Children form a circle around Walter Bahr (right), Harry Keough (center) and Wilf Mannion (left) during a Belo Horizonte reunion in 1987. (Photo by Michael Lewis)
During the 2004 National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in 2004, five members of the U.S. 1950 World Cup team that upset England, sat down with Michael Lewis to talk about the past, present and future. Here is the story.
By Michael Lewis
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Some 54 years after pulling off one of the great sporting surprises of the ages, five members of the U.S. World Cup team that shocked England and world have found themselves right smack in the middle of the spotlight once again.
They were the stars of the recent National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in January — Walter Bahr, Frank Borghi, Harry Keough, Gino Pariani and John Souza — the five surviving members — and starters — of the 1950 team that forged a 1-0 upset.
Their convention appearance started what should be an extremely busy year for them with the movie, “The Game of Their Lives,” which recreates the story of the 1950 team expected to be released later this year (there have been rumors of a September launch).
In fact, it was quite a busy convention for the soccer’s Fab Five, who are now in their 70’s and 80’s — appearing at several functions, including the awards banquet and the All-America luncheon, where they were honored as honorary All-Americans.
Perhaps National Soccer Hall of Fame president Will Lunn said it best during a special breakfast for the Fab Five during the convention.
“This year is going to be an incredible year,” he said, “all of the attention here with the coaches and the soccer folks. But once the movie comes out the rest of the country, 54 years later are going to know you and your story. We tell your story at the museum every day. Your real photos are there. To us to have this happen is just incredible.
“You all made the game what it is, helped where we are today. It took 50 years to wake up to it, but what a wonderful thing.”
To which Keough replied: “When I saw John O’Brien hitting the ball in there against Portugal to make it 3-1 (in the 2002 World Cup), that came up in my mind right there that I had a little to do with it.
Added Lunn: “It’s a direct link. I hope you all feel as proud as we do. You have been stars and heroes to us for a long, long time and will be, forever.”
After breakfast, the Fab Five sat down for an exclusive interview and talked about the game, the movie, the state of today’s game and U.S. soccer’s latest rising star, 14-year-old Freddy Adu.
Everyone has their own unique memories of the game in Belo Horizonte, Brazil on June 29, 1950. The English, the founders of the sport and considered one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the world, were playing in their first World Cup. The U.S. team had but two weeks of playing together.
Pariani said “so many little things” about the game stood out for him, including what transpired before the kickoff
“First of all, we were disappointed in the accommodations at the field,” he said. “We would go there and change. We had a little shack. I guess it was four by six, a little wooden shack. The English — they must have known because they must have worked out there — they came from the hotel in a bus. . . . We had a little cheering from the Brazilian people. We played we were trying to understand what we were trying to do.”
Joe Gaetjens, who was believed executed as a political prisoner in his native Haiti in the 1960s, scored the lone goal of the match in the 37th minute.
“I thought the roof would cave in,” Borghi said. “But we had a good chemistry among our club. Five of the guys were from the St. Louis area — (Charles) Colombo, Pariani, (Frank) Wallace, Harry Keough and myself. Walter Bahr and (Ed) McIlvenny played together in Philadelphia. Ed and John Souza played together in Fall River, Massachusetts. So the only guy who didn’t play with us was Joe Maca.”
The strategy was simple.
“We played a man-to-man system,” Borghi said. “Bill Jeffrey was our coach. He let the guys coach themselves because he didn’t think we had a chance. . . . It worked out pretty good.”
Keough was impressed with the English after the final whistle sounded.
“After English teams team came to St. Louis and we lost 5-0, 4-0, 5-1, I was impressed that none of the English players said ‘You’re a lucky so-and-so’ and worse than that. I would have understood that. But they were very courteous. They shook our hands. They patted us on the back, which must have been a hell of a shock to them, losing to us. How could they ever explain — they still haven’t explained how they lost to us.
“I was impressed with the sportsmanship they displayed, Not only that day, but the next day. We met them at the airport. They were in their blazers. We were in our blazers. They were just as cordial the next day, shaking our hands and everything else. I was impressed for a long time. When I lost a tough one as a coach or as a player, I at least went up and shook the other guys hand and did not make any recriminations.”
