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When U.S. postmen and miners humbled England

By James Montague, CNN
  • Soccer is growing in the U.S.; it's still considered a minority sport
  • Soccer was rejected in favor of homegrown sports to aid nation building
  • The press ignored the national team when they famously beat England at the World Cup
  • Exactly 60 years on, England and the U.S. will play each other again at the 2010 World Cup

London, England (CNN) -- It is still regarded as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history; the day the U.S. shocked the world.

In the group stages of the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil, center back Walter Bahr marshaled his collection of semi-professionals (mainly postmen and miners) to a 1-0 victory against arguably the best team in the world: England.

The victory over America's former colonial masters created headlines around the world, but one of Bahr's overriding memories of the event was the lack of interest it caused back home.

"The only person who met me at the airport when we flew [back] was my wife," recalls Bahr, who was a high school teacher in his home city of Philadelphia at the time.

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"England was the king of soccer, everyone thought they would be in the final but the papers had nothing in there. The Philadelphia paper, I still have a copy of it, it has a two-inch column. I don't think I did a single interview about the World Cup until 25 years later."

While the rest of the world reacted with stunned disbelief -- legend has it several British newspapers didn't report the score at first, fearing that it had been mistyped and England had really won 10-0 -- back home Team USA's exploits had been met with almost complete indifference.

A clear illustration of the long, and not always happy, relationship the U.S. has had with soccer.

As almost every nation on Earth embraced its rapid spread around the globe, the U.S. remained one of the few, resolute outposts of abstention. But why has it been so difficult for Americans to take soccer to their hearts?

Colonial legacy

Part of the answer can be found in soccer's parentage. While the British were using colonial missionaries to spread soccer, the U.S. chose instead to invent its own national pastimes, in a bid to aid nation building.

I don't think I did a single interview about the World Cup until 25 years later
--Walter Bahr, former captain of the U.S. team

"In the 1880s and 1890s the game was being exported by English missionaries, or mercenaries as some would see it, to the U.S.," explains David Wangerin, author of "Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America's Forgotten Game."

"Soccer was pushed out by the rugby variation [of the game], Americans thought it was their destiny to devise games on their own without relying on the old country. There was no interest in games that were seen as un-American. That persisted right up to the 1970s."

So when the newly codified version of association football, or soccer, arrived on America's shores, a different type of football was already evolving. The U.S. universities of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Columbia each played their own versions of the game, some using their hands, others using their feet.

But it was Harvard's rugby-based rules that largely won out in a historic meeting between the colleges in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1876, rules which would eventually lead to the game's distinctly "American" character with its touchdowns, snaps and lines of scrimmage.

Immigrant initiative

"There was a desire amongst immigrants to fit in," says Wangerin. "Multiculturalism wasn't high up on the American agenda back then. You wanted to fit in so you played American football."

By the turn of the 20th century, soccer was being kept alive by immigrant communities in pockets along the East Coast, concentrated in cities like New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Teams were usually attached to big factories, like the successful but short-lived Bethlehem Steel FC, and by 1921 a small professional league -- the American Soccer League -- had been set up. For a young Walter Bahr growing up in Philadelphia, and at a time when the American national team finished third at the very first World Cup in 1930, there was only one path to follow.

"In my neighborhood, Kensington, only two sports were played baseball and soccer, and baseball was for the summer," recalls Bahr. "Philadelphia was divided by ethnic groups and a lot of it was based on what work was available. My neighborhood was a textiles area, so we had a big British influence, Scotch and Irish too. St. Louis had a lot of soccer through the Catholic Church because they had an order of Irish priests and kept the game going in their parish."

Part-time passion

At 15 he joined the Philadelphia Nationals and, after the interruptions of the Second World War, won three league titles with them before being selected for the World Cup squad destined for Brazil. But the part-timers found it difficult getting any kind of playing time before the tournament.

"In 1950 we played Besiktas of Istanbul, in St. Louis. They beat us badly, 5-0. It was a tryout as much as anything, and then we faced an English select team with Stanley Matthews playing, in New York, and they won 1-0. Those were the first times the World Cup team played together. The next day we left for Brazil. It took us two and a half days to get down there!"

After the team's shock victory against England, Bahr went on to enjoy a long career as both a player and a coach, but the victory against the old rivals failed to sear soccer into the public consciousness.

"We never had our own stadiums so we played on baseball fields like Ebbets Field," says Bahr. "In 1953 we played an English select team. It was only three years after the World Cup, the same teams that played in Brazil, at Yankee Stadium on a Sunday. But the Yankees had final say on the games; if it was bad weather they had the right to call it off in case we ruined the field. There was a torrential downpour that morning and they postponed it until Monday. Only 7,000 turned up in the end."

The awkward alien

Normal service had been restored, England winning 6-3 in front of a half-empty stadium. The American Soccer League limped on in various incarnations until the 1980s, briefly tussling with the superstars of the North American Soccer League for supremacy. But soccer could never quite shake off its tag of being an alien, foreign game.

"Soccer won't ever reach the height of baseball or [American] football and it probably won't be as popular as ice hockey," suggests Wangerin. "But it will find its place. One analogy I've read is that soccer will be more like a boutique coffee shop, rather than a massive supermarket."

For now, though, Bahr and the handful of surviving teammates must manage the many interview requests from U.S. magazines, newspapers and TV networks eager for their story ahead of June's World Cup finals in South Africa, where the USA will once again face England. Was he surprised by all the attention he now gets from the media?

"You can say victory has a thousand fathers," laughs Bahr, paraphrasing former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. "But defeat is a bastard. That's an old one for you."

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