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  • Frank Borghi and the World Cup Miracle

    by Leonardo Solimine

    On a sweltering late afternoon in Brazil over sixty years ago, a rag tag squad of Americans stunned the international soccer world by defeating the heavily favored team from England 1-0 in the opening rounds of the 1950 FIFA World Cup. The win was so shocking that English newspapers assumed the score was a typing error and edited their publications to reflect an English victory of 10-1. Helping to secure the win was a group of five young players from the Italian section of St. Louis, known as The Hill.

    As with the other members of the U.S. team, the St Louis quintet of Frank Borghi, Gino Pariani, Charley Colombo, Harry Keough and Frank Wallace had little or no professional experience. They were not novices, however, with many playing for St. Louis's Simpkins-Ford amateur club which won the U.S. Open Cup in 1948 and 1950. Their World Cup training was limited to only 10 days prior to traveling to Brazil, with their uniforms arriving just before departure. So unimpressed were the odds makers that most would not even accept wagers on the 500 to 1 American team.

    One of the more interesting players on the squad was the goalkeeper, Frank Borghi. Born in St. Louis to Italian parents in 1925, he served as a field medic during World War II. Initially drawn to baseball, Borghi was talented enough to spend two seasons in the minor leagues. Wishing to keep fit in the winter, he decided to try soccer, then a winter sport, and tried out for the powerful Simpkins-Ford team. Borghi, however, simply could not kick a ball. Utilizing his large hands and hand-eye coordination, he moved to goalkeeper and quickly excelled at the position, enough to merit a call-up to the national team in 1949.

    The Italian influence on the U.S. team was not limited to Frank Borghi. His teammate and Dagget Street neighbor, Virginio (Gino) Pariani, also was born to Italian immigrants. Pariani was so talented that by the age of 15, he was playing in the country's top amateur division, eventually earning league MVP honors. "Gino was probably more appreciated by his teammates than the fans," World Cup teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Walter Bahr said. "Always reliable, always gave a good game - you could depend upon him to do his job well." Both Borghi and Pariani would eventually earn induction into the United States National Soccer Hall Of Fame.

    Surprisingly, the team qualified for the 1950 World Cup, and found themselves facing Spain, Chile, and England in group play. Borghi feared the English most of all, calling them the “fathers of soccer.” His primary concern was not a win, but to “keep [the score] down to four or five goals.” The English squad was formidable and widely considered the world's best, with a post-war record of 23 wins with only 4 losses and 3 draws. The same odds makers that refused bets on the long shot Americans rated the English as 3-1 favorites to win the Cup.

    Group play began with the English edging Chile 2-0 in Rio de Janeiro as the Americans were bested by Spain 3-1 after an early lead provided by Gino Pariani's goal. The squads would face each other a few days later on June 29 at Magalhaes Pinto (Minerisao) Stadium in Belo Horizante, Brazil. A crowd of just over 10,000 arrived, unaware that they were about to witness World Cup history.

    Generoso Dattilo, an Italian assigned to referee the match, welcomed the team captains and tossed the coin. England kicked off and quickly attacked with Stanley Mortensen, regarded as the best player of his era, sending a cross to Roy Bentley. His crisp shot was barely pushed aside by Borghi. The first 12 minutes of the match saw England taking six shots on goal, with one saved by Borghi and two more hitting the posts. The Americans struggled against the experienced English defense and offensive forays were met by swift counterattacks. Yet the U.S. defense continued to fight, often winning the ball on close plays.

    Eight minutes before halftime and with the score knotted at 0-0, American Walter Bahr worked the ball down the field. At twenty-five yards out, he took a shot at the far left of the goal. As English keeper Bert Williams moved to make the save, a diving Joe Gaetjens headed the ball into the opposite corner of the net. Shockingly, the upstart American team held a 1-0 lead over England. Immediately, Borghi fretted over the expected English onslaught, thinking to himself, “Oh my god, the roof is going to cave in.” The spectators exploded in cheers as halftime approached with the U.S. ahead.

    Encouraged by their play, the second half opened with another scoring opportunity for the American team, but failed to capitalize. As the clock ticked down, the game became more physical, including a few rugby-style tackles by the U.S. that lead to two free kicks for the English. Both were saved by an inspired Borghi. An increasingly desperate English squad pressed forward to no avail. They had taken 20 shots on goal while the Americans had only one. As the final whistle blew, the Americans celebrated while the dejected English team stood about, jaws agape, wondering what had just occurred. Years later, Borghi would recall the cordiality of the English team upon seeing the Americans at the Rio de Janeiro airport after the match.

    The athletic after-effects wouldn't last for the Americans, however, as they lost their last group play game to Chile. Perhaps still stunned by their epic failure, the English squad also lost their final game, and both teams failed to qualify for the elimination round. The World Cup was ultimately won by Uruguay on July 16, 1950.

    Soccer did not always reside in the backwaters of American sports. In 1934, the American squad was led by future Hall of Famer, Aldo Donelli. Needing to beat a tough Mexican team in the final qualifier, Donelli put on a show scoring all four goals in a 4-2 American win. The joy of advancing to the elimination round was short-lived, however, as they faced a very strong Italian team. Donelli would tally the only goal as the Americans were trounced 7-1. The loss was certainly profound, as professional soccer in the States began a steady decline into pockets of semi-professional regional leagues.

    Frank Borghi would continue as the National Team's goalkeeper through the 1954 World Cup qualification rounds. He retains greater pride in his accomplishments with the Simkins-Ford semi-pro team that won the U.S. Open Cup in 1948 and 1950, and his election into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Many others disagree, however, and consider Frank's greatest moment was his shut-out against England in Belo Horizonte. It remains arguably the greatest highlight of American soccer to this day.

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