The American soccer world received the sad news on Monday that Walter Bahr, the last surviving member of the United States team that beat England at the 1950 World Cup, had died. The 1-0 win for the Yanks at Brazil’s Estadio Independencia over the nation credited with inventing soccer is still regarded as one of the most significant results in U.S. soccer history. While the game’s one goal was famously scored by Joe Gaetjens, it was Bahr who provided the assist for the Haitian-born striker.
While he is most remembered for his part in helping the U.S. achieve its first significant result at the World Cup, Bahr was an accomplished club player who won five American Soccer League titles with the Philadelphia Nationals and the Uhrik Truckers. Professional soccer players in the States weren’t paid much at the time and Bahr, a Philadelphia native, supported himself as a high school teacher.
The moment that etched Bahr and his teammates into history came in the 35th minute of a match that, up until then had been predictably dominated by England. Bahr, who captained the side that afternoon in Belo Horizonte, was deployed as a left halfback in the W-M formation (similar to a 3-4-3) favored by U.S. coach Bill Jeffreys.
The U.S. won a throw-in some 35 yards out, which was taken by Ed McIlveny, who found Bahr. Bahr, who was 23 at the time, turned and found himself in space, just 25 yards from the England goal.
“Nobody picked me up right away, so I let the shot go,” recalled Bahr speaking Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in 2014. “Not to pat myself on the back, but it was a decent shot. It was going far post.”
Would England keeper Bert Williams have saved Bahr’s shot? Bahr thought so, but we’ll never know for sure. For as it was floating in, Gaetjens sprang up as if from nowhere to smash in what proved the winning goal the Yanks.
“Joe could score a goal out of nothing,” recalled Bahr. “I never saw the shot after I hit it because it was into traffic. Whether Joe’s getting a piece of it was by accident or by design I don’t know, but I know he went after it with his head. It’s the mystery goal.”
England came roaring back with a fury in the second half, dominating the final 45 minutes of the game. But thanks to a standing-on-his-head performance from U.S. goalkeeper Frank Borghi, the Americans were able to hold on. The legendary result has since become the cornerstone of American soccer lore, particularly during the desolate decades for the American game between 1950 and 1990, when the U.S. failed to qualify for a single World Cup.
And it might never have happened was it not for Bahr making a speculative shot in the general direction of the England goal.
Bahr went on to take over the Penn State soccer program in 1974, coaching the Nittany Lions to 12 NCAA tournaments in 14 years. He was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame and had two sons, Matt and Chris, who both played college soccer, before joining the NFL as placekickers and earning Super Bowl rings. He was 91.
Key figures in American soccer and family members paid tribute to the player on social media.
Saddened to learn of the passing of Walter Bahr—a legend as a player, as a coach and most importantly as a caring gentleman. Rest in peace my friend.
— Sunil Gulati (@sunilgulati) June 18, 2018
RIP Walter Bahr. He had the assist on the goal scored by Joe Gaetjens that beat England 1-0 in World Cup 1950. Always enjoyed speaking to Walter, including for this story in 2014 https://t.co/v643pyehgU
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 18, 2018
Walter Bahr, thank you for all you did to kickstart US Soccer history. Your contributions will be felt for generations. RIP
— Rob Stone (@RobStoneONFOX) June 18, 2018
Tommy Muirhead once wrote in the Glasgow Daily Mail that “Bahr is good enough to play for any First Division team in the United Kingdom.”
— Lindsey Bahr (@ldbahr) June 18, 2018
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