There is no game that is more English than the game of association football. In fact the name that we use here in the United States — soccer — also originated in England. Like most pastimes, the game of soccer has a rather nebulous origin upon which few historians can agree exactly. However, the sport that most closely resembles the modern game became popular in the 1800’s among the sports clubs of English schools and universities like Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, and Shrewsbury. To facilitate inter-school play, and to establish league rules, a meeting was held at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1848. There, the rules of the game were discussed and mostly agreed upon, and soccer quickly became the national sport.
It wasn’t long before soccer became wildly popular throughout the world. It seems no country and no culture was immune. Well, maybe with one exception. At about this same time, Americans were becoming enamored of another sport that was a variation on the English game of cricket. Baseball, was destined to become America’s national pastime, and we would forever be left behind the rest of the world in the game of soccer.
Soccer was not all-together absent from the United States, of course.
In the early 1900’s, s immigrants arrived in large numbers and began to fill city neighborhoods. American culture became more diverse with each wave of immigrants who brought with them their different languages, their unique cuisine, their independent philosophies.
The city of St. Louis expanded and benefited more than most from the mass influx of foreign immigration—and ethnic neighborhoods became microcosms of culture. The Poles and the Russians moved to North City and established the city’s garment district. In South City, the Irish gathered around St. James parish in Dogtown, the Italians around St. Ambrose on The Hill—and together they worked in the city’s brickyards. Dutchtown, a mispronunciation of Deutsch-town, was the home of South City’s Germans who made St. Louis the Loire Valley of beer.
Like the Tower of Babel, this city became a confusion of languages and customs — though St. Louis had one advantageous difference over Babel. The unifying element of these neighborhoods was a highly competitive amateur soccer league. Teams received generous sponsorship from local businesses and trade unions and public games were played constantly all over the city. Many of our nation’s best players developed their skills in these neighborhood games. And no neighborhood developed more talent than The Hill.
Though St. Louis soccer players were good, they were amateurs. They were not paid to play soccer and all had jobs in addition to their passion for the game. However, in 1950 a national team was assembled to compete in the 1950 World Cup. American organizers looked to St. Louis to fill many of the positions on that national team. In fact, five of the eleven spots on the field were filled with St. Louisans: Gino Pariani, Frank Valicenti, Charlie Colombo, Frank Borghi — all Italians from The Hill, and Harry Keough — who was South City Irish.
Participation of the American team was to be a lark. At best, the United States Soccer Football Association hoped that competing in the World Cup would result in broadening the interest of soccer in the US. Even the team’s coach, Bill Jeffrey, said publicly they had no chance.
In spite of a lack of confidence and expectation from their own coach, the team carried on with dash and elan. By chance, the US team was to face the world’s undisputed greatest soccer team of the day—England, who were 3 to 1 favorites to win the Cup. The official odds that were published for the US vs England game were 500-1. Despite this, the US National team stepped on to the field with focus and vigor. Comparatively, the English team swaggered and strolled to meet their opponents at midfield.
From the first whistle of play, the American team rushed forward with nothing to lose and a legend to gain. They caught the English team on their heels and, during the first half, Haitian American immigrant Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal of the game.
This event would go down in history as one of the greatest upsets in sport. Not since Bunker Hill had the English been so severely shown up by a group of American underdogs.
After the game, English newspapers lashed out at the American soccer players, shrieking that their talent and their team had arrived through Ellis Island. As if a gentleman would take this as an insult.
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For further reading about this improbable game, I suggest ::
The Game of Their Lives: The Untold Story of the World Cup’s Biggest Upset (2005) by Geoffrey Douglas