Chasing Gaetjens

Brazilian fans carried Joe Gaetjens off the field after the U.S. shocked England in the 1950 World Cup. AP Photo

A man scores a goal in a faraway land.

The goal single-handedly fells a giant.

Nobody knows who the man is, his teammates included. All that is left behind are a few grainy black-and-white photographs. A team picture shows a ruggedly handsome man with piercing black eyes kneeling over the vehicle of his fame, a soccer ball. Another shows him smiling sheepishly as he's carried off the field by overjoyed Brazilian spectators, not quite sure of what is happening to him.

As unceremoniously as he appears, the man vanishes. The man turns into myth. Unimpeded, myth snowballs into ambiguity. Ambiguity gives way to misinformation.

The gray matter separating man from myth doesn't collide with the truth until more information is unearthed.

When we finally learn more about Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian striker who scored the only goal in the United States' astonishing victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, we discover the man was just a man. One who, like all of us, wanted more than he had.

Few men can stand up to the scrutiny of their myth and come out ahead, truth transpiring as remarkable as legend. Joe Gaetjens can.

Joe Gaetjens was not Belgian. And his father wasn't, either.

His name sounded Flemish. The Flemings are the Dutch-speaking half of Belgium. Considering the tidal wave of Flemish immigrants that washed over North America in the 19th century, the assumption that Gaetjens was of Belgian descent held credence. But Gaetjens, in spite of the '-jens' suffix, is not a common name in Flanders.

Genealogic research shows that Joe's great-grandfather, Thomas, migrated to Haiti from Bremen, in northern Germany, where the Gaetjens name is rather common. (A close variation on Gaetjens -- Gätjens -- is also oft-heard just north of there, over the Danish border.) Thomas arrived in Haiti shortly after 1825 (when France officially recognized Haiti's independence) and married Leonie Dejoie, whose father was a general and had played a part in Haiti's self-determination. That connection opened a path to prosperity for the Gaetjens family.

Joe's father Edmond's birth certificate was registered at the German embassy in Haiti to ensure that he could take on the German nationality, should the need ever arise. Whether he ever did is unclear, but that he was Belgian, as was commonly held, can be ruled out.

Joe Gaetjens was not a slum dweller.

When Gaetjens was picked up by the U.S. national team in 1950, he worked as a dishwasher in Rudy's Cafe, which served Spanish food on the corner of 111th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. José Lorente, a teammate of Gaetjens' on the Brookhattan Galicia soccer team, recalls seeing Gaetjens working behind the bar the day he first met with Eugene "Rudy" Diaz, who owned Rudy's and Brookhattan.

At Rudy's, Gaetjens complemented his pay for Brookhattan, an elite team in the now-defunct American Soccer League (ASL). That tidbit, combined with the fact that he hailed from one of the poorest countries in the world, must have led to the flawed conclusion that Gaetjens came from abject circumstances.

Gaetjens, however, had not come to New York to eke out a living on the fringes of the labor market but to study accounting at Columbia University. In fact, his great-grandfather had been sent to Haiti as a business emissary by the king of Prussia, a position that -- by the latter half of the 19th century -- he had parlayed into a vast business empire. The U.S. occupation of Haiti (which lasted from 1915 through 1934), the economic isolation of Germany stemming from World War I and the quarreling over assets by his sons eventually took their toll on the Gaetjens family's business interests. By the time Edmond Gaetjens, a salesman, and his wife, Antonine "Toto" Defay, had their third child, Joe, who was born in Port-au-Prince on March 19, 1924, the family was no longer extravagantly wealthy. Nevertheless, the Gaetjenses were still firmly ensconced among the Haitian elite.

"Joe definitely didn't learn to play soccer barefoot on the street of Port-au-Prince," says Joe's nephew, James Gaetjens, who lives in Miami. Joe had learned to play on proper soccer cleats on the grass lawn of the family's own backyard. "They wanted it to seem like he was boat people," James says. "That's completely false."

At 14, Tijoe -- meaning "little Joe" -- joined L'Etoile Haitienne, with whom he won Haitian championships in 1942 and 1944. But soccer didn't pay the bills. And so in 1947 it was decided that, as there were no opportunities in the family business, Joe would be sent to Columbia to study accounting, the way his older brother Gérard had previously.

