In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in August 1987, a small group of middle-aged men held a reunion. They gathered at one of the nation's cathedrals of soccer, Mineirão Stadium, into which 130,000 fans can be crammed, and exchanged remembrances of their original meeting, in this very place, nearly 40 years earlier. And they examined an old leather soccer ball, protected by a glass case, with a reverence normally reserved for holy relics. The ball itself is unimpressive—drab, scuffed, brown. It's not one of the fancy kind with multicolored panels used today, but a vintage 1950 model, the sort that soaked up water, making heading the ball on a rainy day a savage test of the upper vertebrae.
In the group of pilgrims, three men stood out, each more than 60 years old. A serious student of the sport might have recognized the now frail-looking Englishman, Wilf Mannion. As a 29-year-old in 1947, Mannion had been the most devastating forward in the game when Britain destroyed a Rest-of-Europe All-Star team, 6-1. But the two Americans: Who were they and what were they doing here?
Mannion answered that, in a sense, when a reporter asked him what it was like to once again see the ball he had played with in a historic match, in this very city, in 1950.
"Played with?" said Mannion, with disarming honesty. "I hardly got a bloody foot to it."
The comfortably built Americans, Walter Bahr of Boalsburg, Pa., and Harry Keough of St. Louis, are, in fact, two of the five surviving players from the U.S. soccer team that brought about the biggest upset ever in the World Cup—possibly the biggest in the history of the sport. This June 29 will mark the 40th anniversary of the U.S.'s 1-0 victory over England, a game played with the venerable football on display at Mineirão.
The enormousness, the incredibility, of that outcome cannot be truly appreciated today. Oddly, 1950 marked England's first appearance in the World Cup finals. This was because England had not even tried to qualify for earlier tournaments. It was a matter of arrogance. England had been an early, unenthusiastic member of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's international governing body, which was formed in 1904, but had withdrawn in 1926 because of technicalities concerning amateurism, four years before the first World Cup finals were played.
England rejoined FIFA after World War II and, in 1950, was the pre-Cup co-favorite, along with the host team, Brazil. It was a somewhat reluctant rejoining. After all, as the birthplace of the sport, what did England have to prove? Going into the 1950 Cup, England had beaten Italy 4-0 in Turin, and Portugal 10-0 in Lisbon. And in Rio de Janiero, in its first game of the World Cup finals, England defeated Chile 2-0.
Next would follow what promised to be a formality, a game against a U.S. team that had already lost to Spain. The expected victory would lead England to a more serious first-round game, against Spain. The English players looked forward to a relaxed workout in the hilly, airy country around Belo Horizonte, a pleasant change after steamy Rio.
For its part, the U.S. was given no chance against England. Harry Keough, ex-mailman, ex-right fullback, ex-soccer coach of St. Louis University, now 62, was a soccer star in Missouri in the 1940s and '50s. He played for the Kutis, a club sponsored by a St. Louis undertaker. ("What's funny about that?" he wanted to know recently, as he recalled his early playing career. "Why does everybody get a kick out of that?")
Four other St. Louis players had made it onto the 1950 U.S. team, following an East-West trial game in St. Louis that spring. All four were from The Hill, an Italian neighborhood of the city; all were members of the Simpkins team, sponsored by Joe Simpkins, who owned a Ford dealership in town.