enough of their own to start a league. But then there was a period around the war where everyone was being drafted. That set things back a lot.

“After that the east coast had most of the soccer and professionals – mostly players from overseas that were young and hadn’t played in the big leagues yet or players that had played and came over towards the end of their careers. As far as we were concerned they had a professional league, the American Soccer League – New York, Boston, Philly, New Jersey. But I’d say average players were on $15 a game. The amateurs were getting $3 expenses and when I played in New York I got $5 expenses that would fill my tank for the 100 miles and pay my tolls. But to live I was teaching too.”

It was against that backdrop where the sport was seen more as a pastime than a career that the States headed for the World Cup as 500-1 outsiders. They’d cobbled together a team from some trial matches overseen by committee members and while Bahr was always going to make the cut, it was a sign of the interest that he was only contacted twice by all of his city’s newspapers before he left. Instead soccer was only really news when touring English sides came over. “There were 10 teams in the American Soccer League and I remember once each put up $10,000 to cover the cost of bringing Liverpool over. And any profit made from ticket sales, Liverpool went home with extra money.”

As for the farewell party, setting off on a World Cup adventure few knew about and fewer still cared about was more sneaking out the back door than a kiss on the cheek heading out the front. For instance the letter Bahr received from the national association about his selection told him little more than the time he’d to be at the airport in New York and that he’d be reimbursed for any expenses run up in getting there. “That was the extent of it. There was no one at the airport I knew of to even cover us. The New York Times had a little two-inch column on us heading off.”

It stayed that way, even after it took three goals from Spain in the final 10 minutes to beat the States in their group opener and come the next game, all eyes were on their opposition. England were known as the ‘Kings of Football’ despite never playing at a World Cup before and were seen as the natural threat to Brazil in their first appearance at the tournament. On top of that, there was a fascination from the locals about those who had invented the game they’d adopted as if it were their own. But if this World Cup has seen Belo Horizonte become the home of England’s latest humiliation when lining out with nothing to play for against an already qualified Costa Rica, the city was also the scene of England’s greatest humiliation. For that, just look at those who took the field for the Americans.

Borghi in goals? “The happiest guy you’d ever want to meet and a very good baseball player who played in the minor leagues for a time. But for a living he drove a hearse for his uncle’s funeral parlour.” Harry Keough? “A centre-back and a mail man.” John Souza? “Worked in textiles.” Eddie Souza? “I think he worked in a mill as well.” Joe Gaetjens? “He came up from Haiti and was sent to Colombia University. While he was going to school he joined the local team and worked at a fast-food restaurant as a dishwasher.” But as for the English, they were beyond stars in a simpler world.

Elmo Cordeiro, a ball boy from that most miraculous of games, and who still lives in the city, told recently how he travelled four hours in a bus to the suburb of Nova Lima just to see how they trained. When he got there he asked English coach Walter Winterbottom if he could meet Stanley Matthews but it was impossible because the player considered the best on the planet wasn’t yet present or correct. Instead he was being rested after a promotional tour of Canada and that’s how seriously England took the challenge in front of them.

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“But you always think you can win, I don’t care who you are playing against,” says Bahr of the build-up to that game. “There’s always that possibility that you get a couple of breaks and you can hang on. We played a game in Randall’s Island before that tournament against former English players. We lost but we did okay and it gave us hope. And not to degrade England, but I honestly thought the best game we played at that tournament was the Spain game. But going in we were hopeless in most of the papers and we were just saying all we can do is our best and then hope for luck.

“But then came the goal and it’s easy to describe because it was a simple operation. There was a throw in, Ed McIlvenny threw the ball to me, I hit it ahead, no one closed me down so I took a shot from maybe 25 yards out and it caused Bert Williams [the England keeper] to move to his right. I saw it in a little film clip one time but could never track it down again but he is going one way, the ball goes the other as it’s a shot that was deflected by Joe Gaetjens. I guess Williams would have gotten it otherwise because it was a pretty good distance out. To my recollection I hit it fairly solid though.”

The shot that shook the world came shortly before the break but for a nation that loves its inspirational half-time talks, this offered nothing of the sort. Bill Jeffrey, the team’s solemn Scottish-born coach said little more than: ‘Hey, we’re doing good, let’s keep up the same pace and maybe something will happen here’. No one will ever know if he truly believed what might happen but Bahr remembers that as the clock ticked down and Borghi dominated the skies around his box, England got desperate. “I don’t want to say that we outplayed them, but we weren’t embarrassed. If you had to pick a winner, they should have won but you don’t always win when you should.

“The fans, they stormed the field and I know they carried Borghi and Gaetjens and a couple of others off. Along those same lines, during the whole game, they say Brazil was cheering for us and the reason for that was if we beat England they wouldn’t get to the finals and they wouldn’t have to meet them as the odds were they were the best two teams. As it turned out, neither won it. But even at the airport the next day the English were there too and no one said you guys were lucky or got all the good bounces. The same after the game. So I take my hat off to them. I still haven’t heard any complaints from them other than they were the better team and should have won. But they didn’t.”

Little was made of the result back in the States because when the wire service sent the score to various papers, most ignored it thinking it was a hoax. And as much as that was a start for their campaign and their hopes of growing soccer in the States, it turned out to be an end too. Perhaps the greatest upset in international soccer was the destination and not a journey, and worn out and playing in the Recife sun, they were taken apart by Chile in their final game and returned home as if nothing had happened. In fact amazingly they never even saw much of each other after that.

“When we got back, no one really knew about it other than the ethnic sections around the country, the big German section, an Italian section in another city. They knew it was a big deal and gave it the respect it deserved. Most of the others though would ask, ‘What’s a World Cup?’ They were lucky if they knew what sport it was so it wasn’t a big thing but as time wore on and the World Cup grew in stature, that game grew in stature and they love it now. I guess it is considered still one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Those things happen every year in soccer, the wrong teams win, there’s no explanation for it,” he adds with a matter-of-factness of a bygone era. “But we never got together again ever that. A couple of those players I never even saw once again.”

Some weren’t even around by the time the idea of reunions started to be pitched. The goalscorer Gaetjens only saw 14 more years as his family had gone against Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. “They shot him or something and did it in retaliation to his family’s stance on how that country should be run,” sighs Bahr. “Duvalier apparently was a ruthless person and cleaned house with a number of people that worked for him. Joe was picked up by the forces behind Duvalier and nothing was heard about him. It turned out he was sent to prison and executed within a few days.”

But if anything sums up what became of their greatest hour and a half, it was a replay of the game. “In 1953 they organised a rematch of the England-United States in Yankee Stadium. The day of the game myself and two others drove up to be there an hour beforehand. It started to rain hard and the game was postponed because the Yankees had a game the next day. So we drove home, got up Monday morning, I went to teach school, at three in the afternoon when the school day was over I got the car with the same players, drove again, and we played that game starting at about seven. We were tied 2-2 at the half and I think they won 6-3. It was supposed to be our team from 1950 versus the English team from 1950. But the way it turned out, only half of both teams were picked again. No one really cared.”

Within three years their achievement had been lost but thankfully history has finally dredged up their impossible win. “Well it’s just part of history now,” concludes Bahr. “Nothing more or nothing less.” 

Abridged version
25 June, 2014

Irish Examiner

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