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90 Year Anniversary Articles: Reflections with Walter Bahr

Coming off arguably the most successful year in U.S. Soccer history, the U.S. Soccer Federation will be celebrating their 90-year anniversary throughout 2003 with a number of special projects and events.   As part of the year-long commemoration, will produce weekly articles looking back at the organization’s history. Through the articles, you will not only revisit some of U.S. Soccer's crowning acheivements, but you will also learn about the people and events that shaped the Federation's first 90 years.

This week, we share with you selected excerpts from a recent conversation with Walter Bahr, one of the heroes of the 1950 World Cup.  Bahr played a major role in the USA's 1-0 win over England in that World Cup, a win that is still considered one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.  The entire conversation will be published this summer in the limited-edition 90-Year Anniversary book commemorating U.S. Soccer.

REFLECTIONS WITH WALTER BAHR Describe what the climate for soccer was like in the United States in 1950…

Walter Bahr:  It was a good time for soccer, in that the American Soccer League and some of the local leagues were starting to operate at a very high level.  There was a large influx of players coming in from overseas. The professional league, as we knew it, was up and down the East Coast.  At one point it went from Boston to Washington, but for the most part it was New York, where you had two teams, Northern New Jersey, two teams out of Philadelphia and two out of Baltimore - that was basically the American Soccer League for about 25 years.  All the professional teams were either connected with an ethnic club, or they were run by a businessman that had a few extra dollars and contacts with a local tavern, where the players and fans would hang out after games.  We were getting about a 1,000 spectators for an average league game, but a lot of the club’s finances depended on how many people came into the club afterwards for dinner and drinks. What was life like for a typical professional soccer player?

WB:  I don’t know of anyone who made a living out of playing soccer. I first started playing as a pro at 15.  If you were on a pro contract, it meant you got a few dollars for playing. You worked and played on weekends.  Most of the time teams had one or two nights a week of training.  Guys had jobs where there was a lot of shift work, and you couldn’t get the whole team together.  If you could get half the team there, that was a good night.  Typically, we played our games on Saturday.  Sometimes if there were Cup games or foreign teams coming over, you’d play twice on the weekend.  For road matches, we’d take three or four cars full of guys.  For a while we took the train to New York, which was about two dollars for a round trip ticket.

The best example I can think of came from around 1952 or 1953.  We were supposed to play a rematch of our game against England, and we were going to play at Yankee Stadium.  The team was selected, and the players from my area drove up Sunday in time for the game.  It turns out the game was called off because of rain – they didn’t want us to ruin the baseball field.  So we drove back to Philly, went to work Monday morning, then headed back to New York to play that night.  I think we got 50 bucks for the game and 10 dollars in expenses.  In 1950, I was a teacher making $50 a week, so the extra money for playing made a nice supplement. Going into the tournament, you must have been heavy underdogs…

WB:  There were no expectations on us. None at all.  One newspaper had us at 500-to-1 odds.  Our biggest hope was to get over there, play some games, and not get embarrassed.  A lot of trips we had been on we were embarrassed. These days there is a lot of focus on strategy, formations, etc.  What was the team’s approach heading into the matches against Spain, England and Chile?

WB: We never talked about stuff like that.  Really, it was a matter of organization and getting the right players in the right positions. There was very little coaching done.  As far as any real day-to-day coaching, it just wasn’t there. In fact, if we had any type of strategy we would have gone further in that tournament. Did you walk on to the field that day with the feeling you could get a result?

WB:  Remember, we weren’t supposed to beat anybody.  But I don’t care who you are.  You always think there’s a chance you can win.  Our team never talked about winning and losing.  We may have said ‘Let’s keep it respectable’.  But we never thought about packing the goalmouth.  The way soccer was played back then, everybody went for the goal. What was the team’s mentality stepping onto the field against England?

WB:  After playing the English select team, I thought that we hadn’t played badly, and I think that helped us a bit.  The game against Spain was our best of the tournament.  We led 1-0 with eight minutes left to play.  If that was today, we would have sat back and tried to protect the lead. That day, we were still trying to score.   At that time, there was no such strategy as sitting back and protecting a lead.  The strategy was to get the second goal.  Looking back, a win or a draw would have been a huge difference.  (Editor’s note:  The U.S. lost 3-1 to Spain on June 25 in their first match of the 1950 World Cup, four days before they shocked England.)  We realize that you’ve been over this a thousand times, but can you take us through the goal once more?

WB:  Ed McIlvenny and I were the two midfielders on our team that day.  Today, they would call our formation a 3-4-3.  Back then, we called it a ‘WN’.  There were three defenders, two midfielders, two inside forwards –which would be midfielders in today’s terminology – and three forwards.  So Ed McIlvenny, who played right midfield, had a throw in maybe 30 yards from their goal.  He threw it to me, and I’m over past the center of the field towards the sideline.  I received the throw, collected it and took it towards the goal.  Nobody was picking me up very quickly, so I let a shot go from maybe 25-28 yards away.  I struck it well, and it caused their goalkeeper, Bert Williams, to move to his right to get my shot.  I’m sure he would have gotten if it was on the goal, but it was to his right and there was a lot of traffic.  Joe Gaetjens dove at the ball and got a piece of it.  How he got to it, I don’t know.  He didn’t get a clean header, but he got enough of a piece of it to change the direction back towards the left side of the goal, and the goalkeeper is leaning the other way. It wasn’t a great goal, but it was a goal, and it was by design on Joe Gaetjen’s part.  Not surprisingly, the English have always had a different version of how the goal was scored…