Still, Souza felt might have been had the U.S. side was in better physical condition. Remember, the players were part-time professional players on the weekend with jobs.
“I just wish we were in better shape at the end of the games,” he said. “We didn’t sit back and tried to let them not to score. We kept on pushing and pushing. We had other chances. So, it always pays to be in good condition to go the 90 minutes. At that time there were no substitutions. Eleven men dressed up for the game and that’s what finished the game. Someone got hurt, you had to play with 10 men. It was real tough. I believe if we were in better condition, we would have done much better in the other games.”
“We were tied with Chile, 2-2 in the second half and then we just fell apart. Against Spain, it was only eight minutes to go and we were still ahead 1-0. Then we fell apart and they scored three goals.”
Looking back in hindsight, Bahr wishes the team was better coached.
“I personally think there is too much coaching going on today in all sports,” he said. “But a little bit more coaching in our era, we probably could have been into the finals of that tournament because we never played a game in where we sat back to protect a lead. Yet, that’s not a bad strategy late in a game maybe to keep a couple of players back. If we were maybe smart enough or the coach says, hey, let’s sit on this a little bit to get a win or at least a tie (against Spain), possibly we would have gone on further. I think back with coaching that maybe we should have approached the game a little differently in hindsight.”
But coaching, or the lack of it, won’t be showcased in the movie. For the most part, the Fab Five are looking forward to it.
“Its exciting and its fun,” Parani said. “I just can’t get over that after so many years it actually came through. Every four years when we have the World Cup, we had people calling us on the phone. Can you tell me this, can you tell me that? But nobody came over and said, we’d like to interview you and maybe make a documentary. So we felt it was a four-year deal with all of the interest. I don’t know how to describe it. This is something out of the ordinary that we didn’t expect.”
Parani got an opportunity to watch the filming in St. Louis.
“They came to us on a little advice on how different fellas reacted to different things — how they ran, how they dove and those sort of things,” he said. “I had a heck of a time. I had my son as a coach of the Simpkins team. I even got my granddaughter in there on a scene on the wedding reception.”
“My daughters can’t wait,” Souza added with a smile. “When is that movie coming? When is that movie coming? They want to go there, no matter what. I can’t wait to see it myself. I hope I am strong enough.”
Borghi had an opportunity to watch the movie being made as well.
“It’s exciting, it’s an exciting moment,” he said. “I went to Marcus Park to watch. We took Gerard Butler out to lunch and one guy from ‘Home Improvement,’ ”
That guy from the TV show, “Home Improvement” was actor Zachary Ty Bryan, a former youth soccer player who portrays Keough in the film. The two met up at the All-America luncheon and had their pictures taken together.
Keough was cautiously optimistic about the movie.
“Maybe we could give you a better idea if we saw the movie first,” he said. “I’m particularly pleased about it. I don’t think people generally forgot about us altogether. I’ll be glad to have my grandchildren see it, looking at their grandpa for quite a few years after I’m gone. I’m very excited about it. The gentlemen who are making it might not know about soccer, but they sure know about movie making.”
Bahr was the most concerned about the way the team, game and players will be portrayed.
“I will have to reserve my [opinions],” he said. “I have mixed emotions about it, really. I’m going to have to wait and see. I think it’s great in some ways and in other ways, I’m not so sure. I’m going to hold my thoughts until later.”
So, here they were, 54 years later after their 90 minutes in the sun, so to speak, the Fab Five talking about their favorite sport. Soccer has progressed considerably in this country in terms of quality and recognition, although some players thought it should have been sooner than later.
“To put it honestly, soccer still has not attained what we hoped it could attain,” Keough said. “I don’t picture soccer replacing basketball, baseball and American football on the American scene because they are too ingrained in the culture. Soccer certainly has made tremendous strides. I think all of us would like to feel we had a small part in it.”
Pariani echoed Keough’s sentiments and elaborated on them.
