June 13, 2010


The Hero Who Vanished (Alexander Wolff, 3/08/10, Sports Illustrated)

The men running at Joe Gaetjens wanted to grab him and make him theirs. Terrified, Gaetjens and other members of the 1950 U.S. World Cup team at first looked to flee, not realizing that the mob wanted only to hoist them on its shoulders.

After the Americans defeated England 1--0 that June evening in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, there seemed to be nothing but beautiful horizons before soccer in the U.S., and before Gaetjens himself, a Haitian émigré who had played the game, studied accounting and worked as a dishwasher in New York City before scoring the lone goal in perhaps the greatest upset in World Cup history.

Thirty-seven minutes into a first-round match in which no one gave the Americans a chance, Walter Bahr of the U.S. sent a shot toward the far post, shoulder high, from about 25 yards on the right side. As English goalkeeper Bert Williams moved to his right, he kept the ball in his sights for what looked to be a routine save. That's when Gaetjens laid himself out in a dive around the penalty spot.

Flouting the buttoned-up ethos of postwar America, Gaetjens liked his jersey loose-fitting and untucked, with his socks shoved down around his ankles. Relatives and former teammates remember him as a carefree, gregarious bon vivant. Whether they're playing dice or putting money on a fighting cock, it's characteristic of Haitians to double down on even a remote chance of the big payoff. Gaetjens made the goalmouth a stage for what Haitians call l'esprit magique, a determination to court the long shot.

If Gaetjens had struck the ball square with his forehead, it would have caromed harmlessly toward the corner flag. Instead, only grazing his head, the ball took off as if with a mind of its own. Williams didn't have a chance. When the goal stood up after another 53 breathless minutes, the 15,000 or so fans at Independência Stadium, their numbers swollen as word spread of the brewing upset, gloried in the humiliation of Brazil's great rival, the team then regarded as the world's best.

A year later Bobby Thomson would hit a home run for the New York Giants that provincial U.S. sportswriters popularized as the Shot Heard 'Round the World. But Gaetjens's goal truly was a broadside with global reverberations, even if only one U.S. journalist, Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made the trip to Belo, paying his own way at that. The newspapers burned by fans in the stands to celebrate the Americans' victory could have symbolized the way news of the achievement would go up in smoke back home.

One afternoon in Port-au-Prince 14 years later, other men wanted to grab Joe Gaetjens and make him theirs. Only this time it was no delirious mob sprinting toward him. There were only two of them, both Tontons Macoute, the hard men of Haitian dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. They walked up to Gaetjens as he pulled to a stop in his car. Then they took him to a place from which he never returned.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 13, 2010 6:39 AM
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