Most – if not all – of the tributes to John “Clarkie” Souza, who passed away at age 91 on Sunday, make mention that the Fall River, Mass. native was on the United States starting XI that shocked England in the 1950 World Cup. And to many, that is what he is most famous for.
But there was more – so much more – to the life and career of the Portuguese-American playmaker who, without exagerration, was a pioneer of the sport in this country.
Born to Azorean immigrants in 1920, Souza grew up in the Flint section of Fall River at a time in which it was impossible to escape the beautiful game. The city was a hotbed of soccer in the first half of the 20th century, and gave rise to the Fall River Marksmen, Fall River F.C. and Ponta Delgada.
Although he was characterized as a shy personality off the field, he was far from bashful with the ball at his feet. He had sensational touch and dribbling skills, and was called a “magician” by many who watched him play. But it wasn’t the only reputation he’d earn during his playing career.
Many of his teammates and friends noticed that Souza had an uncanny resemblance to actor Clark Gables, who starred in Gone with the Wind in 1939. Thus, John Souza had a nickname he’d never shake: “Clarkie.”
During World War II, Souza served in the Navy and was station in the South Pacific, putting his soccer career on hold. But when he returned, he showed that his skills were far from gone. Toward the latter part of the 1940′s, he helped steer Ponta Delgada to three straight Amateur Cups from 1946-48 and a double in 1947 when they also clinched the U.S. Open Cup championship.
After leading the Pontas to Open Cup glory, he was named to the U.S. Olympic team in 1948 and played alongside Ed Souza (no relation), Gino Pariani, Walter Bahr and Charlie Colombo. Although the squad suffered a 0-9 loss to Italy, the Souza Brothers (as they were often called), Pariani, Bahr and Colombo had a date with destiny two years later.
On a warm afternoon in Belo Horizonte, Brazil on June 29, 1950, Souza and his cohorts orchestrated one of the greatest upset victories in World Cup history when they beat a confident and supremely talented England team 1-0. Despite the shock scoreline, Souza returned to Fall River to attend to his factory job at Bristol Knitting Mills on Broadway.
In 1951, he moved to New York to play for the German-Hungarians and, for the second time in his career, he was part of another club that won the Amateur Cup and Open Cup in the same year.
He went to his second – and final – Olympic tournament in 1952 with fellow World Cup teammates Colombo and Harry Keough. But the squad found itself overpowered by the Italians again, this time 8-0. The winger’s National Team tenure concluded that year after collecting 16 caps and scoring two goals.
He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame 1976 and the New England Soccer Hall of Fame in 1983. He is only one of two American players to earn the distinction of being named to a World Cup All-Star team when he made the list in 1950 (Claudio Reyna is the other, in 2002).
In 2005, Souza was portrayed by actor/former Miami Fusion player Nelson Vargas on the big screen in The Game of Their Lives (released on DVD as The Miracle Match) - a motion picture based upon the story of the 1950 U.S. team that upset England. For the second time in his life, Clarkie Souza was given the movie star treatment.
Throughout his playing career, Souza was the quintessential winner. His daughter, Judy Souza Minkoff, recently told the Fall River Herald that “he said, ‘I never put my foot on the soccer field not planning to win.’” Four Amateur Cups and two Open Cups seem to back that assertion pretty well.
Although he and his teammates never found a way to beat Italy, John “Clarkie” Souza lived long enough to see the U.S. beat the Azzuri for the first time – a 1-0 win in Genoa on Feb 29 – only 11 days before his passing.