As the world’s most beloved sport, football, prepares for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil it is hard to overlook the fact that one of football’s greatest matches occurred there 63 years ago. It was in Brazil, during the 1950 World Cup, that the infamous “shot heard round the world” match took place between the rabble of amateurs from the United States and arguably the greatest team in the world from England.
While the match itself is recalled from time to time, the hero of the match is a man who has become lost to history or remembered with a mythical tale full of inaccuracies. Joe Gaetjens, a humble young man from a prominent family in Haiti, was the hero that day for the United States. Despite his famous goal however, little is known about the man that would hatch the greatest upset in football history.
Joseph Edouard Gaetjens was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on 19 March 1924. Joe was born into a once affluent family that was still well entrenched among the elite families in Haiti. Gaetjens’ family had come to Haiti 100 years earlier, shortly after the nation gained its independence following a slave revolt against the ruling French.
Joe’s great-grandfather, Thomas, migrated to Haiti from Bremen, Germany in late 1825 at the request of the King of Prussia. Thomas was sent to Haiti to serve as a business emissary and would go on to marry a local woman. Thomas’ wife, Leonie Dejoie, was the daughter of a leading general from Haiti’s rebellion and his position, along with Thomas’ role as a business emissary, positioned the family for success. That connection however, would cost Joe his life a century later.
Gaetjens’ family was no longer extravagantly wealthy by the time he was born in 1924, but he didn’t grow up in the slums of Port-au-Prince as some myths insist. Joe learned to play football wearing proper cleats on the grassy backyard of his family’s Port-au-Prince villa. At the age of 14, Joe joined Etoile Haitienne of the professional Ligue Haitienne in his homeland. He would play for the club for a number of years, winning league championships in 1942 and 1944.
However, Joe quickly realized that playing professional football was not going to pay the bills and in 1947 he moved to the United States to study accounting on a Haitian government scholarship at Columbia University in New York City. While living there, Joe played for the Brookhattan Galacia of the now-defunct American Soccer League.
Although he was a top player on an elite team, at the time football (soccer as it’s known in America) took a back seat in American minds to American football and baseball. Joe supplemented his income from Brookhattan, where he was paid $25 per match, working as a dishwasher at Rudy’s Café in Harlem.
Football during this period was an embarrassing afterthought for most Americans. Although the game was largely ignored, it already possessed a small bit of history. During the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the United States made an impossible run to the final four of the tournament. Among its accomplishments, the American team posted the first ever “clean sheet” at a World Cup defeating Belgium 3-0 in one of the first games played in the tournament.
After the 1930 World Cup however, the game faded back into obscurity. At the 1948 Olympics in London, the US squad was embarrassed in the first round with a 9-0 defeat to Italy. Subsequent defeats in friendly matches included an 11-0 defeat to Norway and a 5-0 defeat to Northern Ireland. After scratching through qualification in Mexico City in 1949, with 6-0 and 6-2 defeats to Mexico followed by a 5-2 victory and 1-1 draw with Cuba, the U.S. Soccer Federation decided change was needed.
Enter Joe Gaetjens, the unknown football star from a prominent Haitian family washing dishes at a Spanish restaurant in Harlem. Gaetjens was a one-hit wonder plucked from obscurity as many myths suggest. The American Soccer League was professional in name only. Few players at that time made a living off the sport and often had to skip matches or international duty because of their full-time jobs. Many players on the U.S. national team knew nothing of Joe, but East Coast fans of the game knew Joe well.
While playing for Brookhattan, Joe led the league in scoring in 1950 and garnered enough attention to be selected to represent his adopted homeland at the 1950 World Cup. The team flew to Brazil to join 14 other nations for the tournament. Heading into the World Cup, the U.S. had been pinned as 500-1 favorites to win the tournament. In the team’s first match, the U.S. faced a powerful Spain squad (that would go on to finish in fourth place) and held a 1-0 lead until the 75th minute of the game when three quick Spanish strikes turned the match on its head.
