In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in August 1987, a small group of middle-aged men held a reunion. They gathered at one of the nation's cathedrals of soccer, Mineir‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Stadium, into which 130,000 fans can be crammed, and exchanged remembrances of their original meeting, in this very place, nearly 40 years earlier. And they examined an old leather soccer ball, protected by a glass case, with a reverence normally reserved for holy relics. The ball itself is unimpressive—drab, scuffed, brown. It's not one of the fancy kind with multicolored panels used today, but a vintage 1950 model, the sort that soaked up water, making heading the ball on a rainy day a savage test of the upper vertebrae.
In the group of pilgrims, three men stood out, each more than 60 years old. A serious student of the sport might have recognized the now frail-looking Englishman, Wilf Mannion. As a 29-year-old in 1947, Mannion had been the most devastating forward in the game when Britain destroyed a Rest-of-Europe All-Star team, 6-1. But the two Americans: Who were they and what were they doing here?
Mannion answered that, in a sense, when a reporter asked him what it was like to once again see the ball he had played with in a historic match, in this very city, in 1950.
"Played with?" said Mannion, with disarming honesty. "I hardly got a bloody foot to it."
May 20, 1990
The comfortably built Americans, Walter Bahr of Boalsburg, Pa., and Harry Keough of St. Louis, are, in fact, two of the five surviving players from the U.S. soccer team that brought about the biggest upset ever in the World Cup—possibly the biggest in the history of the sport. This June 29 will mark the 40th anniversary of the U.S.'s 1-0 victory over England, a game played with the venerable football on display at Mineir‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o.
The enormousness, the incredibility, of that outcome cannot be truly appreciated today. Oddly, 1950 marked England's first appearance in the World Cup finals. This was because England had not even tried to qualify for earlier tournaments. It was a matter of arrogance. England had been an early, unenthusiastic member of the Fèdèration Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's international governing body, which was formed in 1904, but had withdrawn in 1926 because of technicalities concerning amateurism, four years before the first World Cup finals were played.
England rejoined FIFA after World War II and, in 1950, was the pre-Cup co-favorite, along with the host team, Brazil. It was a somewhat reluctant rejoining. After all, as the birthplace of the sport, what did England have to prove? Going into the 1950 Cup, England had beaten Italy 4-0 in Turin, and Portugal 10-0 in Lisbon. And in Rio de Janiero, in its first game of the World Cup finals, England defeated Chile 2-0.
Next would follow what promised to be a formality, a game against a U.S. team that had already lost to Spain. The expected victory would lead England to a more serious first-round game, against Spain. The English players looked forward to a relaxed workout in the hilly, airy country around Belo Horizonte, a pleasant change after steamy Rio.
For its part, the U.S. was given no chance against England. Harry Keough, ex-mailman, ex-right fullback, ex-soccer coach of St. Louis University, now 62, was a soccer star in Missouri in the 1940s and '50s. He played for the Kutis, a club sponsored by a St. Louis undertaker. ("What's funny about that?" he wanted to know recently, as he recalled his early playing career. "Why does everybody get a kick out of that?")
Four other St. Louis players had made it onto the 1950 U.S. team, following an East-West trial game in St. Louis that spring. All four were from The Hill, an Italian neighborhood of the city; all were members of the Simpkins team, sponsored by Joe Simpkins, who owned a Ford dealership in town.
There were Charlie Colombo, central defender and office clerk; Frank (Pee-Wee) Wallace (whose surname had been changed from Valicenti), right winger and liquor truck driver; Gino Pariani, inside right and cannery worker; and, in goal, Frank Borghi, who worked in a brickyard.
The closest any of the St. Louis players got to being professional, Keough said, was a $50 Christmas bonus and maybe a turkey. All the same, when the Simpkins played Keough's team, which they did once every three weeks at Sportsman's Park, the old St. Louis baseball stadium, the game might draw 10,000 fans. "Hell, we weren't that bad a team," Keough said.
The other Americans who would play at Belo Horizonte were from the East Coast, from the ethnic leagues that flourished from Boston to Washington, D.C. There the game was more organized and more sophisticated than it was farther west. Walter Bahr, a Philadelphia school-teacher, was a defensive halfback good enough to be approached by Manchester United of the English first division. Another easterner, Ed McIlvenny, was originally from Scotland and had been let go two seasons earlier by a British third division club. After the Belo Horizonte game, he returned to Great Britain to play, and then vanished. (A couple of years ago, an author placed ads in British newspapers to try to locate McIlvenny. There was no response from Ed, but three women who claimed to be Mrs. Ed McIlvenny called to say that they, too, were interested in his whereabouts.)
Then there was Joe Maca, who was born in Belgium but lived in Lynbrook, New York. And there were the two Souzas, John and Eddie, Portuguese-Americans from Fall River, Mass., who were unrelated.
Finally, there was star-crossed Joe Gaetjens, center forward, a player as cosmopolitan as the game itself. Gaetjens was of Belgian-Haitian descent and had come to New York by way of Port-au-Prince. He had won a scholarship to Columbia, played weekends for a team called Brookhattan and worked as a dishwasher at a Manhattan restaurant.
