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Soccer star's death recalls biggest U.S. win in World Cup history

Walter Bahr,  the last living member of the U.S. soccer team that upset England at the 1950 World Cup,  speaks before an MLS soccer game between D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union, in Philadelphia. Bahr has died at age 91. Bahr died Monday, June 18, 2018, in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania from complications that resulted from a broken hip, according to granddaughter.
Walter Bahr, the last living member of the U.S. soccer team that upset England at the 1950 World Cup, speaks before an MLS soccer game between D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union, in Philadelphia. Bahr has died at age 91. Bahr died Monday, June 18, 2018, in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania from complications that resulted from a broken hip, according to granddaughter. Associated Prett

The World Cup is upon us and, while the U.S. did not qualify, now is a good time to recall one of the most significant wins in the history of the sport in this country.

Walter Bahr, the last living tie to the United States' stunning 1-0 defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup, died Monday at 91.

His two sons became long-time NFL kickers, but long before Chris or Matt did that Walter Bahr had the best foot in the house.

In 2005, I was fortunate enough talk to Bahr for a piece I wrote about the movie that was made about that 1-0 win, "The Game of Their Lives."

The following appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on May 28, 2005:

Thirty or more years passed before any journalist thought to ask Walter Bahr what he remembered about that afternoon in 1950. By the time someone got around to it, so much time had passed that countless particulars were lost.

There are few specifics Bahr remembers about the day the dachshund-sized underdog U.S. soccer team defeated mighty England 1-0 in pool play at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Even if it is regarded as one of the great upsets in the history of the sport, what happened the day after the match is what Bahr remembers the most.

The Americans, waiting in a Brazilian airport, happened upon the English team. Showing no signs of a “you chaps were lucky” mentality, Sir Tom Finney — an English midfielder and International Football Hall of Famer — struck up a conversation with Bahr about the match.

“That was one of those games we could have played until next week and not have scored,” Finney said.

Nearly 80 today, Bahr marvels at the timelessness of that remark.

“That’s why sports are great: The best team doesn’t always win,” Bahr said. “I played 25 years of soccer, and no one knows me for any of those games. But in recent years, as this World Cup has grown, that game became a trivia item and then gradually [became known as] one of the biggest upsets.”

The team’s efforts were given the Hollywood treatment with the recently released, small-budget film The Game of Their Lives. It was written and directed by the same duo who made Hoosiers and Rudy.

And the game is recalled today as the United States hosts England in a friendly match at Soldier Field in Chicago. Often overlooked in the annals of great upsets, only in recent years has the victory been given its just due.

“I was very happy to beat England, but I never figured we would accomplish something as amazing or good as that,” said Harry Keough, one of the six living members of that team. “I did realize, even though I was 22, the impact of that game. I realized that the English live by this.”

Team David U.S. coach William Jeffrey, a native of Scotland, picked players for that team primarily from Philadelphia and from the mostly Italian part of St. Louis, known as The Hill. Most of the players knew each other, and most were World War II veterans.

Goalkeeper Frank Borghi was a field medic and landed on the Normandy beaches the day after the initial U.S. invasion on June 6, 1944.

Thanks to a few lax eligibility rules, Jeffrey also had three players who were not U.S. citizens. Funds were scarce, and the team had only a few weeks to prepare before departing for Brazil and the 13-team World Cup, the first since 1938.

“We hoped we would not get embarrassed,” said Bahr, whose sons, Matt and Chris, became NFL kickers. “We were not in the class with any of those countries.”

This U.S. team had lost to Italy, Northern Ireland and Scotland by the combined score of 18-0.

But in the opening match of pool play against Spain, the United States led 1-0 with 10 minutes remaining. It went on to lose 3-1.

The Americans then traveled to Belo Horizonte, 350 miles from Rio de Janeiro, for the match against England. At the time, England was to international soccer what the United States once was to international basketball.

