25 February ~ "Boy, I feel sorry for these bastards. How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?" These are the words of Harry Keough, who died earlier this month, aged 84. The postman from St Louis, Missouri, was a member of the USA side that beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup finals. Keough, who was 22 at the time of the finals, started all three of USA’s group games in the tournament. The full-back captained the side for their opening game, a 3-1 defeat to Spain. But his participation in the notorious "Miracle of Belo Horizonte" at the Estadio Independencia on June 29, 1950, ensured his place in the footballing annals.
Keough was one of five players from St Louis in the starting line-up that day, against an English side that still reads like a who’s who of early-1950s football. Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Roy Bentley and Alf Ramsey were all present for one of the greatest ever upsets in international football. Only Stanley Matthews, who was not selected to play, was spared being a part of what became England’s original World Cup embarrassment.
Looking back at the game, Keough’s team-mate Walter Bahr admitted that even the Americans thought they were in for a hiding: "Realistically, we were just hoping to keep the score respectable, within three or four goals, something not too embarrassing. But, from false bravado or whatever, you always go into a game and think you might steal a win. Anyone in sport has to have that feeling. Why else would you play the game?”
The only goal of the match came with 37 minutes gone in the first half, when Joe Gaetjens, a half-Haitian, half-German in the process of applying for US citizenship, threw himself at a Bahr shot and deflected it past England’s keeper, Bert Williams. The Americans, with their defence marshalled by Keough, then withstood all that England offered by way of response.
It must have been quite a rearguard action by Keough and his fellow defenders, as England captain Wright could not understand how his team lost: “It’s one match I’m never allowed to forget. We didn’t play brilliantly, but we didn’t play badly,” he recalled. “We had enough chances to have beaten America by ten but people missed and hit the woodwork. We just couldn’t hit the target and in the end it was a disaster.”
The tournament as a whole would prove a disaster for England. They would also lose their final group game, 1-0 to Spain, and end their first ever appearance at the finals with the ignominy of an early exit. The USA also went out at the group stage after a 5-2 defeat to Chile in their third game.
The team of part-timers then went back to a United States totally indifferent to their achievement in Belo Horizonte. Keough simply returned to his job in the US Postal Service. He would go on to play for USA at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics and later had a successful career as a coach back in St Louis.
He once remarked that the team that had beaten England were “a bunch of unknowns who stayed unknown”, but the side did receive some belated recognition through The Game of their Lives, a book published in 1996 that recounted their tale. The book was given the Hollywood treatment nine years later in a movie of the same title. The movie is riddled with historical errors but is worth seeking out, if only to see Gavin Rossdale, the lead singer of Bush, as Mortensen.
Keough was much respected in his home city for his contribution to football. Asides from playing for the national team, he also coached St Louis University to five NCAA Championships. The Keough Award is now presented each year to the outstanding St. Louis-based footballer. One of the city’s papers referred to Keough in an obituary this month as their "soccer royalty". He was certainly one of 11 kings for a day back in 1950. Haydn Parry