Once assembled, the U.S. team was frankly, even humbly, willing to concede that it was in for a soccer lesson in Brazil. Qualifying for the World Cup was different then—in the aftermath of World War II, few countries had the means or the interest to sponsor teams. The U.S. qualified after losing twice to Mexico and tying and beating Cuba. There was no time for serious training. A club team from Istanbul shut out the Americans 5-0 five weeks before the U.S. team left for Brazil, and in New York City, on the eve of their departure, the Americans lost again, 1-0, to the English third squad, which had spent the previous night on a train from Windsor, Ontario.
What followed was no joy, either. The trip to Rio took the U.S. team 40 hours, with a 12-hour stopover in Puerto Rico while the engines of the prop-driven DC-4 were repaired. All the same, as Bahr recollected, the players made it fun.
"We had good chemistry," he said, "and no big egos, no finger-pointers, no complainers. Everybody liked their beer, except for Harry, who was and is a teetotaler. In Brazil we went out at night and enjoyed ourselves. Sang on the bus—When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose, In the Good Old Summer Time, Take Me Back to Chicago, I Belong to Glasgow."
The opening 3-1 loss to Spain wasn't as bad as it might sound. The U.S. had led 1-0 until eight minutes before the end. "We had a better team than people think," Bahr said.
And so it came to Belo Horizonte, not to the magnificent stadium that stands there today, but to its predecessor—concrete stands, a bumpy field and, for a dressing room, a shed so primitive and cucaracha-ridden that the English re-fused to use it, changing instead at a nearby hotel. The field didn't faze the Americans, though. "Hey, it had grass," Keough said. It beat the cinders that many of them were used to playing on.
Keough pointed out something else, too. "The game is down in the record books as played on a neutral ground," he said, "but I was never in a place where I was so favored by the crowd." It was not, he might have added, for love of the U.S.A. that the Brazilians would cheer the Americans. The downing of England would be a huge bonus for Brazil.
No bonus was in sight, though, when the game started. The English attack was so talented that Stanley Matthews, the Pelè of his day, stayed in Rio to rest. For the first 30 minutes, the English stormed into the American half. "They were all over us," Keough recalled, "hitting the bar, hitting the uprights. They had complete dominance, almost as if we were just watching them play."
But they couldn't put the ball in the net—not Mannion; not Stan Mortensen, the ex-World War II bomber pilot who normally played alongside Matthews; not Tom Finney, who had taken Matthews's place on the right wing. (Forty years later, Finney, now a justice of the peace and owner of a plumbing and electrical firm in Preston, England, described the game as the most humiliating defeat he had ever participated in.)
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, in the 37th minute of the first half, came the goal that shocked the soccer world. For once the Americans were inside England's half, and Bahr struck an innocuous-looking shot from out on the right that the English goalkeeper, Bert Williams, had well covered.
Then, just as suddenly, Gaetjens was diving headlong for the ball, making contact and heading it into the net. It was U.S. 1, England 0, and 30,000 Brazilians were wildly cheering. "Oh, my god," Keough recalled thinking, "we've awakened the sleeping lion."
It was Gaetjens who had needed awakening earlier in the day. He was, as one of his teammates puts it delicately now, "a free spirit." And though stories that the U.S. team, certain of defeat, had partied the previous night away are untrue, it is very likely that Gaetjens and his buddy Eddy Souza had sneaked off for a little unscheduled fun. (Later, when he played for Racing Club of Paris, Gaetjens often said that he couldn't give his best unless he could "relax" on the eve of a big game.) And on the morning of that historic day in June 1950, there is little doubt that Gaetjens had to be pulled out of bed.
Gaetjens was an acrobat in front of the goal, unpredictable and fast-striking. There has never been a consensus, though, about exactly how that goal against England was scored. Certainly it was a strange one. Said Keough, "The England defense must have been thinking, 'What is this guy hoping for?' when Joe dove at that ball. Because if he had hit it square with his forehead, it was headed for the corner flag. To this day, I don't think anybody could tell you what made the ball travel as it did, because we all lost sight of it once it touched Joe's head, and both its timing and its trajectory would have changed. If Williams had seen it, he'd have saved it."
The theories range from the purely accidental (Gaetjens's left ear got in the way and deflected the ball), to a superb goal (an intentional, brilliant flick of the head). None of this matters, of course, because the goal was clearly legitimate. Besides, Gaetjens is no longer around to solve the mystery.
The last time anyone spoke to him was at 2 p.m. on July 8, 1963, according to an account in the Chicago Tribune. That was his brother Gerard, whom the Tribune quoted as saying, "Two hours later he was arrested."
Joe was in Port-au-Prince, where he had returned after playing for several years in France. Haiti was then ruled by Papa Doc Duvalier and his Ton-Ton Macoute. Joe had never been particularly interested in politics, but his other two brothers were active in an anti-Duvalier movement. For years after Joe's arrest, his teammates held out the hope that he was surviving in prison. But after the collapse of the Duvalier regime, he was never found. The consensus is that he was executed soon after his arrest. Recently, Frank Borghi said of his old teammate: "I think Joe was just one of them free loose spirits, you know, and they killed him, that's what I heard."
