From St. Louis to Recife in search of "the spot"
RECIFE, Brazil -- A man called simply The Mustache unlocked the gate for Steven Lange, and he took his first few steps onto the grass, still wet from Thursday's calamitous rain.
By Friday morning there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the high sun lit every quiet corner of Estadio Ilha do Retiro, the storied home of Sport Recife, a local first-division side. Lange's eyes followed the sweeping curve of the concrete standing terraces, opened in 1937, now painted red and black; he took in the grandstand and its more modern rows of covered seats; he tried to find the ancient palm trees that he had seen in black-and-white photographs and that might help him triangulate his location. Then he stood near the top of the 18-yard box at one end of the pitch and tested it with his feet. "This feels like the spot," he said.
"The spot" was Lange's best guess at the place his great uncle, Frank "Pee Wee" Wallace, had stood 64 years earlier and scored a World Cup goal for the U.S. against Chile. Wallace was one of the increasingly celebrated Americans who had played "The Game of Their Lives" against England earlier in the tournament, claiming an improbable 1-0 victory. They weren't as successful against Chile -- the third game for the Americans, a 5-2 loss that saw them fail to advance from the group stage -- but Wallace had managed to join a still-exclusive group. "When you look back at the U.S. players who have scored in World Cups, it's a small club," Lange said.
For Lange, a 45-year-old St. Louis native who now lives in Dallas, soccer is to his family what baseball is for others. His grandfather, Leo Lange, was a member of the same Joe Simpkins team from which Wallace and four others were plucked for the 1950 national squad. His father, Forrest Lange, was also an avid player and follower of the game. Steven spent nearly a decade in sales for Major League Soccer as well as the Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. Together, three generations of the family have, in one capacity or another, taken part in six World Cups.
In May, Forrest Lange -- who had traveled with his son to South Africa in 2010 -- died after a series of strokes. Steven had decided that he would still be making the trip to Brazil, but during his father's funeral in St. Louis, he experienced an unlikely moment of serendipity. The visitation was held at the Kutis Funeral Home, which has sponsored local sports teams for years and even has a trophy room. Seeking a private moment, Lange had found instead a plaque commemorating the 1950 U.S. World Cup team. On it he saw his great uncle's name, and he saw the scores of each game, including the game against Chile. And for the first time he saw where that game had been played: Recife, Brazil.
Recife, Brazil -- where Lange already had made plans to see the U.S. play Germany. "That's when I knew this had to happen," he said in the moments before he entered Estadio Ilha do Retiro.
And after a series of emails with Sport Recife, and after Lange and his brother-in-law had taken in five World Cup games during a whirlwind tour of Brazil -- including four games in four cities in four days -- and after The Mustache had found the right key, it happened.
The stadium wrapped its arms around him. Lange jogged to the center of the pitch, his smile as wide as the goals. He had worn a replica of the 1950 U.S. jersey for the occasion, and now he looked in some ways just as his great uncle had so long ago: an American man dressed in white, on a green field in Brazil, hoping to bear witness to history. Sport Recife has been on the cusp of demolishing the stadium, replacing it with something grander. But the terraces and the grass had held on just long enough for Steven Lange's communion, not only with his great uncle the scorer, but also with his departed grandfather and father.
"It just feels good," Lange said, standing on that fabled pitch. "I don't know how to say it. I think they'd be extremely excited and happy I was able to come here. I think being able to visit this place before it was torn down -- lucky is the only word."
Only 24 hours before, in a different stadium on a day that never saw the sun, Lange had watched a new collection of American players play their third group stage game here in Recife, 64 years after the first. They too had lost, but unlike the 1950 U.S. team, the 2014 edition is through. They will have another chance to make their own history; another chance to play the game of their lives, another chance to touch future generations like time travelers, another chance to become names on plaques on distant walls.
Like Pee Wee Wallace before them, maybe Clint Dempsey or Jermaine Jones or Michael Bradley or Tim Howard will do something their children or grandchildren won't get to see but will still be able to feel, years after they have turned some patch of waiting grass into the place we call the spot.