In addition to studying and washing dishes, Gaetjens joined Brookhattan for $25 a game.

Joe Gaetjens did not practice voodoo.

"Absolutely not!" shouts his indignant younger sister, Mireille, reached in Puerto Rico.

"The Game of Their Lives," the 2005 movie about the historic upset, had been ludicrously inaccurate. The film made light-skinned Gaetjens, played by dark-skinned Jimmy Jean-Louis, out to be some sort of voodoo nut.

The Gaetjens family was appalled. In real life, Gaetjens was Catholic, like most Haitians, and went to church every Sunday.

"Our family traded rum and coffee and ran schools," Mireille says over the phone. "No family member was into voodoo. I've never even seen voodoo being practiced. Nobody in the family has ever even set foot in a voodoo church!"

Joe Gaetjens did not join the team on Ellis Island.

After England's elimination from the World Cup, it was widely suggested in the British media that the U.S. team had been recruited at Ellis Island, a team whose players had honed their skills away from U.S. soil.

"There were a lot of reports that the whole team was a bunch of immigrants, just off the boat," says Walter Bahr, a left midfielder on the team. "That certainly wasn't the case."

True. The formation of the team nonetheless was chaotic. The U.S. was one of only four teams in the North American Football Confederation at the time. Two of them were to go to the tournament in Brazil. In the 1949 qualifying tournament in Mexico City, the U.S. lost 6-0 and 6-2 to Mexico but beat Cuba 5-2 and drew 1-1 to qualify (Canada didn't participate). The U.S. had played in the 1948 Olympics in London, which ended in a disastrous 9-0 loss to Italy in the first round. The London team had gone on to lose exhibition games to Norway and Northern Ireland by scores of 11-0 and 5-0.

Keen on avoiding such humiliation in Brazil, the U.S. Federation went scrambling for new and better players from outside its traditional St. Louis breeding ground. "From the Olympic team from '48 a few were selected for the '49 team, and from the '49 team there were five or six that were selected to play in '50," Bahr says.

Adding players was no simple chore. "I don't know of anybody that made a living off soccer back when I played. Everybody had a job," says Bahr, who was a gym teacher in Philadelphia. "I had a leave of absence to go to Mexico, but the next year we were to go right before the school year and a few people had to go to bat for me to keep the school district from replacing me."

The players would be paid $100 a week at the World Cup, which was twice what Bahr made with the ASL's Philadelphia Nationals, which in turn was more than the $46 a week he made teaching. Not all employers were so understanding, though. Ben McLaughlin of Philadelphia had to withdraw from the team, unable to leave his job.

"Five or six of us were from St. Louis and a couple of guys from Philadelphia," says Harry Keough, the team's right back. "We had some pretty good players, but we didn't have a lot of practice together. They just kind of threw us together and we played a practice game and that was it."

Bahr, one of the holdovers from the '48 Olympic team, says, "We had absolutely no training or preparation before we left to get down to Brazil. Fortunately, the players from the East knew each other well and the five players from St. Louis knew each other pretty well. We hit it off pretty good. But the only game we really played together as a team was in New York."

The day before leaving for Brazil, the team scrimmaged against a travel select team of English players in New York (and lost 1-0), before which three more players had been added to the team: Joseph Maca, who was born in Belgium; Ed McIlvenny, a Scotsman; and Joe Gaetjens.

The latter was little known. "We knew him on the East Coast, from the American Soccer League," Bahr remembers. "But nobody else knew him. I don't think he was even involved in the tryouts for that team. He was just added to the selection." Even though Gaetjens had led the ASL in scoring in 1950, some questioned his ability and seriousness; others did not.

"The first time I met Joe was the day before that scrimmage when we worked out a little," says Keough, who learned to play soccer in his Spanish neighborhood in St. Louis. "Joe was just a lovable guy, like a kid really."

With Gaetjens in tow, the U.S. national team set off for Brazil and the last edition of the World Cup as an obscure tournament.

Joe Gaetjens' goal was not a fluke.