The British team, much like the U.S. Dream Team in basketball, was a collection of all-stars who were expected to win. In 1947, England defeated The Rest of Europe 6-1. The English were such prohibitive favorites British bookies didn’t set odds on the match.

On a sunny day — June 29, 1950 — the U.S. team trotted out in front of 30,000 pro-American fans at Mineiro Stadium. There were few Americans in the crowd and maybe 300 or so Brits, most of whom worked at a nearby mine.

The rest were futbol-mad Brazilians who badly wanted to see the Brits lose. A loss by England would have set up a more favorable matchup for the Brazilian national team.

“We felt we could give England a run for their money, but you have to be realistic,” Keough said.

From the start, England attacked and attacked. Borghi, blessed with a quiet demeanor but big hands, established himself early by coming out to repeatedly cut down crosses. Unlike games played today, when lesser-talented teams use a defensive tactic and seldom attack, both teams forced the issue.

In the 38th minute, Bahr sent a shot he thought he “hit pretty good” toward the net from 12 yards outside the penalty area. English keeper Bert Williams had a good read on it and came out to play the ball.

But as he set up, U.S. forward Joe Gaetjens — a native of Haiti — came across to head the ball

“I don’t know how he got his head on it,” Keough said. “Had he headed it solidly, it was going toward the corner flag.”

But Gaetjens’ head barely touched the shot, slightly changing the ball’s trajectory, and stunning Williams as it sailed past him into the net.

“It was one of the most uncanny goals you would ever see,” Borghi said.

He couldn’t see the shot, but the reaction from his teammates and the crowd told him what had just happened.

“It was beautiful,” he said.

With the United States leading at halftime, Keough feared the U.S. team had awoken “a sleeping giant.” The giant was awake, but the giant never scored — although it came close.

The United States squandered one more chance. With no game clock inside the stadium, players were left to quickly glance at the referee in eager anticipation/dread of the game’s end.

“It was near the end, and I saw the referee with the whistle in his mouth,” Borghi said, “and I thought, ‘Blow that darn whistle.’ ”

When he did, fans ran onto the field in celebration. Borghi and Gaetjens were carried off on the shoulders of delirious Brazilians.

There would be no long night of celebration for the Americans. They attended a banquet and were greeted with big cheers. Only one reporter from the United States attended the match — Dent McSkimming from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

He was on vacation and did not a file a story. In England, the World Cup loss to the United States was big news, but it was trumped by a bigger loss. On that same day, England’s national cricket team suffered its first defeat to the West Indies.

And when news of the soccer loss did reach London over the wires, many sports editors threw the piece of paper out, assuming it was a misprint for a 10-1 British victory.

To this day, Bahr and Keough speak with great admiration of the sportsmanship displayed by the English.

“They were all very cordial, and congratulated us,” Keough said. “Years later when I coached St. Louis [University] and we would take it on the chin, I would remember their behavior. If you hear my voice wavering, those guys’ behavior was something I can never forget.”

A few days later, the United States was eliminated from the tournament, falling to Chile 5-2.

Brazil’s leading sports paper, Mundo Esportivo, selected an all-World Cup team, including the United States’ Johnny Souza — one of only two U.S. players to be named to an all-World Cup team. The other was Claudio Reyna in 2002.

When the team returned home, few knew of their victory. In soccer circles, people knew. And those who did know of the victory didn’t realize it was against England’s national team.

“It wasn’t something that was embraced by the sports world,” Bahr said.

Most of the players continued their careers in small leagues on the East Coast and in St. Louis.

Gaetjens never became a U.S citizen, and eventually returned to his home in Haiti. He was thought to be killed in prison — a victim during dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign. Gaetjens was inducted in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976 and, that same year, Haiti released a stamp in his honor.

Recognition for this team and what it accomplished didn’t come until years later. The United States didn’t reach the World Cup again until 1990. Geoffrey Douglas wrote a book in 1996, and now there is a film.

“I’m close to 80, and it’s rather nice,” Bahr said. “I don’t know if I appreciate it more now, but it’s still nice you are remembered for something like this.”