Then, as Lisi wrote in his 2007 book, History of the World Cup 1930-2006, "the unthinkable happened." Thirty-seven minutes into the game, Bahr launched a shot from 25 yards. Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian native who was studying at Columbia University, "dove headlong and grazed the ball for the stunning 1-0 advantage. On first glance, it appeared that Gaetjens had ducked to get out of the way. Had he headed the ball in intentionally or had the ball simply hit him and deflected into the net? No matter. The goal was valid … and the Americans were astonishingly ahead."
That’s the way it would stay. In the second half, the increasingly panicked English team kept pressing but couldn’t score. "Our goalkeeper had a good game," Bahr says with a shrug. "You have games like this in all sports. Sometimes the underdog wins."
Maybe, but this upset was so stunning that the first reports of the game were widely considered to be a transmission error on the newswires. Surely, a newspaper editor supposedly asked, the correct score was 10-1, in England's favor?
Although Gaetjens was carried off the field by jubilant fans that day, the Americans' World Cup came to an end on July 2 with a hard-fought 5-2 loss to Chile. Uruguay went on to win the cup in their own stunner — a victory over host nation Brazil in the finals.
The collective American yawn that greeted the team's upset over England continued when they arrived home. "The only one waiting for me at the airport was my wife," Bahr says. Not that he expected a brass band or, heaven forbid, the press (in fact, there was only one American reporter in Brazil for the World Cup, a loyal writer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who paid his own way to be there). Soccer would remain a second-tier sport in America for decades to come. Only in 2005, with the release of a movie version of the great 1950 upset entitled The Game of Their Lives (the DVD version was retitled The Miracle Match), did people begin to realize that Walter Bahr had some sports significance beyond his role of fathering two NFL players — sons Matt and Chris, both kickers.
In the film, directed by David Anspaugh (whose other sports fairy tale films include Hoosiers and Rudy), actor Wes Anderson — best known for his award-winning portrayal of Annette Bening's teenage love interest in American Beauty — plays the role of young Walter Bahr.
To say that the real Walter Bahr hasn't gotten a swelled head over all this later-in-life attention is an understatement. Although he politely recounts the story of that long-ago day in Brazil yet again, he makes clear that as far as he's concerned, the past is the past. "You want to remember it; you don't want to live in it."
While he will not be in South Africa for this year's U.S.-England World Cup match, Bahr says he will definitely be watching. "Oh yeah," he says, emphatically. "And I’m not taking any phone calls that day."
Coach Bahr’s 2010 Scouting Report
Walter Bahr, star of the U.S. World Cup team that beat England in 1950 and former head soccer coach at Penn State, is reluctant to compare his team to the 2010 version, except to say that "we had players that were good enough to play on this team, in my opinion."
He is impressed with the current squad, though, and offers this scouting report: "They're well coached, well prepared, in good condition. The U.S. is solid defensively, and they have a couple guys that can make things happen on offense. I don't think there's any team in the tournament that would look at the U.S. as an easy win."
… as almost every team did in 1950, until Bahr and his fellow Americans proved them wrong.
John Hanc is a New York journalist whose latest book is The Coolest Race on Earth: Running the Antarctica Marathon.