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This Friday, the United States soccer team will meet England in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It will be only the third time the two teams have faced off in the tournament’s history.
In June 2010, the US managed a 1-1 tie against England in South Africa. You need to go back 72 years for the one and only occasion when we actually defeated the soccer superpower in the World Cup.
It was June 29, 1950, and pre-tournament favorites England were expected to wipe the floor with the US when the teams took to the field in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
The contrast between the two teams could not have been more marked. England was a club packed with superstar players who all played for the country’s top league. The USA, meanwhile, had just one professional player in its team, Ed McIlvenny — and he was Scottish.
The rest of our players were a hodgepodge of occupations, all brought together on the promise of $5 a day for food and laundry. Walter Bahr was a teacher. Frank Borghi drove a hearse. Elsewhere, there was a postman, a carpenter, an undertaker, a trucker and a mechanic. Striker Benny McLaughlin, meanwhile, couldn’t make the trip because he had to plan his wedding and couldn’t get time off work.
Then there was Joe Gaetjens.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1924, Gaetjens had made a name for himself winning two championship titles with his local team, L’Etoile Haitienne. But unable to make a living from the game in Haiti, he changed tack and, in 1947, won a government scholarship to study accountancy at Columbia University in New York.
To help pay his way through college, Gaetjens earned $25 a game playing for a local American Soccer League team, Brookhattan.
Gaetjens was good — very good.
In his first season in 1947-48, Gaetjens scored the second-most goals in the league and by his third season he was the competition’s top scorer.
Today, Gaetjens would not be eligible to play for Team USA but, back then, the national team selectors were only too happy to allow talented foreign-born players like him, and McIlvenny, to play for the country, as long as they expressed an intention to one day gain US citizenship.
Gaetjens breezed through the try-outs in St. Louis, Mo., and took his place in the national team. Upon arrival in Brazil, the Americans’ World Cup run started badly with a 3-1 defeat to Spain.
Four days later, the US faced England.
For 37 minutes, England did all the attacking and a goal seemed inevitable. Finally, one arrived — but, incredibly, not for the English.
The US had staged a rare attack, and schoolteacher Walter Bahr took a shot from 25 yards out. As the ball headed towards goal, Joe Gaetjens leapt in its way, heading it past England’s goalkeeper to score the only goal of the match.
Somehow, America’s band of Davids managed to hold on against Goliath for the rest of the game and seal one of sport’s most unlikely victories.
The outcome was so incredible that when initial tele-printer reports of the result reached the world’s press, they assumed it was a mistake. English soccer commentator Brian Glanville wrote that it was “like a bush-league team coming to the Bronx and beating the New York Yankees.”
Later, the media called it “The Miracle on Grass.”
Despite the global excitement, interest back in America was all but non-existent. Just one US correspondent, Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, covered the match – and he had to pay his own way to Brazil. There isn’t even a photograph of Joe’s famous goal. And Joe never talked to the press about his achievement either.
In our next game, Team USA lost 5-2 to Chile and went back home, losers (but also, in a way, winners) of the 1950 World Cup.
Gaetjens returned to New York with no hero’s welcome. But his performances in Brazil caught the eye of some international teams and soon he was offered a contract to play in France, for Racing Club of Paris, where he spent three happy years.
In 1954, Gaetjens returned to Port-au-Prince, settling in the hills overlooking the capital and running his own dry-cleaning business.
“I don’t think he ever had any intention of becoming a US citizen because he just loved living in Haiti so much,” his eldest son, Lesly Gaetjens, 66, now a retired teacher living in Virginia, told The Post. “It was just a chance for him to play in the World Cup and he really wanted to do that.”
Gaetjens’ return to Haiti was not without danger. Two of his brothers, Jean and Freddie, who now live in the Dominican Republic, were vocal opponents of the country’s despotic leader, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
After winning the presidential election in 1957, Duvalier had gradually tightened his grip on power in Haiti. In 1961, he was re-elected, primarily because he was the only candidate on the ballot slip. In 1964, Duvalier enacted a referendum that made him “President for Life.”
