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130123 Centennial Hidden Caps Dick.jpg

Hidden Caps: Walter Dick's 4,000 Mile Trip to Italy

Imagine travelling 4,000 miles to represent your country in the World Cup, only for your team to be eliminated after playing just a single game - a 7-1 defeat. And imagine that was your lone opportunity to pull on the National Team jersey.

That was the fate of Scottish-born Walter Dick, who represented the United States at the second World Cup in 1934, played in the U.S. National Team’s defeat to host nation Italy and never represented his adopted homeland again.

Born in Kirkintilloch, Scotland just north of Glasgow, Dick had moved to the United States in 1922 at the age of 17 and settled in Niagara Falls, New York. He began playing as a forward for his local team, Niagara Falls Rangers, an amateur team who had earned some national prominence by reaching the semifinals of the first U.S. Open Cup tournament in 1914.

Dick found success and soon moved to Rhode Island to play for Providence F.C. (later renamed the Providence Gold Bugs) in the thriving American Soccer League (ASL) where they were runners-up for the title in 1929. The ASL’s collapse and the formation of a second American Soccer League in 1933 uprooted many teams and players, including Dick: the Gold Bugs were moved to Massachusetts and became Fall River F.C.

By 1934, Dick was starring for the Pawtucket Rangers back in Rhode Island and he helped his team reach the U.S. Open Cup Final in March where they came up short against Stix, Baer and Fuller F.C. The St. Louis team featured perhaps the best American player of his age, Billy Gonsalves, who would play alongside Dick in Italy.

The World Cup squad set sail for Naples on May 5 aboard the Roma steamliner, arriving in Italy nine days later. Just how unaware the American public and media were of the National Team was shown by a New York Times report on the team’s selection on April 11, 1934, which quoted an official from the United States Football Association (USFA, the original name for the U.S. Soccer Federation) as saying it was the “first time an American team has participated in an international tournament other than the Olympics” - blithely ignoring the United States’ third place finish in the previous World Cup four years earlier.

The Times’ erroneous report was indicative of a vastly different international soccer landscape in the 1930s. In the two years leading up to the 1934 World Cup in Italy, the United States played a grand total of one game (in contrast to the team preparing for the 2010 World Cup, which played 38 qualifiers and friendlies to tune up for the tournament in South Africa).

But if the team was short of international practice, it didn’t show in their sole World Cup qualifier.

After docking in Italy, the team undertook 10 days of practice. On May 24, 1934 the Americans made sure the 4,000 mile journey was not for naught, defeating Mexico 4-2 in Rome, the first World Cup qualifier the U.S. team had ever played.

Watched by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the stands, the U.S. victory against its southern neighbor and future rival was the first time the two countries had met, with four goals by Aldo “Buff” Donelli proving the difference.

Though he was surprisingly not selected by the coach, a fellow Scot David Gould, for the qualifier, Dick was in the lineup three days later against Italy when the U.S. played the first round match of the World Cup proper in Rome.

FIFA’s stark set-up for the 1934 World Cup meant there were no group games and no guarantee for more than one game for the 16 nations present in Italy; it was a straight elimination tournament. And the Americans could not have faced a tougher opponent in the first round.

The Italian team needed to win not only for the usual reasons as the host, but was demanded to do so for the prestige of Mussolini’s regime, who had placed enormous emphasis on the competition as a showcase for fascist values. “Italy must win the World Cup,” was the verdict from the leader of the National Fascist Party.

The Italians were led by a brilliant but suitably authoritarian coach, Vittorio Pozzo, and his strong team was deepened further by the addition of four naturalized Italians from Argentina: Luis Monti, Raimundo Orsi, Enrique Guaita and Attilio Demaría. All four had previously played for Argentina internationally, in the years before FIFA prevented players from representing multiple national teams.

The American starting XI, which included Dick, proved no match for an Italian team determined to win at any cost in front of 30,000 wildly partisan fans in Stadio Nazionale del PNF on May 27. Almost all of the play in Rome took place in the American half of the field, with few chances for Dick and his fellow forwards to get involved. Even with Julius Hjulian inspired in the American goal, the score was 3-0 to Italy at halftime, and though Donelli pulled one back in the 57th minute, the Italians struck four more times for a 7-1 final score.

The American team took the defeat philosophically, well aware they were considerably outmatched in resources and talent. Losing had been no disgrace to the team that would go on to win the World Cup in dominant style.

Walter Dick, like many of his teammates, did not play for the U.S. again, with the National Team’s next game coming three years later in 1937.

By then the tables had turned drastically in North America since that first World Cup Qualifier. The U.S. played and lost to Mexico three times by a cumulative total of 19 goals to six.

Dick did appear for an ASL All-Star XI match against Scotland in New York in 1935, another heavy defeat - 5-1 - illustrating that the Americans’ lack of consistent international play clearly left them exposed against more experienced opposition.

A further decade would pass before the U.S. played another international, by which time Dick was long retired, having ended his distinguished career with the Kearny Scots-Americans, winning three ASL titles in 1938, 1939 and 1940, his last active season.

Though Dick may have only played once for the U.S., the forward had clearly marked himself out as one of that era’s outstanding American players. This was reflected with Dick’s induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1989, shortly after his death at the age of 83 and less than a year before the U.S. came out of the international wilderness to appear in Italy once more at a World Cup.

--Tom Dunmore