Remembering the USA's 1-0 upset of England in 1950

ByJeff Carlisle ESPN logo
Friday, June 6, 2014

They are 11 names that have become legends in U.S. soccer history.

Frank Borghi, Joe Maca, Charley Columbo, Harry Keough, Ed McIlvenny, Walter Bahr, Ed Sousa, John "Clarkie" Souza, Gino Pariani, Joe Gaetjens and Frank "Peewee" Wallace.

Along with manager Bill Jeffrey, this was the U.S. side that pulled off one of the greatest upsets -- some would say the greatest upset -- in the history of sports, beating England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup.

There are only two of them left now, Borghi the goalkeeper, and Bahr, the midfield brain of the team. Contacted by telephone, Bahr is still quick with a joke and displays impressive recall.

"You'll have to list it under 'ancient history,' that's the category that it's in now," he quips regarding the match. "It's past the 50-year mark, so it's ancient history.

He then marvels at the winding path the achievement has taken over time.

"When we came back from Brazil in 1950, I don't think I did more than two or three interviews for 25 years," he said. "Now as each World Cup comes up, I get a couple of phone calls."

The manager

Among the more underrated aspects of the U.S. team's feat was the subtle impact of Jeffrey. The squad had been selected by a committee, and primarily consisted of players from the St. Louis area and the Northeast, and it fell to the Edinburgh-born Jeffrey to turn such a collection into a team.

"Bill did a good job of not over-coaching," said Bahr. "He only had a couple of days to get the team ready."

Bahr, 87, adds that when it came to the key partnerships on the field, Jeffrey made sure team chemistry was maximized. On the left side, both Eddie Sousa and Clarkie Souza were from Fall River, Massachusetts, while on the opposite wing Wallace and Pariani, both from St. Louis, played off one another. The two half-backs -- center midfielders in today's parlance -- were Bahr and McIlvenny, who had played together for Philadelphia in the American Soccer League. Jeffrey also made sure the players remained in their positional comfort zone.

"Jeffrey didn't play one player out of position, or who didn't play that position for his club team," said Bahr. "That doesn't always happen for select teams. A lot of time they'll just pick the best players and say, 'He's a good player, he can play this position.' That's not always true."

The seed

Belief can be manufactured in the strangest of places. For Bahr, it came the weekend before the team departed for Brazil, during a friendly in New York City against an England touring team comprised of players who missed out on going to the World Cup. The U.S. lost 1-0, but a seed had been planted.

"I think that game gave us a little bit of confidence and an idea of what to expect from the English team," said Bahr. "We certainly didn't go out there expecting to win, other than you always expected to win. I don't care who the opponent is, you always think something can happen, and we can win the game. But it did give us a little bit of confidence."

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The goalkeeper

The memories don't come so easily these days for Borghi. He's now 89 and in declining health. His wife of over 60 years, Rosemary, joins him on the line to help tease out the details from that time.

If Frank Borghi had had his way, he would never have been on the field that day in Belo Horizonte. After serving as a field medic in World War II, he spent two years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

"That was my ambition, to be a major league baseball player if I could," he said. "I went down as a third baseman, and decided to become a catcher if I could. I enjoyed that."

Alas for Borghi, family demands put an end to that dream.

"His mother was a widow and wanted him home," Rosemary said. "In those days, we weren't married yet. If we had been married, he would have gone on to be a baseball player. In those days, we did what our parents said."

Borghi had played soccer growing up in St. Louis, but given his lack of skill on the ball, he quickly surmised that playing in goal was his best option. He also had the height, leaping ability, and arm to do well in the position.

"I couldn't control the ball like some players, but I could throw it," he said.

"And he has big hands," Rosemary chimed in.

All of those attributes would come into play against England.

The match

To say that Borghi had the game of his life wouldn't be an exaggeration. Geoffrey Douglas, in his fine book "The Game of Their Lives," describes numerous saves by Borghi, including one at full stretch off a header from Wilf Mannion. England hit the post on two other occasions.

