Harry Keough, Wilf Mannion and Walter Bahr (right) had a unique 1950 World Cup reunion in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1987. (Photo by Michael Lewis)
Editor’s note: In 1987, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis attended a special reunion of the U.S.’s 1950 upset of England in Belo Horizonte
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.
Actually, it was much shorter, but Keough had made his point.
In 1987, Keough and two other players returned to the scene of what many soccer observers felt was the greatest upset in the history of the sport: U.S. 1, England 0 in the 1950 World Cup.
The story has been told and retold several times, how Joe Gaetjens scored the lone goal and how a team of amateurs from the United States stunned the English and all of soccer on June 29, 1950, winning a World Cup game in what was then a tiny mining town. Today, Belo Horizonte is a bustling city of 2,122,073 in the north of Brazil.
Keough and Walter Bahr of the U.S. and Wilf Mannion of England journeyed back to Mineiro Stadium on Aug. 9, 1987 as part of a World Cup reunion staged by Brazilian native and former New York Cosmos coach Prof. Julio Mazzei.
On that sunny August day, the three men, in their 60s, stood on that very same field, reminiscing about the old days.
“When I come here, you look back . . . it’s more like you say a prayer thanking God for it,” said Keough, a defender on the team. “Not for the game — for the years since, which have been good for me.”
The three men and a small entourage of reporters and curious onlookers spent a couple of hours at the stadium that Sunday morning walking on the pitch and talking about the game.
About a dozen neighborhood children followed the reunion group into the weather-beaten stadium. Before the group left the stadium, the kids held hand and formed a circle around Bahr, Keough and Mannion, who kicked a soccer ball around.
Bahr said he returned to Belo Horizonte — translated, it means beautiful horizon in English — not to celebrate or gloat.
“The victory was unimportant,” he said. “Who won and who lost was unimportant. For me, it was nice just to come down here and see Belo Horizonte and meet so many Brazilian people who had been at the game, and especially this man.”
Bahr was talking about Mannion, who played the front line for England that June afternoon.
“This man deserves more credit than us to come down,” Bahr said. “He still goes places and they talk about the game as a disaster. It wasn’t a disaster. It was just another game where one team won and another team lost. We could play again and the score would be 5-0 for the English.”
On June 29, 1950, however, the score was 1-0 for the Americans. Bahr, a midfielder, realized the significance of the game. The 1950 World Cup was the last time the U.S. participated in the event until Italia ’90.
“At the time, I didn’t realize how big a victory it really was,” Bahr said while standing in the midfield of the pitch. “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 hs become more important.”
Keough agreed. “It just shows you the game was one in a million,” he said. “You hustle and you hold off a team for a while, but you usually don’t hold off a team that is much better than you as long as we did. Especially when we made an early, relatively speaking, early goal, in the first half.
“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. I mean on our team, I think anybody would tell you that. We just thought, ‘We’ll do the best we can and hope for a good result. ‘ ”
And for good reason. The English were co-favorites with Brazil to win the cup. For a variety of political reasons, it was England’s first World Cup. English coach Walter Winterbottom had an array of stars from which to choose; the squad reportedly had been insured by Lloyd’s of London for $3 million, which was considered an enormous amount in those days.
The United States, on the other hand, was a bunch of glorified amateurs and semi-pro players who performed in the old American Soccer League and several local leagues. Some players were paid as much as $25 a game. In a warmup game against a team of English all-stars in New York City, the U.S. dropped a 1-0 decision. Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come.
Mannion, who played forward that day for England, 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.”
For good reason. The U.S. took the game to England before a crowd of 10,151.
“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 caption in the British press was, ‘Disaster area.’ ”
The English can thank the free-spirited Gaetjens for that. The Haitian-born forward scored the lone goal of the match — in the 37th minute — which has been talked about and debated about for years. It was a clean goal, although there has been decades of speculation that 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.”
To prove his point, walked his way through the entire goal sequence, starting with Ed McIlvenny’s throw-in from the right side 35 yards from the goal.
“I was playing left halfback,” Bahr said. “I came in for McEllvenny’s throw-in. I dribbled the ball, and again, this is history. I dribbled the ball, maybe to here.”
Bahr was standing some 25 yards from the goal on the right side.
“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.
Stirred maybe, but never awakened.
At halftime, a reporter for Reuters phoned the outside the world that England was losing, 1-0. The English were losing to a “team I never knew played football,” John Thompson of the London Daily Mail reported.
There were a couple of close calls as the English hit the woodwork — the post and crossbar — three times.
With 20 minutes remaining in the game, Charles Colombo made the defensive play of the match when he stopped English great Stan Mortensen from going in on goalkeeper Frank Borghi and equalizing. Colombo tackled Mortensen on the edge of the penalty area. England protested for a penalty kick, but was awarded a free kick outside the box as nothing came of it.
“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], you know.”
The U.S. almost scored a second goal as Frank (Pee-Wee) Wallace took off on a 50-yard sprint as time was running out.
“But the ball got away from him a little bit,” said Keough as he looked toward the English goal. “The goalie saw his chance to beat him Pee Wee put on an extra sprint and they met right at the edge of the penalty area. The ball got under the goalie and was rolling toward the goal line. Alf Ramsey, who was playing right back, was following the play. He caught up with the ball and stopped it. Otherwise, it would have been 2-0.
“Years later Colombo said, ‘Hell, it should have been 2-0.’ Colombo was not humble.”
Finally, the whistle sounded. Bahr caught the game ball, which bounced up to him.
Fans raced onto the field and hoisted several players on their shoulders. Keough went up to Wallace. “Boy, I feel sorry for these bastards,” Keough told his friend. “How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?”
The next day at the airport, both teams, with their blazers on, posed for pictures. The English were gracious. “But their hearts had to be breaking,” Keough said.
The World Cup, however, for both teams was far from finished.
The English, who began the cup with a 2-0 victory over Chile, completed on another downer, a 1-0 loss to Spain. The Americans, who started the tournament with a 3-1 defeat to Spain — they had led 1-0 until the final 10 minutes — finished it with a 5-2 loss to Chile.
“They couldn’t believe we held Spain for so long,” Keough said. “It was almost reason for celebration.”
That celebration in Belo Horizonte was plenty enough.