The United States national soccer team took off for the World Cup in Brazil earlier this week after months of hype and fanfare.
There was much discussion about the roster, a three-game send-off series that averaged just fewer than 35,000 fans apiece and even an ESPN film crew following the team around for a multi-part documentary series.
Suffice it to say, things were just a bit different 64 years ago when Walter Bahr and his U.S. teammates took off for Brazil. Bahr, a former Penn State soccer coach, is one of two surviving members of the 1950 U.S. soccer team. That year was the last time Brazil hosted the sport’s global showcase.
There was little ado when they left and when the players came home after having pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history, they were hardly greeted as returning heroes.
“We couldn’t even get the whole team on one flight,” Bahr, 87, said. “We came back on three separate days and my wife was the only one at the airport that met me.”
Today, soccer appears to be finding a solid place in the American sports landscape. Back in Bahr’s playing days, though, the sport was generally confined to ethnic enclaves within major cities. Bahr grew up playing soccer in Philadelphia.
So when the team for the 1950 World Cup was announced, it wasn’t exactly big news across the country.
“The team was picked, told when to report and where, and that’s where we went,” Bahr said by telephone from his home near State College.
“One of our better players at that time was a player named Ben McLaughlin from Philadelphia. He made the team but had to cancel because his boss at work wouldn’t give him time off. He had just gotten married and had a baby, so it was important that he held on to his job.”
Those who did make the trip had a formidable task ahead of them. Much like the “Group of Death” (Ghana, Portugal and Germany) facing this year’s team, the 1950 squad had a tough slate of group games against Spain, England and Chile.
It wasn’t realistic to think this group of part-time players from across the country could advance out of the group, so the main goal, really, was just to not get embarrassed by one of the European powerhouses.
It didn’t take long for the U.S. team to exceed expectations.
Just 17 minutes into his team’s World Cup opener against Spain, Gino Pariani — who rescheduled his wedding to make it to Brazil — put the Americans ahead, 1-0.
Bahr and his teammates held on to that lead for 64 minutes, until Spain scored three times in the final nine minutes to take a 3-1 win. Still, the game proved that the U.S. might just be able to play with these European teams.
“I thought Spain was the best we played of the three games in the tournament,” Bahr said. “We had no practice.”
Bahr said a major reason for the team’s success was coach Bill Jeffrey (who coached Penn State at the time) and his insistence on playing players at their natural positions, rather than trying to put together a makeshift all-star lineup.
“He didn’t take players and say, ‘Boy he’s a good player, he can play anywhere,’ ” Bahr said. “He gets a lot of credit for not re-inventing or changing players around for such a short tournament. Other teams had much more practice. We had a few days and not much time to change.”
Heading into the second game against England, Bahr said there wasn’t much talk amongst the team about any potential results, positive or negative.
“(Jeffrey’s) main comment was, ‘Look, we’re the underdogs, but the score’s 0-0 when we start. We all can play. Give it your best shot, let’s see what happens,’ ” Bahr recalled. “He never mentioned once about winning the game, but he never mentioned that we were being led to slaughter.”
In truth, it would have been foolish to think the U.S. could beat the mighty English. This was England’s first appearance at a World Cup, and they were considered one of the favorites to challenge host Brazil for the title.
Despite the surprisingly hard-fought loss against Spain, the U.S. was still just two years removed from being embarrassed by Italy, 9-0, at the 1948 Olympics.
“When the game was played, we were 500-to-1 odds,” Bahr said. “No one expected us to do anything.”
But, like Jeffrey said, the match had to start 0-0.
And it remained 0-0, improbably, for most of the first half.
England had some quality chances but was denied by American goalkeeper Frank Borghi as well as the goalposts a couple of times.
“England should’ve scored a couple of early goals but they didn’t, they hit the woodwork and so forth, but they didn’t, it was still 0-0,” Bahr said. “As that first half continued, I don’t know that we got any more confidence, but we continued doing what we were doing and it was fairly successful.”
In the 38th minute, Bahr took a throw-in from Ed McIlvenny and fired a shot at goal from about 25 yards out. At the same time, forward Joe Gaetjens moved toward the penalty spot and flung his head toward the ball.
Gaetjens caught just enough of it to change the ball’s path and catch English goalkeeper Bert Williams flatfooted. Just like that, the Americans, almost impossibly, had a 1-0 lead.
As the game continued to tick away, rather than pack everything in defensively, Jeffrey told his team to keep up the strategy that worked for them in the first half. Keep taking the game to England rather than sitting back.
“The second half, our instructions from Bill Jeffrey were no more than encouragement,” Bahr said. “He was a Scottish guy. He said, ‘Lads, let’s keep up the good work. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing and see what happens.’ “
While England continued to generate scoring chance after scoring chance, Borghi, a former baseball player, was up to the task.
Late in the game, American Charlie Colombo brought down an English player near the edge of the 18-yard box. While even Bahr admits now it probably warranted a penalty kick, referee Generoso Dattilo instead ruled it outside the box and the U.S. held its lead.
Even though Bahr estimates that England controlled about 75-80 percent of the possession over the course of the game, when the final whistle sounded, the scoreboard still read 1-0 in favor of the United States.
“Possession doesn’t count,” he said. “The goal counts, and we got the goal.”
If there’s a reason Bahr can recite the details of that game so well, it’s that he has to do it frequently — about once every four years.
“Each time there’s a World Cup that gets played, that game gets more attention. When we won that game, some of the papers didn’t report it,” he said.
Some papers just assumed the 1-0 U.S. win was a misprint. Despite the historic result, the victory hardly inspired a soccer revolution in the United States.
With a 5-2 loss to Chile, the U.S. team failed to advance from group play and the players quietly flew home, back to their full-time jobs.
“I can’t remember any reporter or anyone else (other than his wife) that was at the airport when we landed in the States,” Bahr said.
Bahr went on to a career as a teacher and coach, his final coaching job at Penn State from 1974-88. His three sons played professional soccer and two of them, Matt and Chris, were placekickers in the NFL. Matt Bahr kicked for the Steelers in 1979 and 1980.
It would take 40 years, until 1990, for the U.S. to qualify for another World Cup.
“No matter where we play, whether it was at school or wherever, we understand who came before us and we respect what those guys did for us,” said John Stollmeyer, who was born in Pittsburgh and played on that 1990 U.S. World Cup team. “Everybody does something more to help with the future.”
Even though the 23 players in Brazil now have technology, infrastructure and support that Bahr never had, there might be some common ground.
Like the 1950 team, most experts peg this U.S. team as underdogs in all of their group matches. Even former U.S. defender and ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, with the entire team sitting about 10 feet away from him last week at a send-off event, predicted that the team would not make it out of the group stage.
“In a way, that kind of (ticked) me off a little bit,” Stollmeyer said. “My ultimate feeling, the way I walk on the field, is there’s a way to get through. There is a possibility.”
That 1990 team was also a heavy underdog, and though they exited that World Cup with three losses, they put a scare into host Italy in a 1-0 loss.
Bahr, too, said he thought this 2014 U.S. team could benefit from not being the favorite.
“Maybe that’s to their favor,” he said. “As a player, you don’t like to play teams where they’re the underdog. It doesn’t sit right to you.
“England was a big favorite and we were the underdog. Sometimes the underdog wins.”