The 1950 U.S. World Cup Soccer team to be immortalized in film

Category: The Game of Their Lives News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 17, 2005 | Publication: | Author: Gordon Brunskill
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It was a story you would not believe if it were not true. If you watched it in the theaters, you would leave shaking your head and say sarcastically, "Yeah, tell me another one."

But it is true -- the book, the movie, the life.

Former Penn State men's soccer coach and Boalsburg resident Walter Bahr was there, a member of the 1950 U.S. men's soccer team that pulled off, by some accounts, the greatest upset in sports history. The Americans, who were assembled only a few weeks before and were a bunch of nobodies as far as soccer goes, beat heavily favored England in the World Cup in Brazil.

It is one of those stories, like a high school science teacher who finally makes it to the major leagues as a pitcher, a little horse that inspires the country during the Great Depression, a bunch of college kids who beat the Soviet Union during the Cold War in hockey, or a basketball team from a tiny town that beats the big city boys for the Indiana state title.

All of them would be chalked up to Hollywood folly if not for the fact that they all really happened -- "The Rookie," "Seabiscuit," "Miracle," "Hoosiers."

The next one on the list is "The Game of Their Lives." The book was written by Geoffrey Douglas in 1996 and was re-released last week, and the movie from IFC Films comes out Friday, although only in select cities for now.

Whether the movie is any good, whether the sport and the depth of the players' personalities translates well to the big screen, remains to be seen. What is probably most stunning for such a remarkable moment in sports history, and the inspiration for a multi-million-dollar motion picture, is that it took so long for anyone to even notice that it happened in the first place.

Getting there

The U.S. has qualified for the final rounds of the World Cup only a handful of times since it was first held in 1930, and it was not until the last one, in 2002, that the U.S. advanced out of pool play and won an elimination game.

While soccer has achieved a certain amount of success in recent years, back in the middle of the 20th century it barely existed beyond a few enclaves populated mostly by the well-to-do and first- or second-generation Americans. The U.S. could hardly hold a candle to the level of play in Europe or South America. In the 1948 Olympics, the Americans lost to Italy 9-0. In a stretch of seven international matches before their World Cup qualifier, the U.S. lost by a combined score of 45-2.

Because of the economic conditions after World War II, hardly any countries could send a team to the North and Central American region qualifier in 1949, which left a three-team tournament for two automatic spots in the 16-team finals field. The U.S. lost badly to Mexico twice but beat and tied Cuba and made the tournament in Brazil.

Only a handful of players on the Olympic and Cup qualifying team actually made up the 1950 squad. The group was picked by a committee and finalized just days before they left for New York and then Brazil. A large chunk of the team came from the St. Louis area, with others from along the east coast. Bahr, at the time, was a physical education teacher in Philadelphia. The head coach was Bill Jeffrey, a Scotsman who was at the helm of the Penn State men's program from 1926-52.

The players, who were barely paid and had to take time off from their regular jobs to make the trip, hardly had any time to practice together and there certainly was no time to implement any set pieces or design any elaborate strategies.

"There was no time to do any coaching," Bahr said. "He just organized the team to get everyone in the best position."

The team had just one exhibition game together, against some British select players in New York, and then they headed to Brazil -- a trip that took two days to complete. They were placed in a pool with England, Chile and Spain, another tournament favorite.

Still, as if foreshadowing things to come, the U.S. held a 1-0 lead late in the second half against Spain in their opener before running out of gas in a 3-1 loss.

Miracle on grass

The British were, according to some bookmakers, 3-1 favorites to win the whole tournament. If you could find odds on the Americans, it was around 500-1 or worse.

"We ain't got a chance against you boys," Jeffrey was quoted in the English papers.

"All these teams were much better than we were because they were basically professional teams, full-time professionals," Bahr said. "They had a lot of training, physically they were in better shape, team-wise their organization was better than ours."

England held possession for much of the match in the mining city of Belo Horizonte, 300 hundred miles inland from Rio de Janeiro, but they kept firing shots high or wide, or when they were on the mark goalkeeper Frank Borghi was a brick wall.

The game's only goal came in the 37th minute, when Bahr took a throw-in, turned upfield and fired a shot toward the far post. Accounts differ what happened next, but the ball glanced off the head of forward Joe Gaetjens, redirecting the shot into the net. Some say Gaetjens never saw the shot, others insist he made a spectacular diving play to put his head on the ball.

But the ball went in, and 30,000 Brazilians were chanting and cheering the underdog Americans on the rest of the day.

"They went crazy," said John (Clarkie) Sousa, another member of the team who now lives in York. "They carried us off the field. It was really something."

The U.S. lost to Chile 5-2 in the final match of pool play, ending hopes of advancing to the elimination round. However, England lost again to Spain, which left the British on the outside looking in. Uruguay eventually won the Cup, upsetting the host Brazilians in the finals in front of 200,000 fans. That one would have been the biggest upset in World Cup history if not for what had happened to the British a few weeks earlier.

What game?

The headlines in the Brazilian papers, saved by Bahr, screamed jubilantly about the upset. Meanwhile, the British papers mourned the debacle, with some even putting a black border around the front page.

Some even made the assumption the score they received was a misprint -- the Brits must have won 10-1.

