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November 9, 2011

When Walter Bahr and the U.S. shook the World (Cup)

Former U.S. international Walter Bahr, the grandfather of U.S. Merchant Marine Academy senior midfielder Casey Desiderio, played a vital role in one of the greatest upsets in soccer, if not sports history some 61 years ago. On June 29, 1950, Bahr and his U.S. teammates stunned England, 1-0, in the World Cup, a result that is still talked about today. This is a story about Bahr's return to Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

By Michael Lewis

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL -- At first, the stadium was barely recognizable to Harry Keough. A roof over the stands had been added. So were lights and a press box. The grass was greener.

"When you see the [game] ball, it makes the game seem to be 150 years ago," he said.

In 1987, Keough and Walter Bahr and England's Wilf Mannion returned to Mineiro Stadium, the scene of what many soccer observers felt was the greatest upset in the sport's history: U.S. 1, England 0 in the 1950 World Cup.

The story has been told and retold, how Joe Gaetjens scored the lone goal and a team of amateurs stunned the English and all of football on June 29, 1950, making headlines in what was then a tiny mining town. Today, Belo Horizonte -- which means beautiful horizon -- is a bustling city of 2.4 million in northern Brazil.

Bahr said that "1950 is ancient history. You don't want to live in it. But you don't want to forget about it."

While none of the players and Bradley were alive at the time, the coach realized the match's significance.

"We tried to make sure the team has a little sense of history," he said. "The win in 1950 is a moment we are proud of."

The Americans wound up 40 years the World Cup desert before participating at Italia '90.

"At the time, I didn't realize how big a victory it really was," Bahr said. "We weren't that familiar with the World Cup. The United States wasn't familiar with the whole concept of the World Cup. As the years went by, the significance of that victory has become more important."

Keough agreed. "We would have been happy with a 2-0 loss because we would have thought, gee, they would have walked all over us. In our wildest dreams we didn't think we'd ever win," he said.

The English, in their first World Cup, were co-favorites with Brazil. Coach Walter Winterbottom had an array of stars. The team had been insured by Lloyd's of London for $3 million, an enormous sum then.

The Americans were glorified amateurs and semi-pro players who performed in the American Soccer League and local leagues. Some players were paid $25 a game.

Mannion remembered how confident his teammates were as their bus pulled up to the stadium. "We were just going to go on the field and it was all over and we could do anything we wanted," he said. "We didn't."

The U.S. took the game to England before 10,151 spectators.

"We would have never scored," Mannion said. "It was just one of those days.

"It's a credit to the Americans. Our lads were dejected and humiliated. They just couldn't believe it, the shock of it . . . The [headline] in the British press was, 'Disaster area.' "

Gaetjens, a Haitian-born forward, scored the lone goal -- in the 37th minute -- which has been debated about for years. The English claimed it was a lucky strike.

"It wasn't an accident," Bahr said. "He got to the ball by design. The ball itself was a deflection. It wasn't a clean head ball, but he has to get credit for getting his head on the ball."

Bahr walked his way through the sequence, starting with Frank McElvenny's throw-in from the right side 35 yards out.

"I was playing left halfback," Bahr said. "I came in for McElvenny's throw-in. I dribbled the ball . . . maybe to here."

Bahr stood 25 yards from the goal.

"I took a shot," he said. "It was going to the far post. The goalkeeper had to move to his right to get the ball and somehow Joe Gaetjens came from that side and deflected it with his head."

Past goalkeeper Bert Williams into the goal.

"We were happy to get off the field with maybe a 2-, 3- or 4-0 loss and to get a goal like that, we maybe awakened the sleeping giant," Bahr said.

John Thompson of the Daily Mail reported that the English were losing to a "team I never knew played football."

Gaetjens' had a tragic fate. A U.S. resident, but not a U.S. citizen, Gaetjens presumably died in prison or was executed as a political prisoner in Haiti at the age of 40 in 1964.

With 20 minutes remaining, midfielder Charles Colombo tackled Stan Mortensen at the edge of the penalty area, stopping him from going in on keeper Frank Borghi.

"Charlie took a head-long dive and hit him right in the back of the knees," Keough said, "a tackle anybody in the NFL would have been proud of.

"The momentum they were both going, they both were at the penalty spot when they stopped. Charlie bulldozed him all the way. He [Mortensen] was mad as hell as anybody would have been. The referee came up and yelled at Charlie. Charlie claimed the referee said, 'Bono, bono' -- good [in Italian]."

When the final whistle sounded, fans raced onto the field and hoisted players on their shoulders. "Boy, I feel sorry for these bastards," Keough told teammate Pee-Wee Wallace. "How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?"

Photo: Walter Bahr with some children in Belo Horizonte, Brazil at the 1950 World Cup reunion. Photo by Michael Lewis