When the team arrived, only a few days remained until the U.S. was to play its opening game against Spain in Curitiba. That practice time was a luxury, however. "That was one of the few times before we played the big games that we got a few days beforehand to practice and get to know each other," Keough says. "Usually when we went on a trip like that, a lot of guys had jobs so we came shortly beforehand and we were out of shape, because we didn't play in the summer in the U.S."

The U.S. would lead against Spain until the 75th minute, when John "Clarkie" Souza's 17th-minute goal for the U.S. was negated by three Spanish goals. "A win or a tie would have helped us advance, but that strategy wasn't part of soccer at the time," Bahr says. "You didn't sit back and protect your goal. The best defense was a good offense. Even though we were up a goal with [15] minutes to play we still went up and tried to score a second goal and cement victory."

Next came England, in possession of the world's best players and credited with inventing and popularizing the modern game. To call this a David versus Goliath game would have overstated David's stature considerably. This really wasn't a game at all -- it was a demonstration, like the ones England played all over the world.

The Belfast Telegraph had anointed the U.S. a "band of no-hopers," and coach Bill Jeffrey, in what was either a fine piece of underdog positioning or genuine concern, had declared his team "sheep ready to be slaughtered." The bookies perhaps said it best. They had given the stacked England team a 3-1 chance to hoist the World Cup. The U.S. was priced at 500-1.

England strained to beat Chile 2-0 in its opener, but that was no cause for concern with regard to the U.S. game. As against Chile, Stanley Matthews -- England's star player and thought to be the world's best -- would be rested for this automatic win. Matthews would be kept sprightly for games that mattered. An English double-digit victory in the new Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte on June 29 was the consensus prediction for the outcome, after all.

The English camp wasn't a happy one, though, and the Americans had shed some of their insecurities. "We were confident in that we were playing better than we'd expected," Bahr says. "I thought of the three games we played in Brazil our best game was against Spain. And going into the [England] game, it built up our confidence somewhat. I don't think anybody realistically felt that we had a chance to win against England, but anytime you walk onto the field, anything might happen, we might have a couple of good bounces and they might not be able to find the net."

The U.S. found itself walking into a friendly atmosphere. "A couple hundred Americans had come from a Navy or Air Force base, so we knew they were there," Bahr recalls. "The overwhelming majority was Brazilians, but they rooted for us the entire time. We didn't realize why until after. They [were] hoping we would beat England and that Brazil would not have to play England in the final game." As the game progressed and the upset was taking shape, the attendance, which had been a sparse 10,000 at kickoff, grew, even trebled, according to some, as a Brazilian radio broadcast of the game had whipped listeners into a frenzy.

As expected, England dominated and took the bulk of the chances, which were all for naught. In the 37th minute, a McIlvenny throw-in was controlled by Bahr on the right. Bahr attempted an ambitious diagonal shot, intended for the far corner of the goal. England keeper Bert Williams went in pursuit of what appeared to be an easy save when out of nowhere Gaetjens launched into an all-out headfirst dive through traffic, barely connecting with the ball, which flew slowly into the net to the left of Williams, whose momentum was still carrying him in the opposite direction. Gaetjens, planted face down in the grass, never did see his goal.

There was an awful lot of soccer left to play, but England's shots refused to find their way past American goalie Frank Borghi, with regular interventions from the woodwork to thank.

In the 82nd minute, the English fashioned their best chance. Stan Mortensen, one of Britain's stars, had broken through clear on goal, on his way to scoring the presumably inevitable equalizer when Charlie Colombo, perhaps the best U.S. player on the day, caught up and applied a superb tackle from behind, punished only by a free kick. Colombo, a tough-as-nails central defender charged with covering Mortensen, would go unheralded by history. "Colombo wasn't what you'd call a good soccer player, but he was a good defender," recalls Keough, who knew him well from a rival St. Louis team. "He wouldn't hesitate to knock a guy on his rear end. If his mother was on the other team, he probably would have kicked her, too. He played very well in that game. He was stepping over the line a few times, but he got away with it most of the time. He was very important that day in keeping the defense together."

(Colombo, who wore gloves with the fingertips cut off in every game he played, no matter how hot, would be offered a professional contract with a Brazilian club the day after the game. He turned it down and returned to St. Louis.)