During this time the ball wasn't the U.S. team's friend, as England monopolized possession. But then the match turned on Joe Gaetjens' goal in the 38th minute. Taking a throw-in from McIlvenny, Bahr fired a speculative shot from 25 yards that England keeper Bert Williams seemed set to track down, only for Gaetjens to redirect the ball with a diving, glancing header.

The irony is that Bahr is perhaps the only man in the stadium who didn't see the final touch.

"I was in traffic. There were a number of people in the area, so I never saw Joe make contact with the ball," he said. "But Joe was one of these acrobatic center forwards who may be out of the game for 10-15 minutes, but he was good at positioning himself in the penalty area. He went after anything that was half a chance, and he had scored goals like that before in his career. People asked, 'How did he even get to the ball, let alone keep it on the goalmouth?' There was nothing outstanding about it. There was nothing outstanding about my shot except that it was on the goal."

In the second half, England still dominated, but without quite the danger it exhibited in the first. This was down in part to Borghi's ability to command his penalty area.

"A lot of them were crossing balls, and that was Borghi's strength, cutting off passes coming across the goalmouth before they could cause any danger," said Bahr. "He was good at making the right choice and holding onto the ball."

England had one last great attacking thrust with about eight minutes to go. Stan Mortensen burst through the U.S. defense on a clear breakaway past Columbo. Columbo was the kind of defender who would do anything to stop an opponent, whether it was within the rules or not.

"Charlie was known as a good, tough back," said Bahr. "He took it as a personal insult if he was beaten. I wouldn't call Charlie a dirty player, but he stretched the rules a bit in making some of his contact. He was a player you wanted on your team, not playing against your team."

In this instance, Columbo hauled Mortensen down with a two-armed, shoestring tackle that would have made the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman proud. Italian referee Generoso Dattilo went up to Columbo, and legend has it that he told the U.S. defender "Bono, bono!" (Good, good!).

As Rosemary Borghi recounts the story, one she has no doubt heard countless times, you can almost hear her smiling through the phone.

"The ref, he said that was a good thing Charley did," she said. "It was a little bit off the wall, but the referee told him it was good."

Bahr added, "It wasn't in the best of sportsmanship, but Columbo did it, and it probably saved the game for us."

Not quite. Borghi did that with the game's most controversial play. Alf Ramsey's free kick found England forward Jimmy Mullen wide open, and his header went past the diving Borghi. But Borghi then dove a second time, and touched the ball around the post. There is controversy to this day as to whether the ball was over the line. The England players certainly thought they had scored. It's not surprising to hear Borghi's recollection.

"I stopped it before it went over the goal line," he said. "I just dove and deflected the ball."

When the whistle blew, the U.S. players were carried off the field. Not an easy feat with a bear of a man like Borghi.

"One guy tried to carry me, but he'd had a couple of drinks, so I guess he felt no pain," said Borghi.

Nobody on the U.S. team did either.

The aftermath

Of course, having lost its first game to Spain 3-1, the U.S. needed to get a result out of its last game against Chile. There was no fairy tale this time, as the Americans fell 5-2.

Jeffrey memorably said that the England result was just what was needed to galvanize the sport in the United States. It would be several decades before that would happen.

"When we came back, there was very little hoopla that went along with it," said Bahr. "One piece in the local papers and not much more in the big papers."

Bahr went back to performing in the ASL, and played for the U.S. for seven more years. He amassed only 19 caps in his 10-year international career, a sign of how infrequently the U.S. team got together.

"There was no real national team other than the Olympics and the occasional exhibition game or friendly game," he said.

Bahr went to coach at Temple and Penn State for a combined 18 years. These days he's retired to his farm in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Davies Ann. His four children -- including former NFL place-kickers Matt and Chris -- as well as eight grandchildren visit frequently, though not so often as to interrupt his chores.

"It seems like I spend half my time cutting grass," he said.

Borghi went back to playing in leagues around St. Louis and took over his uncle's funeral home business. These days, he remains surrounded by a loving family, with seven children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"I'm the happiest man," he said.

That's the way it should be for a legend.

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