The World Cup has not been kind to the Americans. They’ve never been past the semifinals — and that was 80 years ago — and they have losing records against Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy and Germany.
The World Cup has not been kind to the Americans. They’ve never been past the semifinals — and that was 80 years ago — and they have losing records against Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy and Germany.But there was that one moment, long ago, when the U.S. team knocked off a major soccer power: mighty England.Next June, get set for the rematch.Sixty years after the Americans beat England in what is still considered one of soccer’s greatest upsets, the United States and England will meet in their group opener at the World Cup in South Africa.“That game played in 1950 fits into the category of ancient history,” Walter Bahr, who had the assist on the winning goal, said with a laugh. “This certainly is a big game, and there are going to be a lot of parallels drawn. I just hope it never becomes a distraction for the team that’s playing this summer.”England loomed large over the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. It was the first time the country credited with inventing the game played in the finals, having skipped the first three World Cups because of soccer politics.With a roster loaded with stars — Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney, Laurie Hughes and Stan Mortensen were among the players dubbed the “Kings of Football” — it was considered a strong favorite, along with host Brazil.The Americans, meanwhile, weren’t even an afterthought. They had plenty of good players. Bahr played professionally for more than two decades, and John “Clarkie” Souza was chosen for the World Cup all-star team, an honor no American would match until 2002.But soccer was still largely a fringe sport in the United States, played mostly on the East Coast and a few Midwestern cities such as St. Louis. Leagues were semiprofessional, at best, with players needing day jobs to make ends meet. There were no national team training camps, where players got a chance to know each other’s style of play and the coach could tinker with possible lineups.When English teams like Manchester United or Liverpool came to the United States for exhibitions, they won. Easily.“We’d never even come close to beating them,” said Harry Keough, a defender on the ’50 team. “If we’d lost 2-0 or something, we thought that would be good because we usually got trounced.”But the Americans gave a hint they could be trouble in their opening game at the World Cup, leading Spain until the final 10 minutes. Coaches didn’t pack in on defense to protect the lead in those days, and the United States wound up losing, 3-1.“I personally thought, and some of our players felt the same way, that of the three games we played in Brazil, that was the best we played,” Bahr said.England was up four days later in Belo Horizonte, a mining town about 350 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.England controlled the game early, hitting the crossbar several times. But none of the balls went in. Then, in the 37th minute, Bahr collected a throw-in from Ed McIlvenny and took a shot from about 25 yards. The ball was heading for the far post and England goalkeeper Bert Williams was already moving to his right when Joe Gaetjens deflected it with a diving header, sending the ball into the opposite side of the goal.United States 1, England 0.“At halftime, the one thing we said was we’re probably going to get bombarded in the second half,” Bahr said. “But, as most games go on in sports and the underdog holds on, they gain confidence and the favorite starts to question itself a little bit.”England had chances to even the score in the second half. Mortensen was about 25 yards out with no one between him and goalie Frank Bourghi when Charlie Colombo tackled him.And it was a tackle worthy of American football, said Bahr, who knows something about that. Two of his sons, Matt and Chris, were NFL kickers.“If he was thrown out of the game, I don’t think anyone would have complained,” Bahr said. But luck was on the Yanks’ side.In the closing minutes, Bourghi made a spectacular save after coming a few yards off his line, stretching backward to swat the ball away before it crossed the goal line.There are some who say the ball actually did cross the line, but Keough swears that wasn’t the case.“Frank almost bent over backward,” said Keough, who was standing near the goal line. “He just dove and put it over the top, just when everyone thought it was going in. The ball wasn’t but about 6 inches over.“That was probably one of the greatest saves you’ve ever seen in your life,” Keough added. “(The English player) didn’t just hit a hard ball, he hit a hard ball that was looping.”The Brazilian fans were clearly on the side of the underdogs, hoping an early exit by England would help their team (Brazil would lose to Uruguay in the title game). When the final whistle sounded, fans carried Bourghi and Gaetjens off the field.There were no wild celebrations by the Americans, though.“That was just the way it was,” Bahr said. “Even after we scored that goal, I can’t remember any special celebration.”What has stayed with Keough all these years is the reaction of the English. To lose to Brazil or Uruguay or even another European powerhouse would have been one thing. To lose to the Americans was incomprehensible.Some papers actually reported the score as a 10-0 victory for England, figuring the score had to have been wrong. To this day, England won’t wear dark blue shirts like those it wore in Brazil.“I went up to the players at the end of the game and shook hands with them,” Keough said. “They said, ‘Nice game, chaps, you chaps played well.’ I even said to a couple of guys, ‘We should never have beat you guys.’ They said, ‘Oh, no, no, you chaps played well.’“I admired the way the guys took it because I know it was a blow to them. How could they explain it when they went back to England?”England has, of course, gotten its revenge by now.It has won seven of the eight games (all exhibitions) against the Americans since 1950, including a 2-0 victory at Wembley in May 2008. It went on to win the 1966 World Cup, while the Americans would go 40 years before returning to soccer’s grandest stage.And when the teams meet in South Africa, the mother country will be favored to win once again.“I’d like to see the Americans do it again!” Keough said. “Of course, some of the players now are pretty good players, so it could happen again. But it would be a big upset.”