Joe Gaetjens and the goal that shook the world

Everywhere you go in Haiti, just mentioning the name Joe Gaetjens is enough to draw a smile.

He’s the man who scored the goal that shook the world – the header in the USA’s famous 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup. Yet Gaetjens’ story is also one of tragedy. His family’s political ties ultimately cost him his life, with Gaetjens believed to have died in prison during Haiti’s despotic Duvalier regime.

Born into a wealthy, middle-class background with a Haitian mother and Belgian father, Gaetjens grew up in one of the more affluent parts of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. He joined his first club, Etoile Haïtienne, when he was 14 years old, helping the club to two league titles including their first championship in 1942.

Despite the success he enjoyed domestically, Gaetjens realised it was impossible to make a living playing football in Haiti. In 1947, then 23, he decided to study accounting at Columbia University in New York with the support of his parents and a scholarship provided by the government. The aim was to graduate and gain a respectable job with a good salary. But it was inevitable that Gaetjens would find a route into playing football in the USA.

In order to earn some pocket money alongside his studies, he got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant, the Harlem cafe. The restaurant’s owner, Eugene Diaz, had recently bought Brookhattan Football Club of the now-defunct American Soccer League, and Gaetjens was invited to join.

In a debut season that brought 14 goals for Brookhattan, Gaetjens helped his new club finish runners-up in the 1948 National Challenge Cup, scoring in a narrow 3-2 defeat in the final. He saved his best form for his final season at Brookhattan, claiming 18 goals to finish as the ASL’s top scorer in 1950. He was a brilliantly effective forward, strong and composed in front of goal.

Gaetjens had hit top form at the right time. The USA Soccer Federation were putting together a squad for the upcoming World Cup to be held in Brazil, and he made the cut. Although he had twice represented Haiti in his early twenties, Gaetjens was considered eligible for a call-up because of his plans to gain US citizenship. As James Ferguson notes in his book An Illustrated History of Caribbean Football, a would-be USA citizen only had to state “intent” to be considered American in the 1950s, and so Gaetjens passed the test.

The USA were drawn into Group Two alongside Spain, England and Chile. Few people knew about the team and the approach they would take during the tournament, but they certainly weren’t expected to challenge for the trophy.

Having lost 3-1 in their opener against Spain, the USA’s next opponent was England – a largely professional team featuring star players such as Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, and future World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey. The game in Belo Horizonte, also the setting for Brazil’s shock 7-1 defeat to Germany 64 years later, was surely going to be a landslide in England’s favour.

But Gaetjens had other ideas. His first-half header, to which England could find no reply, would go down as one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history. As Walter Bahr surged forward to unleash a shot from 25 yards, it looked as though the England goalkeeper, Bert Williams, would make a comfortable save. But Gaetjens got his head to the ball before it reached Williams, and the sharp change in trajectory completely wrong-footed the keeper.

The part-timers – Bahr a teacher and Gaetjens still an accounting student – had beaten the professionals and tournament favourites. The goalscoring hero Gaetjens was mobbed at full-time and carried off the pitch by the supporters, the local Brazilians totally enamoured with this new striking superstar.

Following the World Cup, Gaetjens signed professional terms with French top-flight club Racing Club de Paris, before later moving to Olympique Alès. But in 1953, it was time to return to Haiti.

After coming home and rejoining Etoile, the US soccer hero appeared in a World Cup qualifier for his country of birth against Mexico. He settled down, was married with three children, and set up a dry-cleaning business as well as coaching football at youth level.

Gaetjens was a well-liked and popular figure, with his younger brother, Jean-Pierre, telling Reuters: “Joe is the kind of person that he arrived in a group of people talking, they’ve never seen him before, and after ten minutes it looks like he had been friends with them for the past 20 years.”

But Gaetjens’ settled family life was to be tragically torn apart within the next few years. Haiti has long been a country plagued by political instability, inequality and deprivation. In 1957, Francois Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, won the presidency in an election that had tragic repercussions for many Haitian people.

Duvalier’s reign was characterized by brutality, with his special operations unit “Tonton Macoute” (Haitian slang for bogeymen), a group of gangsters used to intimidate and kill civilians. Luckner Cambronne, the former head of Tonton Macoute, once said: “A good Duvalierist is prepared to kill his children [for Duvalier] and expects his children to kill their parents for him.”

Although Gaetjens had no real interest in politics, his family were known to Papa Doc for the wrong reasons. His family worked for Louis Dejoie, who was running for president against Papa Doc, and his two younger brothers were involved in planning a coup to usurp the Duvalier regime. As Duvalier squeezed his grip on power, the rest of Gaetjens’ family fled the country. But he remained, believing he wouldn’t be targeted.

In July 1964, 14 years after his historic World Cup goal, Gaetjens was captured by the Tonton Macoute. They came to his dry-cleaning business in Port-au-Prince, put a gun to his head, shoved him in the back of the car and drove off to Fort Dimanche prison, where Papa Doc would send his opponents to be interrogated and tortured.

It is believed that Gaetjens died inside Fort Dimanche during that July. His son, Lesly, believes Papa Doc murdered his father, stating that he has a CIA document confirming the pair were at the prison on the same night. Gaetjens’ body has never been found.

His name and legacy lives on. In 1972, Gaetjens was honoured by the New York Cosmos and a local Haitian side in a benefit match at Yankee Stadium. Four years later he was posthumously inducted into the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame.

There has also been a film, ‘The Game of Their Lives’, made about the USA team at the 1950 World Cup, and a petition set up to have the MLS Most Valuable Player award renamed in a mark of respect for Gaetjens’ contribution to US soccer.

Gaetjens’ header against England has been called the goal that shook the world. His story, too, should be told far and wide.

For more features by Nathan Carr, check out his website The Home of Caribbean Football.

Joe Gaetjens and the goal that shook the world
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