The free kick gave Alf Ramsey, another star, an opportunity just outside the 16-yard box. His kick found a fellow British head and trickled beyond Borghi's reach, toward the goal line. Borghi managed to recover and slapped the ball over the back line.

With the danger defused, England's resistance broke and one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history was at hand. "Colombo took off his mittens, and the first thing I heard him say in that raspy voice of his was 'It's about time we beat these bastards,'" Keough says.

"I did feel for them," Bahr says. "For us, it was a victory and we were gonna get our recognition. But how were they going to explain losing that game back home? It was going to haunt them for years. And there was no answer to it."

The media, which scarcely made note of the impossible win, couldn't explain it, either. The Reuters wire service accurately published the result as 1-0, but most papers, assuming that the telex-operator had made a mistake, changed it to 10-0 or 10-1. A St. Louis Post writer had attended the game because he happened to be on holiday in the area, but never bothered to write anything up. The Associated Press did write a report, which ran in The New York Times, but it credited the goal to Ed Souza and made no mention of Gaetjens. It did accurately note that "It was a rude shock for the English team to lose." A handful of photographers had attended the game, but there are no known images of Gaetjens' winning header. The photographers had spent most of the game behind the U.S. goal.

England lost 1-0 to Spain and didn't advance to the final round. The U.S. would lose its final game to Chile, 5-2, and finished last in Group 2. Despite England's elimination, Brazil didn't win the title, losing 2-1 to second-time winner Uruguay in the final game of the final round.

After the U.S.-England game, a barrage of excuses was blasted from the England camp. It had been too hot. Travel had been strenuous. But this one would stick: Gaetjens' goal had been a lucky one.

All Americans and most English present on the scene dispute that.

"I took a shot from 25 yards out that was moving to the goalkeeper's right," Bahr remembers. "I hit it fairly well, it was gonna be on goal. [Williams] started to move to his right for my shot. Joe Gaetjens somehow got to the ball. … Did he make an honest attempt and head it into the goal or did it ricochet off him? He left his feet, he dove at the ball. I'm guessing the ball was five feet in the air. He's in traffic; there are a lot of people in the 16-yard area. He didn't get a clean head at it, but he definitely made a concerted effort. Joe was a guy who had a nose for the goal. He scored goals where you didn't know how he got to the ball, let alone scored the goals."

"He didn't score lucky goals," says José Lorente, Gaetjens' teammate on Brookhattan in 1949 and 1950, where Gaetjens was known for scoring acrobatic goals. "Whenever he scored, he scored because he was looking to. When he was jumping and trying to hit the ball with the head, it was very spectacular. He was very secure in what he was doing. The goal was not really lucky."

"If you saw Joe Gaetjens play before and after that game, Joe Gaetjens was a very athletic type of player," Keough says. "And what he did, dove and made that goal, you'd seen other examples of Joe's ability to get that body around somebody. He was very quick, and anytime a cross would come he was dangerous because he would find a way to get his head to the ball -- he had good timing. That goal was a classic example of that."

That take is corroborated by England's Laurie Hughes, who covered Gaetjens on the play in question. Bert Williams seems to remember it very differently, though. "The American team turned up wearing sombreros, smoking cigars and they only had about six kicks of the ball in 90 minutes," he recently told a British paper. "Unfortunately, one of them took a big deflection and wrong-footed me for the winning goal."

Hordes of clamoring fans were not waiting upon the U.S. players' return. Divided among at least three flights -- the tournament's organizers had hurried them out, to save money -- only Bahr's wife was there to meet them in New York, so she could take her husband up to the summer camp in the Adirondacks where they made some extra money when school was out.

"A St. Louis guy's wife had come to the airport, too," Bahr says. "Just to scold him for being back late."

Joe Gaetjens was not ineligible to play for the United States.

Like Joseph Maca and Ed McIlvenny, Gaetjens was not an American, which a FIFA administrator objected to after the tournament. The three foreigners had come to FIFA's attention when Maca gave an interview to a Belgian paper in which he'd been asked how he'd been able to play for the U.S., given that he had represented a Belgian military team in the past. FIFA ordered an investigation in November 1950.

