Philadelphia Soccer History / US World Cup History

England, the USA, Philadelphia and the 1950 World Cup

It first started during the unlikely run of the US in the Confederations Cup: was the victory over Spain the US team’s greatest victory since the 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup hosted by Brazil? If the US had beaten Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, would that have been the greatest victory? With last week’s World Cup draw, it started again: England v the USA in the 1950 World Cup, one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game – could it happen again in June?

It’s no insult to wonder if most American soccer fans know anything about the match – the game happened nearly 6 decades ago and most Americans  knew nothing about it then. Sure, a book called The Game of Their Lives: The Untold Story of the World Cup’s Biggest Upset came out in 1996. And a rather saccharine film “from the creators of Rudy and Hoosiers”, based on the book and variously titled The Game of Their Lives or The Miracle Match came out in 2005 to limited theatrical release and then on DVD. But even if you know something of the match, did you know that the two Philadelphia-based players on the team were instrumental in creating the winning goal?

That the US win was a tremendous upset is undeniable. Largely because the stuffed shirts who ran (run?) the FA were (are?) a bunch of self-important deluded snobs, England had missed the first three World Cups so 1950 was England’s first World Cup appearance. Their international appearances had been few and far in between and the national team had yet to be defeated in England by a team from outside of the British Isles, a fact that would remain true until they were humiliated at Wembley by Hungary’s “Magnificent Magyars” by the score of 6-3 in 1953. (Scotland defeated England 3-1 in in England in 1877; Ireland defeated them there 2-0 in 1949.) Nevertheless, England was still considered the pinnacle of world football. To many around the world – and certainly in England – that England would be World Cup champions was simply a given.

The US had fielded a team at the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay, in 1930 where they finished third. They went to Italy in 1934 where they finished 16th. 1950 was the fourth World Cup and the US team’s third World Cup appearance. As both the book and the film about the upset make clear, five of the players on the US team were from St. Louis. Two players were born in Fall Rivers, Massachusetts, one of the historic cradles of the game in the United States. Two more played for New York-based teams in the American Soccer League (ASL), at the time the premier professional league in the country. Two other players – Walter Bahr and Ed McIlvenny – played for the Philadelphia Nationals, who were also in the ASL.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, The Philadelphia Nationals were perhaps the greatest team in the country, winning  the league from 1949 through 1951 and then again in 1953. Twice during that time they won “the Double,” also winning the Lewis Cup in 1949 and 1951. They won the Cup again in 1953 when they finished second in the ASL.

Walter Bahr, a Philadelphia native, is generally considered one of the greatest American soccer players of the 20th century. Before turning professional, Bahr played in the 1948 Olympics. After retiring as a player he was the coach for the Philadelphia Spartans and the Philadelphia Ukrainians. He then became the coach at Temple and later Penn State. Meanwhile, he was a gym teacher at Frankford High School where he also coached the soccer team. “Legendary” doesn’t begin to describe the man.

Ed McIlvenny was born in Scotland and played with Bahr at the Philadelphia Nationals. At the time of the 1950 World Cup, the United States Soccer Football Federation rules were such that if a player declared his intention to become the citizen of the US he could play for the US. So McIlvenny did. Although Bahr was the captain of the team, for the match against England McIlvenny was made captain – who better to lead your team against the English than a Scotsman if your team doesn’t have an Irishman on board?

Joe Gaetjens, himself a Haitian national who played for Brookhattan in the ASL, scored the only goal with a header in the 38th minute of the historic upset. The header was the result of a throw-in from McIlvenny to Bahr, who then put the ball in front of the goal where it was finished by Gaetjens. When the initial wire reports reached England, one editor assumed a transmission error had occurred and corrected the report to read “England 10 – USA 1.” It was a time of national mourning in England. In the United States the victory was barely noticed. The US wouldn’t qualify for another World Cup until 1990 in Italy.

Joe Gaetjens went on to play briefly in France before returning to Haiti. He never became a US citizen and made an appearance for the Haitian national team against Mexico in 1953. In 1964 he was abducted by the Haitian secret police. His body has never been found.

Ed McIlvenny, who also never became a US citizen, left Philadelphia to play for Manchester United. After only two appearances for the club he joined Waterford United in the Football League of Ireland. After four years there he returned to England where he finished his playing career with Headington United. After retiring he ran a football school. He died in 1989. Walter Bahr now lives in State College.

Other great upsets have happened at the World Cup, notably when North Korea beat Italy in 1966. A documentary from 2002 also titled The Game of Their Lives chronicles that story. The England v USA match this June will surely be huge, if only because the lead up will encourage mewcomers to soccer or otherwise casual fans to watch and be a part of the hype. Serious, longtime American fans of soccer will know better: a victory would be wonderful, a draw just fine. Otherwise, let’s just get out of the group stages.

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