Bob Ford: Soccer underdogs top dogs at last

Originally published April 27, 2005.

If this is the 15 minutes of fame Walter Bahr and his dwindling band of teammates had coming to them, maybe there should be some interest tacked on for good measure.

Make it 18 minutes at least, or even 20.

When you wait more than half a century for some recognition, the payoff should be worth the delay.

“Ah, it’s a little bit of limelight,” Bahr says. “Here at the tail end of our careers.”

In 1950, Bahr, who became somewhat better known in NFL-crazed America as the father of two professional placekickers, Matt and Chris, was part of the U.S. soccer team that pulled off the greatest sports upset remembered by the fewest people.

In the opening round of the World Cup that year, the United States shocked the soccer world by defeating England, 1-0. Bahr, now 78, had the assist on the goal. It was the biggest win by the U.S. team until … well, it’s very possible the game has never been topped, even though the current team is talented and advanced to the quarterfinal round in the 2002 World Cup. It did not do so with anything so dramatic as a win overa tournament favorite, however.

The soccer world in 1950 did not extend to much of North America, so there was little reaction, shocked or otherwise, to the U.S. win over the snobby Brits.

“The only one at the airport to meet me was my wife,” Bahr said. “Nobody made anything of it. We didn’t expect anything to be made of it.”

All that anonymity came to an end, sort of, when a 1996 book was written about the game, and now the spotlight has really found Bahr and his mates, at least for a few minutes, with the release of the movie The Game of Their Lives.

Bahr and the four other living members of the 1950 team have attended some of the premieres around the country, done scores of interviews, and signed a lot of autographs. The movie is being released in selected test markets, with Philadelphia still awaiting its arrival.

“I’m done. I’ve been to five or six screenings,” Bahr said. “Kids will like it. Soccer moms will like it. Guys who played will probably be critical of certain things.”

In Bahr’s day, the Kensington neighborhood and other immigrant sections of Philadelphia and New York were among the hottest of soccer hotbeds in the country. St. Louis was another, and the 1950 team was cobbled together largely from such places.

“Knowing my crowd in Philly, they might throw stones at the movie,” Bahr said. “There’s an old-timers’ dinner in Philly coming up, and I can hear those old bats down there. They’ll say there were 100 guys better than Bahr. And, you know what? It’s true.”

Not everyone was interested in traveling to Brazil for a soccer tournament, though, and not everyone was able to get off work. It could be that Offside Schmitty or Hairs Logan or Fall-Down Sweeney, some of Bahr’s soccer contemporaries from the neighborhood, would have done just as well. Instead, only Bahr represented Kensington on that fateful day.

It might have been a better story if the U.S. team had done anything else in the tournament, but beating England was just about enough. The movie plays to the gutty underdog story line, not surprising since the director and the screenwriter are the same pair that turned out Rudy and Hoosiers. Reviews have been mixed. Variety said the film was from “the routine genre of inspirational sports movies.” The Boston Globe called it a “perfectly reverent feel-good portrait.”

Everyone agrees that the soccer action, coached by Eric Wynalda, a former U.S. player, is believable. There are a few stretches of the truth, but not much by Hollywood standards.

“Well, it’s basically a true story,” Bahr said. “We win the game we’re not supposed to win. There’s a little bit of a fairy tale in there, but I’m hoping everyone enjoys it.”

Bahr, who coached the Penn State team for 14 years, is retired now. He gets on the tractor to cut the five acres of grass around his farmhouse near State College. He still plays golf when the weather is nice and racquetball when it isn’t. Bahr doesn’t remember the last time he kicked a soccer ball, although some interviewers talked John Souza, a member of the 1950 team who lives in York, Pa., into doing just that a few weeks ago.

“He said it was a bad day and the field was muddy,” Bahr said. “He had to be careful.”

Someone said once that soccer is the game of the future in the United States— and always will be. Bahr agrees to a point, but would be happy if the movie opened a few new eyes to the game.

“They’ve been saying soccer will make it in the next five or 10 years since the 1930s,” Bahr said. “As much as I would like to see it, I’m just glad they’re still playing.”

The game goes on, and for Walter Bahr and his teammates, The Game goes on as well. News just travels a little slowly sometimes.



Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.