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11 World Cup Heroes Who Weren't Full-Time Pros

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As the high-paid, meticulously coiffed superstars of world soccer take the field in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, it's easy to forget that it isn't always full-time pros who participate in the universe's biggest sporting event. Factory workers, investment bankers, hearse drivers and other Average Joes have grabbed a seat at the table of sporting history, too.

1. Joe Gaetjens

When the United States beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, it was such a surprise that many newspapers didn't believe the scoreline when it came through the wire (according to legend, many printed the result as England 10 - USA 1). The U.S. team, which was full of semi-professionals, pulled off the unlikely victory thanks to a diving header from Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian-born striker who went to Columbia University and washed dishes at a restaurant run by the owner of the Brookhattan soccer team.

Back then, players merely had to verbally commit their intent to one day become a citizen in order to play for a country's national team. So Gaetjens, who was noticed by U.S. coaches while playing for Brookhattan, landed a spot on the World Cup roster, where he'd make history. He never became a citizen, however, and died under mysterious circumstances years later in Haiti (some say President Francois Duvalier put a hit out on him).

2. Harry Keough

The right back for that famous U.S. team, Harry Keough, worked as a postman in St. Louis. According to the Post-Dispatch, "after losing its next match the players returned to America in anonymity...Keough resuming his duties for the post office."

3. Walter Bahr

Starting in midfield for the U.S. in 1950 was Walter Bahr, a junior-high teacher in Philadelphia. When Bahr asked school officials if he could leave early to go to Brazil to represent his country at the World Cup, they resisted. “I think I had to give up my salary the last few weeks,” he said, but he made the trip and eventually helped control a midfield against some of the most famous players on earth.

4. Frank Borghi

Making a Save Against England, via Getty

The U.S. keeper who shut out England was Frank Borghi, a former minor league baseball player who worked professionally as a hearse driver. He was confident with his hands, but not so much with his feet, which is why he played in goal. In the dying minutes of that legendary game, Borghi was under siege by England, but the hearse driver managed to keep a team full of future knights at bay.

5. Lucien Laurent


Laurent holds a distinction in soccer that will never be matched: the Frenchman scored the first-ever World Cup goal in 1930. At the time, he was on unpaid leave from the Peugeot factory where he worked (he also played for Peugeot Sochaux, the factory's team).

6. Pak Doo-ik

In 1966, a North Korean team full of (literal) unknowns qualified for the World Cup and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history. After losing to the Soviet Union and tying Chile, the Hermit kingdom managed to beat the world-famous Italians 1-0 thanks to a goal from Pak Doo-ik, who worked as a corporal in the Army.

The defeat sent the Italians home, where they were pelted with fruits and vegetables by furious fans. North Korea earned a spot in the quarter-finals, where they'd play Portugal and the legendary Eusébio. Astonishingly, the North Koreans managed to take a 3-0 lead after 25 minutes in that match. It wasn't to last, however, and Eusébio inspired Portugal to a ruthless five-goal comeback. The North Koreans returned home heroes, however, and their story is documented in the movie The Game of Their Lives.

7. Jimmy Douglass

Douglass, second row, center via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years before the United States' match against England, the Yanks actually came in third in Uruguay at the very first World Cup. They also posted the first-ever clean sheet in tournament history when they blanked Belgium 3-0. Jimmy Douglass, the American keeper who can claim this honor, played back home as an unpaid amateur in New York.

8. Sir Tom Finney

Getty Images

As a teenager, Tom Finney was offered a contract to join the ground crew at local football club Preston North End. However, his father insisted that he learn a trade, so Finney split his time between the game and a plumber's apprenticeship. He stuck with plumbing throughout his career, even when he was recognized as one of the best players in England, and earned the nickname "The Preston Plumber." Sir Tom Finney played in three World Cups for England, and is celebrated as an all-time great.

9. Roger Milla

In 1989, Cameroon star Roger Milla was enjoying his retirement from playing soccer at his new home on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. He was preparing for his job on the coaching staff of Montpellier, the side he had just played his last match for. As Italia '90 neared, press and fans in his home country anxiously clamored for the 38-year-old to return for the tournament, and Paul Biya, Cameroon's prime minister, even called and begged him to play. Milla decided to suit up once again, and the results were legendary. He became the oldest player to score in a World Cup (he notched four goals in total), and led the Indomitable Lions to the quarter-finals—the furthest an African nation had ever made it in the tournament.

His celebration dance became one of the most famous moments in World Cup history, and Milla returned in 1994 to break his own record and score at the age of 42.

10. Andy Barron

It's incredibly rare nowadays for a non-professional player to participate in the World Cup, but New Zealand brought three amateurs with them to South Africa in 2010—and didn't lose a game (they managed three draws but didn't make it out of their group). Andy Barron, a midfielder who was brought on as a substitute in New Zealand's 1-1 draw with defending champions Italy, worked full-time as an investment banker.

11. Simon Elliott

Simon Elliott, who started for New Zealand in midfield against Italy and delivered an assist, wasn't under contract with a professional club at the time. He had been cut by the San Jose Earthquakes, and was unemployed.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.