It would be the American’s second match of the tournament that turned into a game remembered for decades. The U.S. team would play the powerful English squad, tabbed as 3-1 favorites to win. To this day, English players from the 1950 squad recall a haphazard American squad full of “cowboys” that arrived at the stadium wearing boots, cowboy hats, and smoking cigars prior to the match.
Expected to easily roll over the Americans, the English rested their best player for the game and seemed none too bothered by the Americans as they controlled the ball for the entirety of the match. During the 37th minute U.S. midfielder Walter Bahr launched a shot on net from 25 yards out that didn’t seem set to challenge the English goalkeeper.
That was, until Joe came streaking into the play and dove headfirst at the incoming shot. Gaetjens was able to deflect the shot with his head. His glancing blow altered the ball’s course and sent it sailing into the net as the English keeper was caught wrong-footed diving to his right as the ball went left. Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian-born player playing for his adopted homeland had just launched the second “shot heard round the world” and set in motion one of the greatest football upsets in history.
From there, the American’s defended furiously and withstood a tidal wave of English attempts to equalize. At the final whistle the scene in the stadium was surreal. Brazilian fans were ecstatic, largely because they now believed that England was out of the way for their national team to make a title run. Gaetjens was carried off the field by Brazilian fans.
An Unfitting End for a Hero
As quickly as Joe came onto the international scene, he disappeared from the limelight. A few months after the World Cup, Gaetjens dropped out of Columbia University and parlayed his success at the World Cup into a contract with Racing Club de Paris in the French league. A fluent speaker of French, English, and Spanish, it was assumed that Joe would be able to adjust to life in France.
Despite his young age, Gaetjens’ body began to deteriorate on him and after making just four appearances (and scoring two goals) for Racing Club he was sent packing. He spent the 1952-53 season with lower league side Ales. After the 1953 season however, it was apparent that his star had risen and was on the decline. Though he could still spark magic the likes of his 1950 World Cup winner, his body was failing him. Exertion brought on nose bleeds and his knees were failing.
Gaetjens returned to his native Haiti to live what most would consider a normal life, aside from a few extravagances. He rejoined his old club, Etoile Haitienne, and even suited up for Haiti in a 1954 World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Later on he hosted his fellow 1950 U.S. national team members when the team visited Haiti for a friendly, but his football life was over.
In 1955 he married his first cousin Lilianne and opened a successful dry cleaning business. The couple had three children and Joe filled his spare time coaching youth soccer. But his normal life was about to be shattered by his familial connections, connections he wanted little to do with.
When Haitians went to the polls in 1957 to elect a president, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was pitted against Louis Dejoie, to whom the Gaetjens family was related. The entire family supported Dejoie in the election, and in the aftermath members of Joe’s family supported a coup against Papa Doc. A pair of Joe’s brother’s continued their support for a coup while living in exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
The attempted coup turned Papa Doc into a ruthless, paranoid dictator who used his Tonton Macoutes (bogeymen) militia to rule the island through fear and harassment. While the Gaetjens family had survived the initial coup against Papa Doc, they would not be so lucky when Joe’s brothers in exile were caught aiding in the planning of a second.
After Papa Doc declared himself president for life on 7 July 1964, the remaining Gaetjens family members fled Haiti, all except for Joe. He didn’t believe he was in danger as he had no political aspirations or connections himself. Unfortunately he miscalculated his safety and the Tonton Macoutes abducted him within 24 hours of Papa Doc’s declaration.
From here, Joe’s sad story becomes a guessing game. The assumption by many is that Papa Doc’s militia took Joe to the infamous Fort Dimanche. The prison housed anyone Papa Doc took for an enemy, and on a nightly basis prisoners were lined up at random and executed. It was rumored, and few refute it, that Joe was killed on 10 July 1964. His body was never found and his death never confirmed.
Joe Gaetjens is every bit an American sports hero. At a time when football was irrelevant in America, Gaetjens and his teammates achieved the impossible and defeated a giant of the game. As quickly as Joe emerged from obscurity, he descended back into it and died under unknown circumstances. In 1976, he was honored by the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame when he was inducted posthumously into its ranks.