Comments by Bob Corbett
The United States made it to the World Cup championship playoffs in 1950. It was a team of players who, unlike virtually any other players in the tournament, did not make their living primarily by playing soccer. Some were pros, but even then one could not make a living playing pro soccer in the United States. Most were amateurs who make just a few hundred dollars a year from their soccer.
England, on the other hand, defending world champion, was the favorite in the 1950 cup and regarded as the greatest team ever to play soccer in the history of the sport. In the group stage of play, England played the U.S. on June 29, 1950, and in what is still generally considered the most significant upset in the history of World Cup soccer, the lowly U.S. defeated mighty England, 1-0.
Geoffrey Douglas’s book is a detailed account of the game, and some 46 years later, interviews with the surviving five players on their memories of the game and of the players themselves. This is a very light and cheery book, a quick and fun read.
The book has been made into a full-length movie which came out nearly a year ago under the same title as the book. It seems the film will soon be released on DVD, but under a different title.
Below is the team photo. It is of the 11 players in the game. The squad itself was larger, but these were the days before substitutions were allowed in soccer, so the starting 11 in any game WAS the team. Were someone hurt they just played without a replacement player. It wasn’t until 1970 that the international rule allowing three subs in a game was introduced to the game.
Belo Horizonte, Brazil, June 29, 1950.
1950 World Cup Team -- vs. England
Bottom row: ( “Pewee’) Wallace, Ed McIlenny, Gino Pariani, Joe Gaetjens, John (“Clarkie”) Sousa, Eddie Sousa
Top row: Joe Maca, Charley Columbo, Frank Borghi, Harry, Walter Bahr. Coach Bill Jeffrey
The line-up by position was:
The players who were alive when Douglas wrote and whom he interviewed were:
Frank Borghi, Harry Keough and Gino Pariani, all from St. Louis, and Philadelphian Walter Bahr and the player reputed to be the teams best, John “Clarkie” Sousa. At the time of the interview he was retired and living in Florida.
Douglas gives us the back ground, and an extremely detailed account of the match itself, play by play. Then he travels to St. Louis to interview the three living players there, to Philadelphia for his visit with Bahr and on to Florida for an interview with a somewhat distant Clarkie Sousa.
Since there were three players in St. Louis, and they were close friends, a large segment of the book is about the lives and earlier years of those players. Additionally, since the Italian neighborhood of “The Hill” was the home of FOUR of the team, the living Frank Borghi and Gino Pariani and the deceased Charley Columbo and Peewee Wallace, Douglas spends a lot of time talking about their neighborhood and its history, paraphrasing significant sections of Gary Ross Mormino’s 1986 book, IMMIGRANT ON THE HILL (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
I especially enjoyed the section on St. Louis. My father was one of the best players in St. Louis soccer history and had just retired from major league soccer two years before the World Cup. The five St. Louis players were close friends of his, and I knew them all very well through my father. The stories they relate to author Douglas were often tales I’ve already heard and enjoyed when I first heard them.
I was impressed that Geoffrey Douglas’s account of the game made it live. His description of the short crisp passing game of the English, with their great patience (and confidence) was vivid. He perhaps overplayed the roughness (in both style of play and in basic skills) of these players whom I had often seen in action in those and later days, especially the gripping rivalry of St. Louis Kutis and St. Louis Simpkins of the 1950s on which all five players from St. Louis were stars. There may well have been some brutal roughness in Charley Columbo’s play, but no lack of brilliant skill from all five.
I did get a big kick out of Douglas’s description of Columbo’s diving football tackle of English speedster forward Stanley Mortensen. It was late in the game when Mortensen got past the U.S. defense near the half line and was speeding in all alone on Frank Borghi. As Mortensen approaches the penalty box he is alone and Columbo is in hot pursuit. As Douglas tells us:
“And at the perimeter of the penalty arc, twenty-three yards out from goal, there was a body length still between the two.
“It was at that spot that Columbo dove – at full stride, arms straight out from this head. And brought Mortensen down, like a felled tree, by his ankles from behind. It was a letter-perfect football tackle – as flagrant a foul as you’d see in a dozen soccer games.”
However, such a foul was not grounds for expulsion from the game; it would be today. There were no yellow and reds cards in 1950 and the only grounds for expulsion from the game was excessive protesting of a call or especially violent play. Columbo’s tackle may have been outrageous and unsportsmanlike, but it wasn’t especially violent. A foul kick was awarded, but since the foul was outside the penalty box, no penalty kick was given and England didn’t cash in on the foul itself.
The U.S. goal was scored by Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens, the center-forward. At the time of writing Douglas could only report the suspicion that Gaetjens was later killed by Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti in the early 1960s. However, since the time of the publication of this book more has come to be known of Gaetjens state-sponsored murder at the hands of Duvalier.
Gaetjens returned to Haiti in the late 1950s, started a series of soccer programs for the young boys of Haiti and was not only quite un-political, but unfortunately for him, extremely popular. Papa Doc tended to fear anyone who was popular and using the excuse that some members of Gaetjens’s family were in the political opposition to Papa Doc, he had Gaetjens arrested and he died in the notorious prison of Fort Dimanche.
Geoffrey Douglas has given us a detailed account of the most important soccer story to have occurred in the United States until its time, probably to this very day. It is well-told, even though a good deal sentimentalized, and a delight to have in our soccer history literature.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com