Steve Lange's 10-minute wait in the baking sun for the caretaker
to come seems interminable. He finally arrives, keys clinking in his
hand, and opens the creaky metal gate that leads to the pitch at the
Estadio Ilha do Retiro in Recife.
Dressed in a replica of the shirt the Americans wore at the 1950
World Cup, he walks on to the grass field, looking intently at his
surroundings, before stopping in the penalty area.
"From what I can work out from the few photos that exist, this is
the spot from which my great uncle scored the first goal against
Chile," he said.
Lange's relative, Frank "Pee Wee" Wallace, was part of the American
side which famously beat England 1-0 in the group stage, a result
that sent shockwaves around the soccer world and announced the
arrival of the U.S. in the game.
The result was so unexpected that many English fans thought it was a
misprint when they read it in their newspapers.
Unfortunately for them it was not, and it contributed to an
embarrassing early exit from the tournament for the mighty English
A lifelong soccer fan who has worked with ticketing and sponsorship
for a handful of Major League Soccer clubs in the U.S., Lange made
the decision to travel to Recife when he saw a plaque in St. Louis
commemorating the U.S. team of 1950 at his father's funeral in May.
"It said 'Chile 5, U.S. 2, Recife'. We were already coming to
Brazil, our third game was here against Germany," he said.
"And that's when it dawned on me - that's where my great uncle
scored that goal."
He contacted Sport club do Recife and with typical Brazilian
hospitality they were more than happy to show him around the stadium
and allow him on to the pitch where Pee Wee wrote his name in the
history books with his unheralded team mates.
"That U.S team was made up of semi-pro players, I think five of them
were from St. Louis, which was a hotbed of soccer at that time," he
said of the team thrown together for the tournament and which
reputedly only trained together once before leaving for Brazil.
Lange said his grand-father, who was also a semi-pro player, tried
out for the national team but did not make the cut.
"You could say he was the Landon Donovan of his time," Lange's
travelling companion says with a chuckle.
Lange's grand-father and great uncle were not the only ones to shun
the more popular American pastimes of baseball, basketball and
American football for soccer.
"My father played, and I played through high school. I didn't have
what it took, so I worked for 10 years for Major League Soccer on
the business side," Lange said.
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"The League office, Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids and also FC
Dallas. It's very much a family tradition."
Lange said the game has come a long way since Pee Wee's day, and
even since Pele made a splash with the ill-fated North American
Soccer League in the late 1970s.
"It continues to get better with each World Cup cycle," he said.
"Soccer has grown, though it's taken a while for our league to
develop in the U.S. but it's starting to come in line with some of
the development systems in other parts of the world.
"We're getting systems in place where I think it's coming more in
line with world soccer, and because of that we're going to be able
to continue developing great players and have a league that is an
option for them," he said.
A day short of 64 years after Pee Wee scored in Recife, the U.S.
will take on Belgium in their last-16 game in Salvador in what many
observers believe will be their last match of the tournament.
Once again they are underdogs, but regardless of the result Lange
believes that U.S. soccer has not reached its peak yet.
"Of course I want to see us in the final some day, but I won't make
any predictions for this World Cup," he said, smiling in the
sunshine on the pitch and posing for photographs.
"But before I draw my last breath I would love to see us at least in
a final, or potentially win it.
"I think the potential is there."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
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