The Miracle on Grass
60 years ago, U.S. beat England in World Cup's greatest upset
Sixty years have passed, but it might as well have happened yesterday, so sharp is Walter Bahr's recollection.
"I remember it so well, because I've told the story 1,000 times," bellowed Bahr in his trademark gruff voice before letting out a thunderous, jovial laugh.
June 29, 1950. Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
The U.S. took to the field at Estádio Independência for a first-round game at the World Cup against England in an encounter that had "mismatch" written all over it.
Indeed, the English, competing at their first World Cup, were touted as the "kings of football." They had lost only a small handful of matches in the post-war era and boasted some of the greatest players in the world at the time.
By comparison, the American side was composed of expatriates and part-timers with regular jobs.
England was considered a 3-1 favourite to win the World Cup. The U.S. was a 500-1 long shot.
Before both teams even stepped out onto the field, it was a foregone conclusion what the final result would be. It wasn't a question of if the English would beat the Americans, but by how much. How badly would mighty England, grand inventors of the game, beat the neophyte American squad of mailmen, teachers and dishwashers?
"We knew we were up against it at the time, [because] England was considered No. 1 in the world," recalled Bahr, who was a long-time captain of the U.S. team. "Everybody had similar feelings of 'let's do the best we can and keep it close, keep it respectable.'"
They did much more than just "keep it respectable."
A full 30 years before a group of U.S. college kids stunned the Soviet Union in men's hockey at the Lake Placid Olympics, Bahr and his teammates recorded what would eventually go down as the single greatest upset victory in 20th century sports, defeating England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte.
It was the Miracle on Grass.
Prior to the World Cup, Bahr played semi-pro soccer for the Philadelphia Nationals in the old American Soccer League, while at the same time holding down a day job as a teacher.
"We were all working guys on the national team," Bahr said. "Your soccer money supplemented your salary, which was good. I was teaching at the time, making 50 bucks a week, and I was averaging 20-50 dollars per game playing soccer."
Barely got time off
In a true sign of just how much things have changed, Bahr almost didn't travel to Brazil, because he couldn't get time off from work.
"I just got a teaching job in 1949, and they were tough to come by," Bahr recalled. "And in that tournament down in Mexico to qualify for the World Cup, they were very reluctant to give me time off from school. Finally, it got worked out, and when the next year came around with the World Cup, there was a similar problem before it was sorted out."
Bahr and his teammates headed down to Brazil where they held their own in their opening match against Spain. The U.S. took an early lead and looked certain to register what would have been a historic win, before giving up a trio of late goals en route to a 3-1 loss.
The Americans were given a soccer education by the Spaniards, but instead of hanging their heads, they dusted themselves off and went on to shock the English in their next game, which was won on Joseph Gaetjens's lone goal in the 38th minute on a setup from Bahr.
"The goal was something that happens all the time," recalled Bahr, now 83 and living in Pennsylvania.
"Ed McIlvenny, another midfielder, threw the ball in from the right-hand side to me. I pushed it forward and took a shot from 25 yards out, and it was a good shot that flew to [England goalkeeper] Bert Williams's right.
"Bert moved to stop my shot, which I'm sure he would have handled easily. He moved off his line to get position on it …Joe somehow got a piece of it, got up in the air and got a piece of it, and it changed the flight of the ball. So Bert was moving to his right and the ball went back towards his left … He really didn't have a chance."
The goal served as a real sucker-punch to the English. They carved out a handful of early scoring chances and dominated proceedings up until Gaetjens's goal, and the only thing they had to show for it was a one-goal deficit at the halftime break.
More desperate in 2nd half
"The thought that most of us felt was that the goal was probably enough to wake the English guys up," Bahr stated. "They could have pounded a few in at the end of that half but nothing went in. And then at halftime we talked about it and just said to keep doing what we were doing."
England became more desperate in the second half, as they began to pepper American goalkeeper Frank Borghi with long-range shots.
"Frank was a good goalkeeper. He was a former minor league baseball catcher and he was a good athlete. He handled stuff in the air very well and had a great game," Bahr recalled.
"As the game went on in the second half, there was no question that they thought they should have won. I think they thought that they eventually had to at least get one goal."
But England didn't score, and when Italian referee Generoso Datillo blew the final whistle, their worst nightmare was realized, and the American's greatest dreams had come true.
How exactly did the U.S. manage to keep mighty England off the scoreboard for 90 minutes?
"I really don't know," Bahr admits now. "At that time, all the teams played with a WM formation, with three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards … Nothing was done to pull any player back to strengthen our defence in any way.
"We never reached a point where we said bring people back to help us out. We played a lot in our own half of the field, not by design but because we were forced to."
So unlikely was the result that fans back in England thought the 1-0 scoreline printed in the newspaper was a typo, and presumed that England had won 10-0.
To their credit, the English players were gracious in defeat.
"They were great sports about it after the game. They were terrific. They never complained about the result," said Bahr.
No parades, no adoring fans
Sixty years after their first World Cup encounter, the U.S. and England will renew their rivalry when they square off in first-round match in Rustenburg, South Africa, at this year's World Cup. Should the Americans emerge victorious again, you can bet that news of their victory will be splashed all over the news, and the team will be feted like kings upon their return home.
In 1950, though, there was barely any mention in the next day's newspapers in the U.S. There were no welcome home parades. No adoring fans lined up the airport awaiting their return.
"The only person that met me at the airport was my wife," Bahr said. "There was no fanfare at all. Philadelphia organized a special dinner for all of the local athletes that competed at the 1948 Olympics in London, but for us, they didn't even have a breakfast. The notoriety came much later."
It was only in the 1970s, when the World Cup became more globalized, that the tournament's rich history became more a part of the public sporting record. And that's when Bahr and his teammates started getting the recognition they so richly deserved for beating England.
"We knew it was a big victory at the time. It was a big victory in the soccer world, [but] in the United States it was small so it really didn't make any impact," Bahr explained.
"About 25 years later, the World Cup exploded, and as it did, some of the history became known. I don't ever remember being interviewed about the World Cup for at least 20 years after the game against England. Now, every four years when the World Cup comes up, I get phone calls from reporters."
The U.S. lost its next game, against Chile, and returned home after being eliminated in the first round.
But they could hold their heads high, secure in the knowledge that the Miracle on Grass would go down as one of the seminal moments in World Cup history.