[Not part of article] On April 22, a movie is coming out entitled “The Game of Their Lives.” It is based on the unlikely win by an American team in the 1950 World Cup against the England Team. This is an interview with the real life Walter Bahr, portrayed in the film as the captain of the team.
In 1950, a dishwasher, a mail carrier, and a schoolteacher walked onto the field in Brazil to play for an unrated US soccer team against the favored English team to play The Game of Their Lives. With the world not giving them a second thought, 11 men showed America why soccer is the greatest game in the world. The ‘miracle on grass’ serves as a testament to what we love most about soccer and indeed sport itself: the underdog.
The magic of that game cannot be far from one of the heroes of the game, Walter Bahr, who made the winning assist. With Manchester United battling it out on his television and with a Soccer Hall of Fame ring on his hand, his love for soccer transcends his politeness as he talks about the film, taking part in soccer history, and life after the game.
How does it feel to know that your life is going to be on screens nationwide?
I have reservations about that. I never met the fellow that’s playing my part: Wes Bentley. What they tried to do was get actors that were decent soccer players, rather than get decent soccer players that could do a little acting because they wanted to make it as realistic as possible. Of all the actors that they got Wes Bentley was one of the few that did not have a soccer background. It was interesting to see it, but he and I certainly don’t look alike. [Laughing] I’m a lot better looking.
One of my reservations about the movie is that I don’t think they depict Bill Jeffries as he actually was. He was the coach of the Penn State team in 1950 and also the coach of this World Cup team. He was a much stronger coach, stronger personality than he’s depicted in the movie.
Another mistake which bothers me a little bit: I was captain of the national team for about a ten year period, but in the second game against England, Ed McIlvenny, who was born in Scotland, was the captain. That was a big honor for a Scotsman to be captain in the game against England. For the third game, they were back to my captaincy, but in the movie I’m depicted as the captain against England.
Is this the most excitement you’ve seen for the game since 1950?
Back in 1950 the world cup wasn’t as big an event as it is today, and for 25 or 30 years not much was made of the World Cup or of our victory down in Brazil. But as the world cup grew in stature this game seemed to grow along with it, so every 4 years when the world cup comes around there’s always something done that brings up the 1950 game.
The trailer depicts your character as kind of like the Danny Ocean of soccer assembling this motley crew of dishwashers and such, is that how it really happened?
Yes and no, the film is basically true the score still winds up the same 1-0. The way they put the team together was not quite the same way they depicted in the movie. But it wasn’t a scientific method that they had, and what they did, I mean they knew who the better players were around the country or they though they did. And the selection committee made their selections from lists that they had.
Basically, politics and whatever involved, selections and so forth, they picked the team 8 players from the Wwest and 8 players from the East; 16 players. And at that time there were no substitutions in games, so the 11 that started, they had to finish the game. If someone got hurt you had to finish the game with 1 less. If someone was thrown out by an official, you played with 2 less.
The movie makes a big deal out of the chemistry amongst the players. Did that play a part in the success?
There were players that were on that team that had a fairly good connection to each other, but as a whole team no, not really. But the chemistry did work out, and that’s half of putting a team together. You don’t always have your best team when you have the best players; I think you have your best team when you have your best collection of players hit it off with one another.
Going into the England match what was the atmosphere like amongst the players.
Against England, no one expected to win, but no one goes on the field expecting to lose. You always think ‘maybe a miracle will happen, maybe something will happen, we can stay in this game.’ So it was number one, maybe we can win; but realistically, we were hoping to keep the game close. As any athlete in any sport when they walk on the field, there’s a certain confidence that ‘maybe something will happen and we can win this game.’
We got that goal late in the first half and then even at half-time we thought ‘they’re gonna come out there and put 2, 3, 4 goals in us.’ But we still hoped that we could keep the score close. But, the longer the game went on – like in most of the games – the underdog starts to get a little more confident and the favored team starts to get a little bit more desperate and we were able to hang on for the 1-0 win.
So how do you explain the win?
It happens in sports. It would be like the Altoona Curve beating the New York Yankees. That’s how much of a favorite England was to beat us. But that happens, and I’ve always said this, that that’s the good thing about sports, no matter how good your team is, no matter how much better you are than we are, you still have to go out on the field and win that game. And there’s always that possibility that the underdog can win and that’s what happened. We were the complete underdog and we won it.
Well, without disrespect to the other games that you’ve played, would you say that this was the greatest game of your life?
Well, that’s the only game people remember. It had to be one of them, but it was like coaching. A victory never made me feel that much better than a defeat made me feel worse. Our first game was against Spain and we were beating Spain 1-0 with 8 minutes to play, and they got a couple of late goals and beat us. I always thought that that was our best game, we played better in the Spanish game, and we had more of the game then we did when we played against England. No one even remembers our score against Spain, but it bothers me that we played well and lost that game.
I played professional soccer for almost 25 years. I started as a 15 year old getting 5 dollars a game and 3 dollars for a win and I played and the most I made was 50 dollars a game as a professional player but no one made a living out of soccer from my generation. It was fun, and I enjoyed it and I would do it again.
Has the 1950 game with England changed your life?
Oh no, not at all. It’s a fond memory. I worked all my life, I taught school, I coached, I played, raised my family. I can’t say that maybe I get a little bit more recognition and notoriety than I deserve. But because of the [1950 game] people associate me with the World Cup. Everyone does remember the World Cup game against England and because they remember that that has to be my highlight.
All in all I’m hoping that the movie does promote soccer somewhat, that it helps with the promotion, it helps with the professional league and gives a little boost to youth soccer, especially to help spread it more across the country.