WB:  The controversy is whether or not Joe did it by design. The English say the ball hit him in the ear by accident and went into the corner.  Harry Keough, who has a memory like a horse, says Joe left his feet and dove at that ball.  Joe was always one of these guys who could make a goal out of nothing.  He was athletic and acrobatic, and someone who could always get a piece of the ball.  That’s the sign of a good goalscorer.  The goal was legitimate in that I took a shot and he deflected it. One English paper said the ball hit him in the ear by accident.  The same paper wrote that my shot was a clearance!  I wrote a rebuttal to it years ago.  We may not have been as sophisticated as the Europeans in soccer at the time, but we did know that if you got within a certain distance of the goal it was time to take a shot.  How do you account for the team’s success that day?

WB:  We certainly were lucky to beat England.  We could have lost to them and still felt we had a pretty good tournament.  For some reason this was one of the games that we had a good combination of players, guys that knew each other. That’s the best expression you could use is simply that we had a lot of players that could play.  People talk about somebody being fast or tough or things like that.  To me the best statement is that a player understands and knows how to play. When you go out, the longer a game stays even, the better chance the underdog has to win.  You gain confidence, and the other team starts to worry a little bit.  Again, there was a bit of controversy at the end of the match when England had a chance to score…

WB:  They claimed it was a controversial call, but from our standpoint it wasn’t even close.  Our goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, had to come off his line to make a save and he had to reach back a little bit when the ball got passed him.  It wasn’t anywhere near crossing the goal line. The victory must have caused a huge stir in the world soccer community…

WB:  Around the world, it is still considered one of the all-time great upsets.  In 1950, it was the first World Cup for England, and they were the clear-cut kings of soccer at that time.  It was almost a foregone conclusion that England was going to beat Brazil in the final.  A lot of the publicity down in South America resulted from the fact that because we beat England, Brazil would likely win the World Cup.  Against England, I didn’t realize why the Brazilians were cheering for us so much at the end of the game.  It wasn’t for us, they were cheering because they knew that if the score held up, that would knock England out of the possibility of playing Brazil in the final.  Obviously no one had seriously expected the U.S. to get a result…

WB:  We got away with a lucky victory.  We worked hard, and almost got a second goal at the end of that game, but they cleared the ball off their line.  The third game against Chile, we went behind 2-0, then it was 2-2, and then they got three goals in the last 12 minutes.  But even there, getting back to 2-2, we could have had two wins or a tie and a win.  All we had to do was tie that game and we would have been into the final four.  Again, conceivably we would have sat back and tried to get the tie.  Was there a tremendous amount of media coverage after the victory against England?

WB:  We didn’t have any media from the U.S. traveling with us.  There was one reporter down there from St. Louis, but he was down as a fan.   Believe it or not, I don’t think I ever talked to a reporter until maybe 25 years after that game. There was no t.v. back in the 50’s. I never saw a moment of the England game, except for a 30-second bit they showed on television.  In 1966, when they televised the World Cup final in the U.S., people started becoming aware of the World Cup in soccer, and that’s when the importance of the World Cup began to develop.  From then on, during almost every World Cup I would get a couple of calls to reminisce about the 1950 game.  That one victory gaining so much world wide attention over years.  Did you feel any special sense of pride from the accomplishment?

WB:  It was a great victory, and yet over the years it has become as if that is the only game we ever played.  I’ve played in hundreds of soccer games. Oddly enough, it seems like we’re always apologizing for it.  It’s not the first time that the underdog has won a game.  Sure, we were bigger underdogs than most. It’s certainly one of the biggest events of my life, but it wasn’t until the last 25 years that it gained so much attention. In 1950 there was a two-inch column in the New York Times. There’s a direct correlation between the growth of the World Cup and the magnitude of that victory.  How much has the game changed over the last 50 years?

WB:  Back in Philly in 1994 prior to the World Cup, I was with the great German international Horst Eccles at an event when he was asked if there were any players from the 1954 German squad who could play on the team in 1994.   He said yes, and he also thought that players from this era could have competed back then.  The difference in the game is the focus.  In 1954, the emphasis was on skill.  Now the emphasis is on strength and speed.  Having said that, the way you play the game hasn’t changed much.  It’s not a question of anything fancy, it’s a matter of getting the right players in the right positions, having an understanding of what your team is trying to do, and eliminating basic mistakes.  What are you impressions of soccer in the United States in 2002?

WB:  It’s never been at such a high level as it is now.  With the number of people who are playing, and the attention it’s getting.  I see the most improvement in soccer at the collegiate level, and that is in sheer numbers in terms of players and money.  I’m most pleased that finally we are building soccer-specific stadiums.  If you want to list the reasons why soccer hasn’t gone over big in this country, the fact that we don’t have good fields is one of them.  We’re getting more legitimate fields and more legitimate stadiums.  There’s no question that today there are better players getting better training, and I hope it continues to spiral upwards.

The entire conversation, along with a collection of the Communications Center 90th anniversary articles will be featured in a limited-edition 90-Year Anniversary Publication, a coffee-table book which will be published for fans and U.S. Soccer constituencies around the time of the organization’s 87th Annual General Meeting in Chicago from Aug. 13-16, 2003.

Photo courtesy the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame (