Well before John Harkes and Tony Meola were born, goalkeeper Frank Borghi made history with the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 1950 FIFA World Cup. Yet those three players certainly shared a unique and common bond.
Borghi, who died Monday at the age of 89, backstopped the USA to that stunning 1-0 upset of heavily favored England in Brazil.
Former USA goalkeeper Frank Borghi circa 1989. Photo by Michael Lewis
Some 40 years later, Meola and Harkes played vital roles in helping the Americans to their first World Cup since Borghi and his teammates shocked the world.
During their journey to Italia ’90, both players took advantage of opportunities to meet and talk with Borghi. Harkes got closer when he portrayed the role of USA midfielder Ed McIlvenny in the 2005 movie “The Game of Their Lives,” which recounted the USA’s astounding accomplishment.
Meola met the fellow goalkeeper during a World Cup qualifying match in Borghi’s hometown of St. Louis in 1989, and was impressed with how the National Soccer Hall of Famer comported himself.
“I used to see him quite a bit actually and really enjoyed each time I was able to talk to him,” Meola said. “He was just an upbeat, positive guy. He was excited about where the goalkeepers were going in America and how they were doing. He was certainly the first of the guys who should be on the top of the list when you talk about goalkeepers.”
Meola and Harkes are hosts of Counter Attack on SiriusXM radio.
Harkes said that he is a student of soccer history, so the USA’s past always has intrigued him.
“That group was a special group of players,” Harkes said. “Frank was a special guy. He had a humble, down-to-earth personality. To stay as humble as he was, he was incredible. Walter Bahr, Frank Borghi, these guys I always heard a lot about and their history. He was a massive part of it.”
The 1950 U.S. Men's National Team arrives in Brazil for the World Cup.
For the St. Louis movie scenes, Borghi was around the set a lot, said Harkes, who had an opportunity to talk to him several times (actor Gerard Butler portrayed Borghi in the film).
When someone noted that it was two legends of the game talking together – Harkes and Meola also are members of the National Soccer Hall of Fame – the former midfielder downplayed his role.
“I’m a student [of soccer history],” Harkes said. “I’m a small part of the game. These guys that came before, researching their story was a privilege. When the 1950 team beat England, newspapers thought, when they came back, it was 11-nil. He had a good chuckle about that.”
Meola said that he did not remember talking to Borghi about the 1950 upset much.
“We talked about qualifying for the World Cup and where the game has gone since he played, how excited he was that another U.S. team was in the World Cup back then,” Meola said. “We met over the years at different places. ... Just a good guy to be around and a lot of positive energy.”
Added Harkes: “It was great to have that support.”
Borghi made only nine international appearances during an era when National Team matches were sparse. What might not be known was that Borghi registered a 2-5-2 record, earning two shutouts while surrendering 27 goals. One of those clean sheets was a scoreless draw with Mexico during World Cup qualifying on Sept. 4, 1949, and the other was that historic game in Brazil on June 29, 1950.
Borghi, 25 at the time, and his teammates played the game of their lives that day against what was considered one of the best teams in the world. Joe Gaetjens, who was believed to be executed as a political prisoner in his native Haiti in the 1960s, scored the lone goal in the 37th minute.
“I thought the roof would cave in,” Borghi said years later. “But we had a good chemistry among our club. Five of the guys were from the St. Louis area – [Charles] Colombo, [Gino] Pariani, [Frank] Wallace, Harry Keough and myself. Walter Bahr and [Ed] McIlvenny played together in Philadelphia. Ed and John Souza played together in Fall River, Massachusetts. So the only guy who didn’t play with us was Joe Maca.”
The team’s strategy was simple.
“We played a man-to-man system,” Borghi said. “Bill Jeffrey was our coach. He let the guys coach themselves because he didn’t think we had a chance. … It worked out pretty good.”
Note: The preceding quotes from Frank Borghi came from a 2004 interview.