Elmo Cordeiro is 80 now, but he still stands ramrod-straight, with a ready smile and eyes that shine under a set of bushy gray eyebrows. It isn’t hard to turn back the clock and imagine him 64 years ago, his white hair a darker shade, his skin wrinkle-free, his compact frame darting around the edge of a soccer field chasing down errant balls.
In 1950, Cordeiro was a ballboy at the Estádio Independência here in Belo Horizonte, Brazil—stationed yards away from the historic goal itself—for perhaps the most famous upset in the 84-year history of the World Cup.
United States 1, England 0.
“I worked in the office of the company that built the stadium,” Cordeiro says through a translator on an overcast day a few months before World Cup 2014. “I didn’t have the money to pay for tickets, and my boss said: ‘Do you want to be a ballboy?’ So I saw the three games here. In the museum is one of the balls that I touched. I was 16 and light as a feather, full of energy. I’d grab those balls and throw them back.”
In fact, Cordeiro is still full of energy as an octogenarian, which is to say he can talk your ear off. He’ll tell you stories about riding 18 hours in a truck on a dirt road to see the final game of the 1950 World Cup, Brazil’s legendary loss to Uruguay at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. He’ll sing to you (in perfect pitch) the old anthem sung by Brazilian fans in the stadiums. And every so often, he’ll suddenly turn into a soccer Rain Man, rattling off the starting 11s of famous old teams—including the 1950 World Cup lineups of Brazil, Uruguay, England and Spain.
“England!” he says at one point in the car. “Williams-Ramsey-Aston-Wright-Bentley-Dickinson-Hughes-Finney-Mannion-Mortenson-Mullen!” Later he does it with 1950 Brazil, and then 1945 Cruzeiro, and then 1953 Flamengo. It’s a heck of a party trick. But when you ask him to do 1950 USA, Cordeiro shakes his head.
“I remember the names from listening on the radio,” he says. “The Americans were totally unknown. I only knew the names of the teams I thought would win.”
And everyone thought England and Brazil were the two favorites to win the World Cup. After all, England had invented the game of soccer, and 1950 was the first time the Three Lions had even bothered to enter the World Cup. “Expectations [of England] were very high,” says Cordeiro. “They were the kings of soccer. So everybody wanted to see England play. The United States didn’t count.”
Walter Bahr turned 87 not long ago. On the line from his home near Pittsburgh, his voice remains strong, his memory solid. Many of Bahr’s old friends, his 1950 U.S. teammates, have left us in recent years: Harry Keough and Clarkie Souza a month apart in 2012, Gino Pariani in 2007, Nick DiOrio in 2003. “Frank Borghi is the only one left,” Bahr says with a sigh, and the 89-year-old Borghi, the U.S.’s starting goalkeeper in 1950, has had up-and-down health in recent years.
It’s a quirk of sports culture that Bahr’s sons, Chris and Matt, would become far better known than their World Cup-playing father because they ended up choosing a more popular sport, American football, both winning Super Bowl rings as place-kickers. But their pops was a central figure in one of the signature moments in World Cup history, even if no video highlights or even still images of the moment Joe Gaetjens heads home the U.S. goal are known to exist. (Nearly all the photographers were stationed behind the other goal, where the action was expected.)
On June 29, 1950, the U.S. and England players arrived at the Estádio de Independência by taxi. Kickoff was at 3 p.m., on account of the stadium not having lights, and the crowd at first was relatively sparse, around 10,000 at the start. Everyone expected an England blowout, and in the opening minutes that looked exactly like what would happen.
“England was pretty much all over us,” recalls Bahr, who was playing left halfback in coach Bill Jeffrey’s W-M formation, a bit like a 3-4-3, which was popular at the time. “They did have scoring opportunities. I don’t know the exact count, but I know they hit the woodwork a couple times in the first 20 minutes. It looked like a matter of time before they would score a goal and maybe open the floodgates. But from about midway in the first half, I thought we started to play with a bit more confidence.”
Though the U.S. was a giant underdog, Bahr thinks his team was actually better than advertised. In the U.S.’s last friendly before the World Cup, a team of seasoned pros from England had needed a late goal to beat the Americans 1-0 in New York City. And in their World Cup opener, the Yanks had led 1-0 against Spain (“our best game of the tournament,” Bahr says) until the 81st minute, when the Spanish poured in three quick goals for the victory.
England manager Walter Winterbottom certainly helped the U.S. cause by not playing Stanley Matthews, who despite being 35 was regarded as the world’s best player. (No substitutions were allowed at that time.) While the U.S. players hailed from different parts of the country, Bahr notes that their formation created three sets of partners, each of whom knew each other’s games well.
