BY MARK GODFREY
It’s been a week or two now but the shock of England’s humbling defeat at the hands of tiny Iceland – the country not the supermarket chain famous for its prawn ring at Christmas time – still hasn’t stopped reverberating around the world of football. Truth is, it may never get any less embarrassing for all those of an English bias.
Some careers – on both sides – will be made and dashed on the outcome, just ask Roy Hodgson. As we were continually reminded, Iceland boasts only around 330,000 inhabitants in total; the equivalent of just five and half of Arsenal’s distorted home gates. It was an upset of epic proportion regardless of what Iceland has done to improve its players’ technical capabilities by installing a cod-boat load of modern 3G pitches to combat their parky climate.
Watching England labour against a supposed minnow is nothing new, of course, but at a major tournament with the eyes of the world watching made it all the more unpalatable given the disparity in resources and wealth at each country’s disposal. If you rewind 66 years to the Wold Cup held in Brazil in 1950, a similar, if not greater disturbance in the accepted fabric of football hierarchy occurred in Belo Horizonte.
The hilly streets of the Minas Gerais state capital can feel like a rollercoaster at times, and it must have felt like a similar experience for England’s ‘stars’ when they took on the ‘joke’ that was the USA in the Three Lions’ first ever participation at a major tournament (the FA, pre-WWII, believing England were far too regal for that sort of thing).
A quick glance at the record books, for anyone who doesn’t know what happened, spells out what is possibly still England’s most shameful hour – a 1-0 defeat in front of just over 10,000 people at the newly inaugurated Estádio Independência.
The gulf between the two nations in football terms could hardly have been wider; English football was beginning to get back on its feet again after the 6-year hiatus for World War 2. Greats like Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen and a certain Alf Ramsey – to name but a few – pulled on the unusual blue shirt that day. They even had the audacity to leave Stanley Matthews out in preparation for later in the competition. The Americans on the other hand had very little soccer tradition to speak of either before or after the war. Their squad consisted of a rag tag bunch of amateurs and semi-professionals who held down jobs such as teacher, hearse driver and dishwasher. It should have been a routine thrashing for Uncle Sam’s vastly inferior boys at the hands of their footballing masters, England.
Despite often relentless pressure and possession, England could not breach the red, white and blue. We’ve heard that before, haven’t we?
The game was settled by a header from a man who was not even a US citizen but who had been studying for three years at Columbia University in New York. Haitian Joe Gaetjens wrote his name into football folklore when he flung himself at a shot headed to keeper Bert Williams’ right to divert it into the opposite corner and deal England the most crushing and humiliating of reversals. Gaetjens, should you ever decide to read about his life, was a fascinating character whose life after that momentous day in Belo Horizonte got more complex upon his return to Haiti a few years later, likely due to his family’s political affiliations. He was arrested in 1964 under the brutal dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier and detained at a notorious detention centre and was presumed dead aged just 40. His body was never found.
Of Gaetjens team mates that day in 1950, one name sticks out above all others – Walter Bahr. The Philadelphia born defender was, in part, responsible for Joe Gaetjens’ headline grabbing exploits, for it was his shot at goal that ended up having its trajectory spectacularly altered.
Bahr was an Olympian (London 1948) and multiple winner of the American Soccer League (a forerunner to both the NASL and MLS) with various clubs in and around his native city. Although a professional, Bahr had to augment his meagre football earnings by teaching. It was a move that eventually led to him into coaching, first at the high school where he worked, before moving onto Temple University and then Penn State. His successes within the American collegiate system saw him inducted into the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame in 1995.
It’s not the only Hall of Fame Walter Bahr appears in.
He, along with his victorious team mates from the unbelievable game with England in 1950, was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976. Sadly, he is the last surviving member of that team.
Bahr’s influence as a great of American soccer is undeniable and lasting in more ways than one.
Walter Bahr Jr. – otherwise known as Casey – Chris Bahr and Matt Bahr continued the family tradition and all went on to play in the gloriously glamourous but ultimately doomed North American Soccer League (NASL) during the 1970s.
Casey, the eldest, was a defender like his dad, and in another similarity to his old man, he represented his country at the Olympics (1972 Munich). His soccer career was, however, much less remarkable; he played just a handful of times for Philadelphia Atoms in the outdoor game before making the switch to the Major Indoor Soccer League with Philadelphia Fever.
Chris Bahr joined the NASL in 1975 in the prestigious position as the first round draft pick (a method favoured in American sports whereby the worst teams get the first choice of the college system’s best players) and made an immediate impact, scoring 11 times in 22 appearances in his rookie season – equalling a record for a homegrown US player in the league. He didn’t remain in the NASL for long, just one season in fact. The NFL, with all its glitz, glamour and dollars came calling and American soccer lost a young talent to American ‘Football’.
After spending four seasons as the placekicker with the Cincinnati Bengals, Chris moved out to California to pull on the silver helmet of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders – one of the NFL’s most prestigious franchises. It was a decision that worked out spectacularly well; in 1981 at Super Bowl XV, Chris won the first of his two Super Bowl rings as the Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10. He contributed two field goals and three touchdown conversions (9 points).
They repeated the feat three years later against the Washington Redskins with Bahr racking up five touchdown conversions and a field goal (8 points) in a 38-9 drubbing. After eight successful years with the Raiders, Bahr amassed 817 points which leaves him second on the list of the Raiders’ all-time points scorers.
Chris’ younger brother Matt followed a very similar career path; a short stint as a defender in the NASL with the Colorado Caribous and the Tulsa Roughnecks preceded a switch to the NFL as a placekicker. Firstly with the Pittsburgh Steelers and then the San Francisco 49ers, the Cleveland Browns, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, Matt Bahr’s gridiron career lasted 16 years and also garnered the sport’s most sought after prize – twice.
Matt won his Super Bowl rings in 1980 (a year before his brother’s first) with the Steelers scoring 7 points, and in 1991 in one the most dramatic renewals of the world’s most watched sporting event.
Lining up for the New York Giants against the Buffalo Bills in Tampa, Florida, Bahr and his team went into the final few minutes of the fourth quarter trailing 19-17 having driven the Bills back toward their own end zone. With time and downs running out, Matt Bahr kicked a field goal that put the Giants 20-19 ahead. The Bills countered and put themselves within field goal range with just 8 seconds remaining. Bahr’s opposite number, Scott Norwood, squirted his 47-yard attempt a yard wide of the uprights giving the Giants (and Matt Bahr) their second Super Bowl triumph.
The Bahr family sporting prowess isn’t restricted to just the male side of the family; mother Davies Ann was a champion swimmer at Temple University and daughter – also Davies Ann – was a fine collegiate gymnast.
Whichever way you look at it, Walter Bahr and his sons have packed quite a punch into their various types of cleats in the last 60-plus years, and despite the fame and glory achieved by Matt and Chris in particular during their stellar NFL careers, it’s their father, whose small part in one of the greatest ever sporting upsets, who will perhaps retain the most significant place in the history of sport.