It had to be a typo.
When the English woke up on June 30, 1950, the newspaper had to be wrong. The afternoon before, their national team had played a World Cup match in Brazil against the lowly United States, a country more preoccupied with baseball and that other brand of football to be any good at the world's most popular game. The headline read that England had lost 1-0. In fact, many in England assumed that the paper merely misprinted and that the national team had won 10-1. The fact that the United States had even scored a goal against England, one of the most heralded teams in that World Cup, would have been considered an accomplishment the day before.
Nearly 60 years later, the match remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history and it was won by someone who wasn't even a U.S. citizen. Joe Gaetjens, the hero who scored the goal that afternoon in Belo Horizonte, was an immigrant from Haiti who was allowed to play for his adopted homeland under the more lax representation policies of the day. He was one of three players on the roster -- Joseph Maca from Belgium and the Scottish born Ed Mcllvenny -- who were not U.S. citizens. It was quite a team, a mixture of hard workers with an infusion of flair. They would go on to shock the world.
Born in 1924 in Port-au-Prince, not much is known about Gaetjens' early life. He lived in Haiti until the late 1940s when he moved to New York City on a scholarship from the Haitian government to study accounting. He enrolled at Columbia University in an era when Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers just a few miles away.
Gaetjens made ends meet in New York as many college students do, combining odd jobs with time in the library. Working part-time as a dishwasher, he also suited up for one of the best names in soccer history, famed club Brookhattan. Gaetjens seemingly burst onto the scene as a center forward, winning the American Soccer League's scoring title in 1950. Those who played either with and against him, remember him as a prototypical striker who could turn a half-chance into a goal. He was flamboyant, a free spirit who hated to tuck in his shirt. He had, as they say, a "nose for goal."
"He was a fantastic player and a really good striker," recalls Walter Bahr, former teammate on the 1950 national team. "If you gave him that opening, he would take advantage of it."
The fact that Gaetjens was black and an immigrant from Haiti doesn't seem to matter as much as the fact that the man could simply score goals. Soccer, for some reason, didn't have the same racial divide and tensions as many other sports. Maybe due to the international flavor of the game or perhaps because, until the 1970s, the game was mainly an ethnic sport played overseas, but Gaetjens faced few enemies in the locker room or on the field.
There were isolated incidents of racism in the game. In the 1950s, Howard University, a historically black college, played Bowling Green on the park field of the Washington Mall. The match was played in secret because there was an unofficial ban by many colleges on playing black schools. The fact that the players from Bowling Green wanted to play Howard badly enough that they were willing to do so in secret is a testament to the tolerance that was displayed on many soccer fields.
"We never looked at him as black. It wasn't an issue, it wasn't a question or something we thought of," Bahr said. "He was the Haitian, much like there was the Scot or the Belgium or someone from some part of the country. In no ways, do I think, was he treated differently because of his skin. That was the great thing about that team, the way we would just come together."
Gaetjens shocks the world
Gaetjens was not part of the qualification process in 1949 that would enable the U.S. to play in the tournament in 1950. In fact, the first time he would take the field for his adopted country would be in the "build-up" for the World Cup. The U.S. played one friendly, against an English select team in New York, and lost 1-0.
It took four days for the U.S. to fly down to Brazil, with a fuel issue sidelining the team for a day in Central America. The U.S. team was situated in a military installation, even playing another team from the base in a scrimmage. There was no media interest.
"It was completely ignored. The only American reporter there was Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who was reportedly on vacation," said Robert Woodward, a soccer historian and author of the upcoming book, "Black People Don't Play Soccer? Unlocking American Soccer's Secret Weapon." "Since he was familiar with many of the players from the St. Louis area, it might not have been a total coincidence."
The tournament started off poorly for the U.S., with the team losing an early lead to drop a 3-1 decision to Spain. England beat Chile 2-0 and their media mockingly jeered and derided the U.S. in the days leading up to the encounter at Belo Horizonte. Most expected an easy win for the English, including many on the U.S. squad.
"We felt that if we could hold them to three or four goals, it would be good," Bahr said. "We could go home with our heads held high if that was the case."
