FEATURE-Haitian Made U.S. Sport History, Vanished in Prison

By Patricia Zengerle

MIAMI, April 28 (Reuters) - As U.S. soccer players prepare for this summer's World Cup, they may spare a thought for a little-known Haitian who scored a goal nearly 50 years ago that gave them what is still their greatest victory ever.

Soccer has soared in popularity in the United States since those days, but its hero, Joe Gaetjens, was destined for a tragic end in a dictator's dungeon in his homeland.

On June 29, 1950, 39 minutes into what was supposed to have been England's World Cup blowout of the United States, Gaetjens dove an estimated 12 feet (4 metres) to strike a shot from teammate Walter Bahr with his head, changing its direction enough to catch English goalkeeper Bert Williams wrongfooted.

Gaetjens did not see the result of his header -- his headlong leap left him lying face down in the turf at Brazil's Belo Horizonte stadium -- but it got past Williams and gave the Americans a 1-0 lead over the team that had been the world leader of the sport.

The slim lead held up, to the raucous delight of 30,000 Brazilians packing the stadium. At the end, the English team congratulated the Americans as spectators carried Gaetjens and his teammates shoulder-high.

``It was a big upset. We knew it was an upset. Of course we were excited about it,'' Bahr told Reuters in a telephone interview, recalling that day nearly 48 years ago.

``Things went our way, and in the run of play they (the English) should have won the game, (but) they didn't score. As the game went on, we got a little bit better and they got a little bit more panicky. Nine times out of 10 they would have beaten us. But that game was our game.''


The game would be considered the greatest World Cup soccer upset of all time. The English side included greats such as Tom Finney and Billy Wright and was expected to beat the U.S. eleven by at least seven goals.

Only one American player, halfback Ed McIlenny, was a full-time professional. The others were semipros -- Gaetjens an accounting student and dishwasher, Bahr a teacher, and goalie Frank Borghi a hearse driver for his uncle's funeral home.

The team had lost to Italy 9-0, Northern Ireland 5-0 and Scotland 4-0 before the World Cup. When the first teleprinter reports on the game's outcome reached London editors threw them out, assuming it was a misprint for a 10-1 English victory.

``Before World War II, England was the unquestioned leader of the sport in the world. This game might have been said to be the first nail in the coffin of that superiority,'' said Roger Allaway, president of the Society for American Soccer History.

But the victory, which coincided with the U.S. entry into the Korea War, went almost unnoticed in the United States. The Americans did not return to play in the World Cup until 1990.

Gaetjens, playing as an American under the era's loose eligibility rules, never became a U.S. citizen and was virtually forgotten in the United States. In Britain, an erroneous press report called him ``Larry'' Gaetjens, and he remains misnamed in many record books.


He played in France for the first division Paris Racing Club after the World Cup, returning to Haiti in 1954 to run a dry cleaning business, play weekend soccer and coach youth teams, Jean-Pierre Gaetjens, his younger brother, said.

``He was still active and well-known in the sport area in Haiti,'' Gaetjens told Reuters. ``Joe is the kind of person that he arrived in a group of people talking, they've never seen him before, and after 10 minutes it looks like he had been friends with them for the past 20 years.''

Joe Gaetjens was not political but his family worked for Louis Dejoie, a rival to Haitian dictator Francois ``Papa Doc'' Duvalier in his 1957 run for the presidency. Gaetjens' mother and a brother were arrested after Duvalier's victory and most of the family fled the country.

But Joe stayed in Haiti, said his brother, who now lives in Spain. ``Joe did not care much about the politics and things like that,'' Jean-Pierre Gaetjens said.

Other members of the family campaigned outside of Haiti against Duvalier, who made himself president for life in 1964.

The last time Joe Gaetjens was seen by any friend or relative was on July 8, 1964, when he was arrested at work by Duvalier's gangster militia, the Tonton Macoute, which his family considered retaliation for their political activism.

``When he arrived, they rushed to his car, put a gun on his head, got in his car and drove to ... the Port-au-Prince police station,'' Jean-Pierre Gaetjens said. ``His wife, who lives in Florida now, received the authorization to get the car three or four days after ... and from there we have no trace from him.''

Gaetjens' family tried for years to determine his fate but heard nothing from Haiti or from U.S. officials they asked to intercede. But Jean-Pierre Gaetjens returned to Haiti after Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude, fell from power in 1986 and met a man who had been at the notorious Fort Dimanche prison with his brother but was transferred shortly afterward.

``Three or four days later one of the prison guards told him ... you were lucky because last night they had killed everybody at Fort Dimanche,'' Gaetjens said. ``That's when, we think, that he must have been killed, around mid-July. But we never knew. They had destroyed any evidence on everybody that was killed at the time under Duvalier, they burned or destroyed everything.''

Some did not forget Joe Gaetjens. He was honored at a New York Cosmos game in 1972 and enshrined in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976, the same year the Organization of American States condemned Haiti's government for his arrest.

Last year, Haiti authorized the issue of a stamp in his honor. Jean-Pierre Gaetjens, who continues to campaign so his brother will be more widely remembered, described his joy during a visit to Belo Horizonte in April when he was featured in the local newspaper and met people who remembered the game.

``I was overwhelmed,'' he said.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu