This week we lost one of the greatest US soccer players in history when Frank Borghi died at age 89. He was one of the last living players remaining from the 1950 World Cup Team that shocked the world in Brazil. The 1950 World Cup was also the last appearance for the US at the event until 1990. Since TV wasn’t as prevalent around those days, we only have stories from those who were there. Luckily for fans, filmmakers decided to chronicle the team with the movie “The Game of Their Lives.” Popular actor Gerrard Butler played the goalkeeper Borghi in the film. Butler has been a part of multiple soccer-related projects, including Soccer Aid 2012, a semi-annual celebrity soccer match in England that raises funds for UNICEF.
1950 was an interesting time, considering WWII had just ended. Multiple players on the 1950 team had served in the US military, including Frank Borghi, who received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service. At the time, most of the players on the team were amateur players, as the US did not have an established professional league.
Borghi grew up in The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis. Four other players on the team also grew up on The Hill, in addition to baseball legends Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. The area was highly made up of Italian immigrants, and is still very Italian today. Other players on the team from St. Louis included Charlie Colombo, Gino Pariani, Harry Keough, and Frank “Pee Wee” Wallace.
The team was coached by Scot Bill Jeffery, who was a long time coach at Penn State. Three players on the team were not even US citizens at the time. Joe Maca was from Belgium, but later received US citizenship. Ed McIlvenny was from Scotland, and was the captain for the match in the upset of England. Joe Gaetjens was of Haitian descent, and scored the only goal in the England match. Other team members included Walter Bahr, John Souza, and Eddie Souza. There were no substitutes during that time, so those 11 players played the entire game. A St. Louis sports journalist Dent McSkimming was the only American journalist to make the trip to Brazil, even paying his own way. He is largely responsible for capturing the magnificent story of the 1950 team.
The team was assembled very hastily, with many players scrambling to make the trip. Gino Pariani even had to reschedule his wedding to the day before the team left to get married. Considering most of the players were not even full time, no one in the world expected the Americans to even compete, with 500-1 odds of winning the tournament. The US lost its opening match to Spain 3-1, surprising many around the world for keeping it that close. Harry Keough was captain for the match, as he was the only US player who spoke fluent Spanish. The next match was against England, who were expected to compete for the Cup coming in with odds at 3-1 to win the tournament.
The Miracle Match took place in Belo Horizonte in front of 10,000 mostly Brazilian fans. Fans were allegedly very pro-US, as Brazil did not want to face England until the finals. The British absolutely dominated from the beginning of the match, with Borghi making some brilliant saves. The US didn’t even get a shot off until the 25th minute, which was easily handled by the England goalkeeper. The English kept pressing the Americans until the 37th minute when Walter Bahr took a long shot that Joe Gaetjens redirected with his head into the net. The goal gave the Americans the lead, and a breath of new life heading into the half. The 2nd half was much of the same, with Borghi continuing to deny England an equalizer. In the 82nd, England star Stanley Mortensen broke through the defense with the ball, until Charlie Colombo tackled him from behind. The English pleaded for a penalty, but the Italian referee only gave a free kick from outside the box. They failed to convert the opportunity, and seemingly took the life out of the favorites. That was the last real chance they would get, and the US held on for a 1-0 victory.
The shock of the match was felt around the world, with some British believing that the score was a misprint. The US and England would go on to lose their final group match, and crash out together with identical 1 win and 2 loss records. This single match might be the greatest performance by a US team at a World Cup ever.
So today we grieve the loss of an American, one who was a brave veteran, and an impressive soccer player. Frank Borghi may have died, but his memory and story reminds us that we can still be great.
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