RECIFE Brazil (Reuters) - For most U.S. fans the journey to Brazil has been more in hope for the future than expectation for now, but for one in particular it has been a pilgrimage to the place where his family made its mark on American and World Cup history.
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 side.
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.
“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.”
(This story corrects name of Frank “Pee Wee” Wallace in fifth para)
Editing by Ed Osmond