Curiously, against the actuarial odds, only five players from the U.S. team are known to be alive today. Eddy Souza died in 1977. Colombo, Wallace, Maca and McIlvenny are also dead.
Keough was wrong about one thing. The stunning goal did not awaken the English lion. Instead, as Brian Glanville, a noted English soccer writer, observed, the team found itself running around in the worst kind of anxiety state, as if it had encountered some fearsome psychic barrier against scoring.
Meantime, the Americans grew 10 feet tall. It has been said that the State of Minas Gerais, of which Belo Horizonte is the capital, has a heart of gold and a breast of iron. And now a breast of iron would guard a golden goal on this cloudy June day; the U.S. defense was, indeed, iron-breasted, and none more so than Colombo, the center fullback.
Back in St. Louis, any soccer fan could have told you two basic facts about Colombo: He always played, for a reason known only to him, in leather gloves; and he was the meanest s.o.b. in the Missouri Valley.
With eight minutes left to play, Colombo saved the U.S. with one of the most flagrant fouls in World Cup history. In the center circle, England's Mortensen broke free past Colombo, with only the keeper, Borghi, between him and an equalizing goal. So Colombo, from the edge of the penalty box, launched himself at the back of Mortensen's knees, bringing his foe down in a crash tackle. Years later Keough said, "You wouldn't see the like of it in the NFL, because they mostly lady-tackle now."
Though it was an expulsion-from-the-game offense, in an extraordinary turn of events that favored the U.S., Colombo was not sent off. To his dying day, he swore that while the referee seemed to be bawling him out, what he was actually saying was, "Buono, buono!" because the ref was an Italian, too.
"You know," Keough would say later, "I watched Charlie play softball a few times, and he'd hit a routine single to rightfield and he'd just keep going, very daring. He didn't want to lose the ball game. If his mother was in his way, he'd kick her out of the way."
But Colombo's foul had given England a free kick from the edge of the box. Alf Ramsey (later Sir Alf, the coach of England's winning 1966 World Cup team) came up to take it. Ramsey was famous for his precisely placed kicks. Borghi, who was having a great afternoon in the U.S. goal, crouched to face him.
Borghi was a keeper, his colleagues agreed, who didn't really know how to keep goal. Nobody had taught him about getting his chest behind the ball, all that technical stuff. On the other hand, he had put in a lot of time as a catcher and third baseman in baseball, so he did what came naturally and never dropped a ball once he caught it. In the prelims, the Mexicans had laughed at him. The English weren't laughing at him now.
Ramsey took the kick, and the ball floated over the wall to teammate Jimmy Mullen, who came running in to head it to the left of Borghi. Said Keough, who was on the spot as a fullback: "Borghi dove. The ball went by his hand—and then he made an extra, miraculous stretch, a very unorthodox one, reached behind and flipped the ball out, and I cleared it for a corner kick. The English all protested like hell that the ball was over the line already, but it wasn't."
Borghi, who now operates a funeral home on The Hill, claims that he got to the ball in time. "The ball was on the line, maybe," he says, "but not over it." And on that point he has the backing of none other than Sir Alf. "I recall the kick," Ramsey said recently, "but I didn't judge that it went over the line. How could it have been? There was some kind of impregnable, magical barrier there! Even when we had an open goal, we couldn't put it in the net. So all credit to the team that beat us."
With the kick saved, the game was virtually over, though there were still a couple of moments to savor: the run for the English goal that Wallace made just before the end, that had the Brazilians yelling, "Mais um!" ("One more!"); and John Souza's 75-yard diagonal dribble across the field, when he kept possession for a precious half a minute. And then the moment of triumph—the Brazilian firecrackers, newspapers set afire all over the stadium—and Gaetjens was carried triumphantly off the field.
It wasn't quite over. Editors at The New York Times held off printing the score because they thought there had been a transmission error—the score must have been 10-1, England's favor. Most American newspapers that did print a paragraph or two attributed the goal to Eddy Souza. The London Daily Herald came out bordered in black.
The U.S. lost its remaining first-round game, 5-2 to Chile, and thus was eliminated from competition. Uruguay won the championship for the second time.
The heroes of Belo Horizonte slipped back to the States more or less unnoticed. Even getting back was drudgery. The team lingered for two days in Belèm, waiting for passage home, and drew straws when plane seats to the U.S. were declared available. Wallace won one but let another player use it. Later, there would be a major explosion in St. Louis when Mrs. Wallace found out what Pee-Wee had done.
At 6 a.m. one Sunday in July, Harry Keough finally made it home to St. Louis, where his dad awaited him at the airport. There was some big news. The Spanish-American Youth softball club, for which Keough played, had a bus leaving for a game in Peoria, Ill., in three hours. Did he want to go with the team?
Harry took a short nap and caught the bus. It didn't surprise him at all that nobody asked him how he had got on at the World Cup in Brazil.