The US Ragamuffins: 1950s World Cup (Almost) Glory

Soccer, in America, was a game for immigrants, played by immigrants.

So it was no surprise the 1950 US Men’s National Team was mostly first and second-generation Americans. It’s also not surprising that they had no “true” professional experience playing in the states, where quasi-local amateur leagues were the most competitive option.

And yet, this team won a surprise invitation to the World Cup in Brazil that year. The team took the trip as much for the sport they loved as for the time off from their day jobs.
Frank Borghi, the goalkeeper, was an undertaker. Walter Bahr, an attacking midfield, was a high school gym teacher. Joey Gaetjens, the striker, was a dishwasher in New York.

The US was widely expected to lose in the group stage. England, the tournament favorite was in their group and expected to smoke just about everyone except Brazil.

The (international) papers called the US team a bunch of “ragamuffins.” They were non-pros showing up to do a professional’s job. They were barely relevant let alone considered competition.

Sometimes it’s good to be an underdog.

Sometimes it’s good to be placed in an impossible situation and give it your all.

Sometimes, if the right people are focused in the right way – ragamuffins or not – you get a little lucky.

Borghi apparently had the game of his life – making save after save and foiling England on numerous occasions. In the 37th minute, Bahr crossed the ball to Gaetjens to head in what would be the only goal of the game. The US held on for the remaining 53 minutes.

It was a massive upset. One US reporter witnessed it, and despite some international coverage, the local St. Louis paper was the only American outlet to publish a writeup.

The US didn’t progress much farther in the tournament. The players came home and went back to work. It was a chance at being inspiring, that instead became a footnote.

I took until 1990 for the men to qualify for another World Cup. One can’t help but wonder if more people had known about the win in 1950 if the sport could have gotten a bit more attention. We still were a nation of immigrants after all.

I’m sharing this story because there are 3 big lessons here:

  1. Where there’s an opportunity, there’s a chance, no matter what the odds are. Underdogs are still dogs so long as they’re in the fight.
  2. It doesn’t take a team of known superstars to perform like superstars. Build “regular people” up.
  3. What you do with the surprise counts as much as the surprise itself.

Ps. Shout out to Bahr in particular who had a fairly accomplished US-based soccer career, including a very important run as the coach of Penn State.