Just how unknown the American players were at that time was evident in the FIFA correspondence in which Maca's name was misspelled as Macca. FIFA argued that because the players weren't citizens, they hadn't been eligible to represent the U.S. Additionally, it said Maca should have been cleared by the Belgian federation to play for another country. The U.S. federation countered that the 1950 World Cup had operated under what was known as the "English rulebook," which stated that every country could draw up its own eligibility requirements. The U.S. had decided that having signed one's "First Papers," a first step on the path to citizenship, declaring one's intentions, would suffice to represent the country, which all three contested players had done.

FIFA accepted this explanation, ending the investigation. England hadn't lodged a protest anyway, presumably hoping to forget the defeat had ever happened.

What the U.S. had done was not out of the ordinary at the time. After the first leg of the qualifiers against Cuba, a number of new players materialized for the Cubans. They were said to be Argentines, but according to Cuban rules, if you spoke Spanish, you could become a citizen in 24 hours, allowing the new recruits to play.

The 1950 World Cup did not set Joe Gaetjens on a road to fortune and fame.

A few months after the tournament ended, Gaetjens dropped out of Columbia and went to the French league, keen to capitalize on the exposure the World Cup had offered him.

He signed with Racing Club de Paris. But although Gaetjens, who was fluent in French, Spanish and English, was said to enjoy his time in France, his stay would be a short one. He struggled to adjust to the discipline of the French league and would play only four games for Racing, scoring twice. That and his deteriorating knees caused Racing to offer him to Troyes AC, which played a division lower, in exchange for a young striker. Troyes demurred. For the 1952-53 season, Gaetjens resurfaced at Alès, a lower league team famous only for producing current star French winger Franck Ribery. He would make 15 appearances and score two goals. He wasn't brought back for the next season.

"It was hard to adjust to a different country back then," says Lorente, who had played professionally in France after deserting Gen. Francisco Franco's Spanish army. "There was a different style."

Gaetjens wasn't the only one to find employment in Europe. Ed McIlvenny joined Manchester United, and Joseph Maca went to Racing White, a Belgian Third Division club -- where, he noted, most players were better than the members of the 1950 U.S. team.

Joe Gaetjens was not necessarily executed by Papa Doc, but he may well have been.

After his short-lived professional career in France, Gaetjens returned to Haiti to become a spokesman for Palmolive and Colgate. "Thousands of people awaited him at the airport upon his return," Mireille says. "Lots of cars escorted him home, too."

He rejoined L'Etoile Haitienne and was expected to star for them. But at 29, Gaetjens had grown injury-prone and regularly got bloody noses from exertion. Because he had never become an American, he was able to line up for Haiti when it played Mexico on Dec. 27, 1953, in a qualifier for the 1954 World Cup. During the game, Gaetjens got another bloody nose and didn't play well. It would be his last competitive game.

Later in the qualifying series, Haiti hosted the U.S. team, which was invited to a lavish party at Gaetjens' villa overlooking Port-au-Prince. That was the last time he would see his teammates from the 1950 team.

Gaetjens married his first cousin Liliane in 1955, a common arrangement in Haiti at the time. "He barely knew her since he'd lived in France," Mireille says. "It's not like they'd grown up together." Joe adored her, and the two had three children (two sons, Leslie and Gerry, are still alive). He also opened a successful dry cleaning business, grew roses in his yard and coached youth soccer. Gaetjens was especially generous to young players from the slums -- purportedly giving away bags of money every day.

"He brought kids to the field and trained them two or three days a week and let anyone come," James Gaetjens says. "He would leave with money but came home with empty pockets. If a poor soccer player asked him for money so he could eat, Joe would give it. He was naturally generous."

Although Joe didn't have the faintest interest in politics, his still influential family did. Physician François "Papa Doc" Duvalier had won the 1957 presidential election. Gaetjens family members had supported his opponent, Louis Dejoie, to whom they were related. An attempted coup soon turned Papa Doc into a ruthless dictator. His paranoia exerted its wrath chiefly on those who had supported Dejoie. Many fled. The Gaetjens family didn't. The Gaetjenses also were well connected to the Duvalier camp and reckoned they were safe. But Joe's oldest brother, Gérard, started getting harassed by the regime. On numerous occasions, he managed to escape arrest thanks to tipoffs from friends. Such was the power of the Gaetjens family that when Gérard did get arrested one day, his wife's cousin managed to get an audience with Papa Doc at 5 a.m., persuading him to release her husband.