“The biggest disappointment I’ve had is that after 20-30 years after we played this game there was not that much interest in the U.S.,” he said. “I thought the U.S. World Cup team developed a little bit better, learned. . . . . Now with all of the facilities and the people behind it are getting more educated and getting some nice coaches. They’re really starting to build this game up.
“I hope in the next few years — I hope we’ve living, anyway — that we have a U.S. World Cup team that can go pretty far. It took a lot of years for it to actually get started. I was positive something that something would become of U.S. soccer 10 years after our game down in Brazil. It took so long, some 30 years.”
Bahr felt soccer began to take off after the North American Soccer League started to plant the seeds.
“They took what we had and spread it to sections of the country that couldn’t even spell soccer — to Texas to Nebraska and the states in the south that didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “They did a great missionary job of spreading soccer. It’s a gradual thing that has come along and credit goes to the NASL for being one of the pieces of the puzzle. The last piece of the puzzle is the building of the new stadiums — the one in California, one in Columbus. I understand there are a couple in the works. So I think it is a normal progression and everybody deserves credit at a particular time.”
Borghi was pleasantly surprised at the growth of the women’s game.
“I would like to give credit to women’s soccer for all of what has happened because they brought to life how important it is to play the game,” he said. “It amazes me some of these girls have really became successful, which was unheard of way back when we played. Women (were) a no-no. I believe they have had a lot to do with making it very popular. I am very happy to see that is being played in colleges and high schools, which was never done before. I believe that’s what’s helping it a lot. Players start young and they improve more and more. They get to a stage where they can compete now with European teams.”
Added Keough: “Actually, our women got the jump on the rest of the world . . . like the rest of the world got the jump on us many years ago. It’s sort of a parallel. The women are at the top now and everyone is striving to be like them. Of course, the English were at the top and everyone was striving to emulate them.”
Souza agreed. “It has made great strides,” he said. “The ladies have won the World Cup, so it’s moving along. Before it was always baseball, basketball and hockey. soccer has come into its own the last few years.”
Ironically, the interview was done only minutes before the MLS SuperDraft was to be held a very short free kick away in the convention, where Adu, the 14-year-old phenom, would officially become the first pick of the draft by D.C. United.
The Fab Five’s opinions varied from bring it on to taking the cautious road.
Borghi welcomed a boy playing with men. “I think it’s great that he’s playing,” he said. “It’s a wonderful game. Time goes on.”
Souza agreed and elaborated.
“I can see 14 year-olds being real good players now,” he said. “They’ve played it in high school and even played it in grammar school, which was really young, unheard of. We used to play sandlot. I started playing ball when I was nine-year-old and that’s all we did. Now they have a better chance because they have good coaching, they have all of the facilities. They have great ball fields for one thing, which we never had. We used to play on gravel. I can see 14-years-old being ahead of when we were 14.”
But Pariani felt Adu might be rushed a bit.
“Actually, I consider 14 years-old kind of young,” he said. “I know he’s probably doing it for the money because of his family background and everything. I believe that going into such a big start maybe five or six years he might lose some interest and starting wanting to do some other things. I think he’s going in there a little too early. Give him a couple of years and I think it would be better.”
Keough said Adu had to be a strong personality to put up with what he would take from players on the field and the media off of it.
“It would take somebody pretty good to make a judgment on this boy,” he said. “There are other things at stake here. How strong character does he have because he will be under a lot of intense pressure at a very early age. Can he handle that? That’s the question. That he has certain soccer ability, I’m sure nobody doubts. But how strong of a character does that man have to be in a man’s game at that young of an age? Hopefully, he can stand it. Some players who had promise like him who started too soon have fallen by the wayside.”
“They used to say that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” he said. “Now, whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. I think they’re taking a real chance with the kid. I understand why they’re doing it. The league is young. They’re looking for reasons to publicize and to bring people into the stands. And from that stand point, that’s all well and good. But we’re going to have to wait and see. I think the kid does have talent. To get into a professional league where people are playing for their living, it becomes a different situation. So, let’s wait and see.”