It wouldn't turn out that way. After encountering an opening blitz from England -- Bahr recalls that the favorites hit the framework at least twice -- Bahr would take a shot on goal from some distance. It didn't look like much would happen from the chance, but Gaetjens, ever an opportunist, would make the most of it.
Instead of going the direction English keeper Bert Williams thought, Gaetjens made a full-out dive, covering several yards and heading the ball onto goal. His contact would send the ball to Williams' right and into the back of the net. Flat-footed, Bahr recalls that Williams didn't have a chance. It was opportunistic finishing by Gaetjens, but it wasn't the piece of pure luck some would make it out to be.
"I took the ball and shot it, and Joe, true to form, just found a way to make something happen," Bahr said. "He just got in front of it. Some in the English media said it hit him and others said it was a panicky clearance on my part. That wasn't the case."
England would continue to mount pressure, hunkering the Americans into their own half for much of the rest of the game. Gaetjens would rarely touch the ball in the attacking third of the field for the rest of the match, but he had already done more than enough.
At the final whistle, the crowd in attendance (around 10,000 fans) stormed the field and carried the Americans off. Gaetjens, the only black player in the starting lineup, was an instant hero and made headlines across the world.
"It was huge for an instant worldwide," Woodward said about the result. "England [had] boycotted all the previous World Cups so this [tournament] was the initial appearance of soccer's birthplace. The result gave the United States some instant credibility."
Except in the U.S., where Gaetjens, the part-time dishwasher received barely an accolade. The Americans lost the next game to Chile and were eliminated from the World Cup. One of the greatest upsets in World Cup history, went virtually unnoticed.
"I returned home and it wasn't much different," Bahr said. "My wife was the only one to meet me at the airport."
Not much is known about Gaetjens upon his return to the U.S., but he certainly didn't become a well-known celebrity in America. He would go on to play in Europe, signing with French second division side Troyes and would then suit up for Racing of Paris. After three years, he moved back to Haiti and represented the island's national team several times. Palmolive would hire him to be a spokesman on the island and he opened his own dry cleaning business . He became politically connected and rather famous in Haiti.
Haiti's president "Papa Doc" was elected into office peaceably in 1957, but following a failed coup attempt, he quickly turned into a dictator. Having rewritten the constitution to ensure his power, the Haitian military police (the Tonton Macoutes) began to round up dissidents and those with ties to the old power. Bahr speculates that Gaetjens' family had such ties and he was one of those taken to prison. A few days later, Joe Gaetjens was executed at Fort Dimanche.
Legacy lives on
Now playing for Villareal in Spain's La Liga and one of the brightest young stars on the U.S. national team, Jozy Altidore has a lot in common with Gaetjens. Both of Altidore's parents are from Haiti and the young player made a humanitarian trip to the island several years ago. Before playing for Villareal, Altidore, like Gaetjens, played forward for a professional team in the New York area, when the striker was a member of the New York Red Bulls. Altidore's parents came to this country when they were in their 20s; his mother worked three jobs at one point and his father was a letter carrier for the post office. They spoke no English when they came here and Altidore can relate to the story of Joe Gaetjens -- the soccer player and the dishwasher.
"For me, the biggest thing that stands out is the obstacles and adversity he had to go through back then. I'm extremely grateful for players like him because they set the stage for future African-American players like myself," Altidore said. "Hopefully, I can one day inspire young players as he did for me and for others."
And that means being like Gaetjens, who always strove to be the consummate role model.
"I do feel the need to take on the role to be a role model. I feel that in every sport or profession, young kids, white or black, need to look up to a person that gives that child a positive outlook on things," Altidore said. "I think kids today are in need of a person they call their hero. Someone they can idolize. Even with that, though, at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the parents.
"I definitely feel the need to make a mark. It is important that myself and others further cement the road ahead so future American players, black or white, can have a smooth ride through the valley of success."
And that road for success, for Altidore and others like him, began nearly six decades ago, when a man scored a goal in Belo Horizonte that would never be forgotten.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.