What did the victory earn them in papers stateside? A paragraph or two. Hardly anyone noticed.

"It meant nothing back in the states," Bahr said. "But we knew it was something that was never expected."

It did not help that three days earlier, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, and the next day President Harry Truman committed U.S. soldiers to the region.

To this day the loss still burns the British, who have never again worn a blue jersey like they did on that afternoon in Belo Horizonte.

For the next few decades, hardly anyone in this country knew the story, except the die-hard soccer buffs. In the 1970s and 80s it started popping up every four years when the World Cup would come around.

Spotlight finally comes

Then the U.S. hosted the whole thing in 1994, and stories started showing up in magazines and papers across the country. One caught the eye of Geoffrey Douglas, who teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and had already written two books.

"It was one particular piece in the Boston Globe," Douglas said. "I thought, 'What a great story.' I had just finished my last book, I didn't have a (new) book and I was looking for one. I read that and both of my other books had been kind of downbeat books and I was looking for something more upbeat but also with the same humanism. This just seemed like a tremendous story."

That same day he called information and tracked down one of the players, Harry Keough, in St. Louis. After a lengthy phone conversation, Douglas was up all night coming up with the proposal for the book. He tracked down the other four team members who were -- and are -- still alive, and he had a story blending the game with what made these extraordinary men able to make history.

"These are not ego-driven men," Douglas said. "They're just not that way. They just played because they loved the game. That's what appealed to me about the book -- it's written in an age of multi-million-dollar contracts and these guys played games for $5 a day meal money and for the sheer enjoyment of it. They didn't realize the magnitude on the world stage of what they were doing."

Douglas was then tantalized over and over about his book being turned into a movie. He sold the film rights soon after it was first published in 1996, and he kept getting small royalty checks annually. Every once in a while there would be a phone call that something was going to happen, but it never did.

"It was a bit of a tease," Douglas said. "I never particularly expected it to turn into a movie. The statistic is something like one out of 40 films that are optioned ever get to a movie, and of course not many get optioned in the first place. You get a little bit of money every year but it's not going to change your life."

The five men also heard the rumors. One, according to Bahr, had a separate venture in Britain including Sean Connery in the cast. That, too, never came to pass.

"They mentioned something about a movie, but I never thought it would happen," said Sousa, who is now 84. "I'm glad I'm still around to see it happen."


The calls finally started to come a little more frequently to Douglas a few years ago, when Philip Anschutz wanted to make a soccer movie. Anschutz, a former oilman and billionaire, owns Qwest Communications and the Staples Center in Los Angeles and has stakes in the L.A. Lakers and Kings and portions of Major League Soccer.

He brought in director David Anspaugh and producer-screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, who had earlier teamed up on the films Hoosiers and Rudy, and they bought the rights to Douglas' book. Filming began in 2003 in St. Louis and Brazil, and a scene was later added at Washington's RFK Stadium which included those five heroes.

"They consulted us on quite a few things," said Keough, who watched some of the filming in his hometown and added jokingly, "but they didn't want us around too much because they didn't want us to tell them they were doing it wrong."

The movie was shown to some people at the U.S. men's World Cup qualifier against Guatemala a few weeks ago in Birmingham, Ala. It was shown again at the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y., on Thursday. Bahr got to see an early screening.

"They did a good job of capturing how things were in the '50s, of how the team was selected and what happened down there," Bahr said. "Like all Hollywood shows, I think it's basically correct but there is a little bit of fairy tale in there and there's a little bit of 'sea story' in there, but other than that they did a good job."

The film stars Wes Bentley (the neighbor with the video camera in American Beauty) as Bahr, Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) as Borghi, John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings trilogy) as Jeffrey and Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: Next Generation) as Dent McSkimming, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who was the only member of the American media at the game -- after paying his own way to get there and using his vacation time.


Bahr, 78, who was captain of the U.S. team for almost a decade and a member of the 1948 Olympic team, was 185-66-22 at the Nittany Lions' helm from 1974-87. He got to watch two of his sons, Matt and Chris, kick in the NFL and another, Casey, make the Olympic soccer team just like his old man. He is still very active -- walking 18 holes and carrying his bag at the Elks Country Club.

Sousa worked in a knitting factory and retired a while ago, and the others still live in St. Louis -- Keough delivered mail, Borghi still runs a funeral home and Gino Pariani was a sheet stacker. Those three still get together occasionally and all five talk every once in a while.

The rest passed away somewhere along the way. The most tragic of which was Gaetjens, the man who scored the most famous goal. In 1963, the former New York City dishwasher returned to his native Haiti and was working at his family's dry-cleaning business. One day, after some of his family members had been openly critical of the country's government run by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, police and loyalists allegedly abducted Gaetjens in front of his store and he was never seen again.

Still, the five men are happy to see the book re-released, and a movie finally hitting theaters. It sure beats getting the same questions every four years.

"By the time he wrote the book we were a little bit tired of talking to people that were going to write a book or do this," Bahr said. "People did the same old thing all the time and nothing ever came of it."

It only took 55 years, but America is finally starting to notice.

"It's nice that they haven't forgotten completely," Keough said. "We didn't get a lot of fame at the time, so maybe late in life it comes in handy."