Duvalier would not be so lenient a second time, as he had learned that Joe's two younger brothers, Jean-Pierre and Fred, who were living in the Dominican Republic, had been associated with an exiled group trying to stage a coup. Duvalier pronounced himself president for life on the night of July 7, 1964. Taking the advice of a friendly police officer, the whole family went into hiding at 6 a.m. the next day. Except for Joe. He had nothing to do with any of it, he reasoned. He didn't care about politics.

At 10 a.m., the same police officer came for Joe. Regimes such as Papa Doc's had a habit of taking reprisals on family members when they couldn't get to those they really wanted. Joe would be held responsible for his family's actions and was taken to the infamous police prison at Fort Dimanche, where his brother also had been held. It's the last thing we know about Joe Gaetjens.

Each midnight, a prisoner's name would be called at Fort Dimanche. He would then be stood against the courtyard wall and executed. It is widely assumed that Gaetjens was executed on July 10, 1964. Some members of the Gaetjens family believe that a notorious police chief, who was also an acquaintance of the family's and a close friend of Joe's, was the man to pull the trigger. Others believe Joe died from the hardships he suffered in prison. If Gaetjens wasn't executed on July 10, it likely happened soon thereafter, as all Fort Dimanche prisoners are believed to have been executed in the following days.

On Jan. 1, 1965, Joe's mother, Toto, and Mireille, now out of hiding, made one of many attempts to get Joe released, clutching to hope that he was still alive. New Year's Day is when Haiti celebrates its independence. It is customary for people to go wish the president well that day. Toto decided to use the opportunity to plead her son's case. "We arrived at the palace to get in line at 5 a.m.," Mireille recalls. "By midnight, we figured the president wouldn't be seeing anybody else. There were just four or five people left in front of us. So [Toto] yelled out to him, 'Why did you imprison him? He has nothing to do with politics, he just plays soccer!'" Duvalier overruled guards attempting to hush her up and summoned her over. "'I promise you that tomorrow your son will be released,' he told us," Mireille says. "He was very convincing. We went home hopeful that he was still alive. We waited all day the next day. Joe never came. When Joe wasn't released, I knew that either Joe was dead or that Duvalier had lied."

A few months later, Mireille's husband was told by a colleague at the flour mill, where he was an aide to the director, that for $4,000 he could get Joe released, presumably by bribing a guard. The family showed up at the designated spot the next day, ready to shepherd Joe to a foreign embassy to apply for political asylum. Again, they waited all day. Joe was dead. No one had found him in the Fort Dimanche prison.

If Duvalier promised somebody's release but the person in question never materialized, it was because he had been killed, most Haitians knew that. Duvalier was said to be honest about these things.

Mireille doesn't buy it. "He was not an honest man," she says in French, her brittle octogenarian voice suddenly acquiring a commanding timbre, throbbing with resentment. "He was a criminal. A murderer. A thief. He didn't care, he did whatever he wanted."

The conclusion that Joe Gaetjens became one of 30,000 casualties of the Papa Doc regime is highly plausible. He wouldn't be the last casualty of political bloodshed in the family. Gérard died in a politically motivated attack in 1990, after returning to Haiti. Their youngest sister, Matho, on the other hand, served as a minister of social affairs in Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's first cabinet.

Gaetjens was honored in a benefit game involving the New York Cosmos and a team of local Haitians at Yankee Stadium in 1972. He was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame posthumously in 1976.

In 2000, Joe Gaetjens' motherland made its only attempt at honoring him, arranging to release a postage stamp depicting him. A governmental crisis torpedoed the plan.

Joe Gaetjens was not the man people said he was. He was a different man. Neither better nor worse. All that was remembered accurately was his name. And the gist of his accomplishment.

It detracts nothing from a splendid story, the one that bred our infatuation in the first place.

So it goes with myths.

ESPN.com and the author would like to acknowledge Peter de Waard, whose tireless digging on the subject for an article in Dutch soccer magazine Hard Gras has provided us with much of what we now know about Joe Gaetjens.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.