There are ghosts in Rustenburg. The mining town in the north-west of South Africa hosts the Group C opener between England and USA, a game with a past that haunts the English and inspires the Americans. The Royal Bafokeng Stadium will echo with those ghosts on Saturday when the two countries meet for the first time on the world stage since a historic win for the Americans in Brazil 60 years ago.
It is a well-worn story, how the ragtag Americans sent England – inventors of the game and rampaging favourites – reeling with little more than luck and spirit. The 1-0 win was a fluke, a brazen one-off perpetrated by a band of no-hopers brought together on the eve of the 1950 FIFA World Cup™, more for a boozy holiday than serious sporting pursuit. But there are holes in the old myths which need darning as the two sides – one a giant, the other still an outsider – prepare to meet again all these years later.
"I've heard it described as a fluke," Walter Bahr, who grafted away in the US midfield on that fateful day in Minas Gerais, tells FIFA.com. "But I don't think so. We worked hard in that game and we were better than people thought," says the 83-year-old Bahr, his voice sturdy and his mind engaging as the memories begin to flood back in sharp detail.
It is said the English, who rested Stanley Mathews for what was considered a walkover, had six scoring chances in the first 12 minutes, hitting the woodwork twice. The Americans, who led Spain in their opener with 15 minutes to go before capitulating, had only played one training match together before the finals. But Bahr tells a tale that flies in the received wisdom that USA had little in their pockets beyond their spirit.
"We had players in the team that could have played anywhere in the world if the situation was different," says Bahr who, like his team-mates, made very little money playing soccer. "We had good pairs out on the field: myself and Ed McIlvenny, and Gino Pariani and Frank Wallace for instance. We may not have known each other as a full team before we headed down to Brazil, but we linked up well."
We worked hard in that game and we were better than people thought.
Bahr chuckles at the attractive rumours that the American side – complete with a postman, a hearse driver, a dishwasher and a student – were out revelling the night before the big game. "Most of the guys in the team didn't even drink," he says. "Sure, some liked a beer or two, that was normal, but I'm not really sure where all those stories came from."
After weathering an early storm, largely thanks to Frank Borghi's acrobatic goalkeeping, the Americans decisive moment came in the 38th minute. "I've seen about ten different descriptions of the goal through the years," Bahr says. "I heard it went off Joe's [Gaetjens] ear and that I was trying to clear the ball. We might not have been the most sophisticated players, but I knew the difference between a clearance and a shot.
"I collected the ball about 35 yards out on the right side from a throw-in," Bahr continues, reliving the moment. "I moved forward a little ways and then took a shot from about 25 yards. I hit the ball well and it was on target." As the English goalkeeper came out to collect at the back post, the flying figure of Gaetjens – a Haitian-born dishwasher and part-time student, and late inclusion in the team – redirected the ball past the wrong-footed net-minder. "I was obstructed when the ball went in, but Joe was always scoring strange goals, athletic goals. I've heard people say that he didn't know anything about it, but I doubt that."
As the Americans celebrated what would turn out to be the only goal of the game, the counterpoint was agony for English goalkeeper Bert Williams, the 90-year-old admitting recently: "I can't remember much about the game, it's the hurt that has been with me ever since."
When I heard the US and England would meet in South Africa it resurrected memories I'd tried to forget. It will never go away.
The two old opponents had predictably different reactions when the draw for South Africa 2010 placed the teams together again. "I just didn't want that old game to be a distraction for the boys," says Bahr, while for Williams there is only a fresh hurt. "When I heard the US and England would meet in South Africa it resurrected memories I'd tried to forget. It will never go away."
"There were no back flips or wild celebrations," Bahr says of the moment the final whistle went. "You just grabbed the hand of the guy nearest you and shook it." For the American players, there was no parade, no welcome committee at the airport back home. There was nothing at all, Bahr recalls. "My wife picked me up at the airport," says the retired school teacher. "I had a job at a camp in the mountains for the summer, and my wife drove me straight there. I didn't even go home."
The current crop of US players have been reluctant to talk about that old game, one that hangs over their heads as they try to carve out their own legend. "It was a special thing that those guys did back then," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "But that was a long time ago and it's time for us to do something for ourselves."
Bahr will be watching the replay of his old classic from his living room in rural Pennsylvania – "200 miles from everything" as he puts it. His thoughts on a possible outcome and the feelings he might have watching the game are filled with the dignity, humour and perspective that only old men can muster. "It will be special to watch. This US team is dangerous, just like we were in 1950. I hope we win. If not, I hope they can hold their heads up. It's not always about winning."