Walter Bahr, a Star of a World Cup Upset, Is Dead at 91
Posted June 18, 2018 6:57 p.m. EDT
When the United States soccer team arrived in Brazil for the 1950 World Cup, its largely anonymous players faced 500-1 odds that they would come home as champions.
Soccer was barely a blip on the American sports scene back then, except for weekend leagues with an immigrant fan base, and to no one’s surprise the Americans were eliminated in the Cup’s first round.
But before that happened, they pulled off what is still considered by many to be the greatest upset in the history of international soccer: a 1-0 victory over England, co-favorites with Brazil to win the tournament.
“It was pathetic to see the cream of English players beaten by a side most amateur players at home would have beaten,” the English newspaper The Daily Graphic lamented.
Walter Bahr, a midfielder who had been captain of the U.S. team at the 1948 London Olympics, set up the game’s only goal. It came in the 37th minute, when a 25-yard shot he angled toward the far post of the English goal was redirected by forward Joe Gaetjens, who dived for the ball and, while parallel to the ground, put it into the net with a header.
Bahr later became a highly successful soccer coach at Penn State, and his sons Chris and Matt, who played for him and also kicked for the Penn State football teams, became longtime place-kickers in the National Football League.
When Walter Bahr died Monday in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, at 91, he was remembered as the last surviving player from the 1950 World Cup team and, beyond that, for his prominence in American soccer as a longtime player and coach.
His death was confirmed by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the national governing body of the sport. The Associated Press reported that the cause was complications of a broken hip.
“Things happen in sports,” Bahr told The New York Times in December 2009 nearly 60 years after the astounding upset. “The ball can bounce any way.”
Walter Alfred Bahr was born on April 1, 1927, in Philadelphia and began playing soccer with a boys’ club team at age 10. After playing at Temple, he was a member of the U.S. National Team for a decade and also played for Philadelphia teams that won championships in the American Soccer League, a weekend circuit based in the Northeast.
Bahr was teaching at a Philadelphia junior high school and playing on weekends, like most of his teammates, when their World Cup team departed for Brazil.
“When our team left New York City for Rio in 1950, there was no special send-off,” he wrote in The Times 40 years later, when the United States finally qualified for the World Cup once more. “A few relatives and friends were there to say farewell, but there were no reporters or radio or TV crews.”
The American players, who had little practice time together in the runup to the 1950 Cup because they had everyday jobs, lost to Spain, 3-1, in their opening game in a round-robin grouping of four teams.
They next faced England in the mining town Belo Horizonte on June 29. The English, who took the matchup so lightly that they rested their star player, Stanley Matthews, dominated at the outset. But the Americans held on, and their goalie, Frank Borghi, essentially sealed the victory when he stopped a free kick late in the game.
The Brazilian fans, who had been rooting for the Americans because the English were considered Brazil’s major challenger for the championship, carried Gaetjens, who scored the game’s only goal, off the field at the final whistle.
But the United States was eliminated after losing to Chile in its next match. Uruguay won the championship, stunning Brazil in the final.
Bahr and his teammates came home much the same way they had left.
“The welcome-home committee consisted of the same wives, friends and relatives,” he said. “The game results were pretty much a well-kept secret in the United States except for the soccer community.”
Bahr coached at Temple in the early 1970s, then at Penn State from 1974 to 1987, taking his teams to the NCAA tournament 12 times. In 1979 he was named collegiate coach of the year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America after Penn State reached the tournament’s semifinals. He was a member of the United Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame as well as the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York.
Bahr is survived by his wife, the former Davies Ann Uhler, along with four children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Bahr’s son Matt played in the NFL for 17 seasons, and his kicking propelled the New York Giants to the 1991 Super Bowl championship over the Buffalo Bills. His son Chris had a 14-season NFL career. Another son, Casey, played soccer at Navy and was an Olympian in 1972.
All three sons also played in the North American Soccer League. His daughter, Davies Ann Desiderio was an All-American gymnast at Penn State.
Amid the American team’s euphoria after the victory over England, Bahr felt compassion for the losers, and through the years he never sought to belittle that English team.
“I was thinking going to the bus that I didn’t know whether to feel happy for us or feel sad for those poor English guys,” he said in an interview for Major League Soccer’s website in 2014. “How are they going to explain a defeat to a 500-1 underdog?”