On the right side were Pariani and Frank (Pee Wee) Wallace, who’d been teammates on multiple pro teams in St. Louis. On the left side were Clarkie and Ed Souza, who though not related had played together in Fall River, Mass., as children. And in the central midfield were Bahr and Ed McIlvenny, teammates from the American Soccer League’s Philadelphia Nationals. “I thought that was a big factor in the success of that team, having players close by you that you’ve played with before,” Bahr says.
In the 38th minute of a 0-0 game, the U.S. won a throw-in on the right side about 35 yards out from the England goal. McIlvenny took the throw-in and found Bahr, who turned to find open space some 25 yards out. “Nobody picked me up right away, so I let the shot go,” he says. He caught it pure. “Not to pat myself on the back, but it was a decent shot. I’d made good contact. It was going far-post.”
Bahr thinks England goalkeeper Bert Williams would have saved his shot, but just as Williams went to his right, Gaetjens, the goal-poaching U.S. center-forward, left his feet and launched himself headlong at the ball. It was his trademark move, the kind that had helped the Haitian-born Gaetjens lead the ASL with 18 goals for New York’s Brookhattan in the 1949-50 season.
“Joe could score a goal out of nothing,” says Bahr. “You wonder how he got to the ball, let alone put it in the net. I played in a half-dozen games with Joe and against him, and he was that type of center-forward: Not necessarily the best player on the field, but he always got himself in pretty good position if the ball bounced his way. I never saw the shot after I hit it because it was into traffic. Whether Joe’s getting a piece of it was by accident or design I don’t know, but I know he went after it with his head. It’s the mystery goal.”
The goal sent the Brazilian fans into a frenzy, not least because they viewed England as Brazil’s main rival to win the tournament. By some accounts, the crowd size more than doubled as the game progressed, thanks to the Brazilian radio broadcast of what had happened.
England dominated the second half in possession, but the Three Lions couldn’t get the goal they so desperately needed. A big reason was the play of U.S. goalkeeper Borghi. “Frank was a good athlete and played professional baseball,” says Bahr. “In that second half, especially in the latter part, they had shots, but a lot of them were from angles that Frank handled very well: Crossing balls, balls in the air, balls in the goalmouth.”
The best England chance came in the 82nd minute. Stan Mortensen broke through clear on goal, only for U.S. defender Charlie Colombo to tackle him from behind not far outside the penalty box. In today’s game it might have been a red card, but referee Generoso Dattilo of Italy simply awarded a free kick. Crisis averted.
Bedlam reigned when the final whistle blew. “It was a mob scene,” says Bahr, who got the game ball and later gave it the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
“More than 500 people came onto the field after the game and carried [Gaetjens and Borghi],” says Cordeiro, the ballboy. “At first the players grouped together and moved to the side. They were kind of afraid. The fans had jumped a [14-foot-high] wall. But then the players saw they were peaceful and welcomed them. I went with them. I was glued to them.”
That night, after the most unlikely upset in World Cup history, the U.S. players kept things simple. “We went out and had a couple beers afterward,” Bahr says. “I felt badly for England: How were these guys going to go home and explain losing to the United States? They probably had more to lose than we had to win. At the airport the next day, I never heard one England player complain or make any excuse about the game. And I’ll give our team a pat on the back: I didn’t see any of our players doing anything to draw attention to ourselves.”
Journalists around the world were disbelieving of the result. Reuters correctly published the scoreline as 1-0, but most papers assumed there had been a mistake and changed it to 10-0 or 10-1, for England.
Brazilians, for their part, have a word for great upsets: They call them zebras. When 16-year-old Elmo Cordeiro arrived at home that night, his mother asked him what had happened at the game.
“It was unbelievable,” he replied. “The United States gave England a zebra!”
The tale of Joe Gaetjens after his World Cup glory was long and winding and, in the end, tragic, as told at length by Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated in 2010. After playing professionally in France, Gaetjens returned to Haiti without ever becoming a U.S. citizen. (He had filed “first papers” to do so in 1950, which allowed him to join the U.S. team under more relaxed rules in those days, but he played for Haiti in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in December 1953.)
Well known in Haiti for his soccer exploits, Gaetjens retired from the sport, married and had three sons in the 1950s. He spent his days teaching soccer to kids. Though he was apolitical, that wasn’t the case for Joe’s brothers Jean-Pierre and Fred, who became enemies of the brutal Haitian dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. On July 8, 1964, after a failed coup attempt, Duvalier’s thugs, the Tontons Macoutes, kidnapped Gaetjens and took him to the notorious Fort Dimanche political prison.
He was never heard from again. In 1972, the Haitian government confirmed to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince that Joseph Nicolas Gaetjens had died.
Down in Belo Horizonte, the Brazilian city where Gaetjens shook the foundations of world soccer, Elmo Cordeiro had no idea that the man responsible for so many celebrations that day in 1950 had disappeared only a few years later. But the feat of Gaetjens and the U.S. still lingers in the memory.
“The victory of the United States, nothing could be more unusual than that,” Cordeiro says. “This was the greatest victory in soccer.”