Greats of all eras celebrate film debut

For the U.S. soccer fan, Tuesday's premiere of "The Game of Their Lives" at downtown Washington's Regal Gallery Place Cinema was a spectacle to behold: young turks like Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian rubbing elbows with old-timers Frank Keough, Walter Bahr and other members of the legendary 1950 U.S. World Cup team.

Keough, Bahr, and teammates Gino Pariani and John Sousa, four of that squad's five surviving players, were the focal point of a festive evening. It is their stirring David-vs.-Goliath triumph against England in the 1950 World Cup that acclaimed director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo bring to life in "The Game of Their Lives" -- a game which is widely considered the greatest upset in soccer history.

The U.S. team was thrown together on short notice, given only 10 days to practice before making the arduous journey to host nation Brazil, where their cause was considered so hopeless that bookmakers neglected to even offer odds on their chances.

The squad consisted of a ragtag assortment of players from East Coast cities and "The Hill," an immigrant community in St. Louis that played host to the movie's U.S. filming. Anspaugh and Pizzo, creators of "Rudy" and "Hoosiers," focused the plot on this captivating enclave and the plucky locals it sent to compete in Brazil: Keough, Pariani, Charles "Gloves" Colombo, Frank "Pee Wee" Wallace, and goalkeeper Frank Borghi, whose heroic performance in the nets denied the English time and time again.

Anspaugh and Pizzo initially turned down the project, citing their lack of soccer background, but the story proved so compelling that they took a second look.

"I've never been more vulnerable as a director, because in Rudy and Hoosiers I could bring a lot of my experience, having played those sports," said Anspaugh. "I grew up in a small town in Indiana in the '50s and '60s, so I played football and basketball and all that. But I've really come to love the game.

"I wanted to make the best soccer movie I could make, a movie that the soccer community in America would embrace, and be proud of, as well as be proud of it overseas. I hope that we've done that. I think we have."

The surviving members of the team were intimately involved with the film's production, visiting the set in St. Louis almost every day to offer details and ensure authenticity. They are clearly pleased with the final product.

"Well, it's a thrill for sure," said Keough. "Certainly I was moved emotionally. It's a great feeling, no doubt about it. Soccer is tough to orchestrate, maybe the toughest sport to orchestrate, so I think they did an excellent job."

The film's producers went to great lengths to ensure realistic action sequences, enlisting MLS and U.S. national team legend Eric Wynalda as a consultant. All the actors went through an exhausting mini-camp to hone their skills, and the equipment of the era was painstakingly reproduced -- literally so, in the case of the heavy, blister-inducing boots.

D.C. United hosted the special screening, which was followed by an audience question-and-answer session featuring Anspaugh, Pizzo, the 1950 team veterans, and several of the film's actors.

Fittingly, one of those actors was former United star John Harkes, who arrived in soaring spirits after his selection to the National Soccer Hall of Fame earlier in the day. The film marks Harkes' motion picture debut, playing the role of Ed McIlvenny, a Scottish-American midfielder, and his attitude epitomized the evening's celebratory spirit.

"All in one day, I've got the induction, I've got the movie premiere, I'm standing next to legends here from the '50 team," he said. "I mean, come on! It can't get any better than this!"

Charles Boehm is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.