And he was as brutal as he was power-hungry.
In 1959, he established his own militia, the Tonton Macoute, whose job was to eradicate any opposition. Hundreds of thousands fled Haiti in fear, including many of Gaetjens’ extended family, and tens of thousands were killed or “disappeared.”
But while Gaetjens wasn’t at all political, some of his relatives were — and that made him a target. His family begged him to leave, but he stayed put.
On July 8, 1964, Gaetjens had just taken wife Lyliane out to lunch. As they dined, the Tonton Macoute waited for him back at his dry cleaning business. When Gaetjens pulled up, a Duvalier agent jumped into the back seat, put a gun to his head and ordered him to drive.
Gaetjens was never seen again.
Soon after, a family friend who worked for Duvalier’s government, Daniel Lambert, told Gaetjens’ family that Joe had been taken to the notorious Fort Dimanche jail, a prison where inmates were routinely tortured and murdered.
Inside, 30 prisoners were crammed into tiny cells; outside were mass graves for the 3,000 inmates that would die there.
And now Gaetjens found himself there, too, without charge, trial or conviction.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months as the Gaetjens family awaited news of Joe.
“I was just a kid. I didn’t really know or understand what had happened or why,” said Lesly. “I just knew my dad had been taken away and that he wasn’t there any more.”
On January 11, 1966, nearly 18 months after Joe’s disappearance and with the political situation in Haiti deteriorating, Lyliane took her three sons and fled to Puerto Rico to start a new life. “We left without anything really, except the clothes on the back,” recalls Lesly.
Lyliane took a job working as the executive secretary of Shell president Leonard Berger. Soon, they were able to rent a new house in Puerto Rico and within five years, the Gaetjens family became naturalized US citizens.
All the while, Lyliane continued her quest to find out what had happened to her husband. She wrote countless letters, including one to President Lyndon Johnson. She got a reply too, from LBJ’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey, but they didn’t know anything either.
When Francois Duvalier died in 1971, he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc.” In a bid to put pressure on the new Duvalier regime for information, the family held a press conference at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where they met with Clive Toye, the General Manager at the New York Cosmos soccer club.
A former journalist, he set about organizing a benefit game in honor of Gaetjens at Yankee Stadium to help fund the new Joe Gaetjens Foundation, dedicated to finding out what really happened to the soccer legend.
Toye even enlisted the help of then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. “We were happy to do anything we could to raise the profile of Joe’s case and try to find those people that knew anything to come forward,” Kissinger said to Toye.
In 1979, after years of obfuscation from the Haitian authorities, the Gaetjens family finally received a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stating that Joe was, in all likelihood, dead.
While confirmation of his death brought some closure, exactly what happened to him at Fort Dimanche remains a mystery.
There were rumors he died from an infection, and another that he was shot by guards. One of his best friends, an army captain called Daniel Beauvoir, heard he had been executed within two hours of being detained.
Lesly, meanwhile, believes his father may even have been executed by Francois Duvalier himself, pointing to a CIA document he obtained proving that the president was at Fort Dimanche the night his father was likely killed, July 8.
“There is a lot of evidence to suggest he could have done it and I believe it’s one of the more likely conclusions,” he said.
In 1976, Joe Geatjens was posthumously inducted in the US National Soccer Hall of Fame, alongside other members of the 1950 United States World Cup team.
Although Lesly has precious few memories of his father, people still talk about him in Haiti.
When Lesly returned to his birthplace in 2010, he learned that locals were still trying to raise money for a statue of his dad.
“I think they thought that as I was a teacher in the United States I had a lot of money and could help them out,” he laughs.
Next Friday, Lesly will sit down with his wife, Marie, at their home in Winchester Va., and watch the United States take on England in the World Cup. And it’s not going to be easy.
“I know that the fixture and the goal made my dad a hero to the Haitian people and they will be very proud if his name is mentioned during the match,” he says.
“But I’m sure it will be a very emotional moment for me too… but then it always is every time my dad is mentioned.”
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