by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

29 June 1950: Joe Gaetjens scores as the USA stun England and the world

The 1950 World Cup in Brazil is probably best remembered for the deciding game between hosts Brazil and their rivals Uruguay who silenced the 199,954 people in the Maracana when they won 2-1 to lift a trophy everyone thought would be won by Brazil.  Yet earlier in the tournament there was another shock that resonated probably just as widely throughout the football world when the dishwashers, undertakers and mailmen of the USA team beat England 1-0.

England had got their debut world cup campaign off to a winning start with a somewhat laboured 2-0 victory over Chile.  The game between the other two teams in the group ended in a 3-1 victory to Spain over the USA.  The Americans had actually taken a 17th minute shock lead and held on until the 75th minute in that game, but despite that brave performance they were still massive underdogs when facing England in their next match, and understandably so.  This was a period that saw some of England’s greatest ever players playing together, including Stan Mortensen, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Billy Wright.  Their post-war record had seen them win 23 of the 30 games played, including a 10-0 win away over Portugal and wins over Italy both home and away.   With only three defeats, the run that had seen them christened the unofficial “Kings of Europe.”

By comparison the Americans had hardly been setting the world alight.  They had only won one international in 15 years.  In the 1948 Olympics, their first choice team had lost 9-0 to the Italians in the first round.  They had then lost 11-0 to Norway and 5-1 to Northern Ireland in friendlies played before they headed back to the USA.   To reach the World Cup they were in a group of four where the top two would qualify.  In the event Canada withdrew meaning they only had to play Mexico and Cuba to qualify.  They lost to Mexico 6-0 and 6-2, but a draw and a 5-2 win over Cuba saw them get through to Brazil.

England’s confidence must have been boosted by the USA’s performances in a warm-up game ahead of the World Cup when they lost 5-0 to Turkish club Besiktas in St. Louis.  England felt it safe to rest Stanley Matthews, then widely considered to be one of the greatest players in the world, in readiness for the tougher games that were expected to lie ahead.   Even the USA coach, Bill Jeffrey told the press that his team had no chance and that they were “sheep ready to be slaughtered.”  Back in England the Daily Express was suggesting that the USA should be given a three-goal start just to be fair.

When the two teams met the game started as expected with England dominant from the start.  The US keeper Frank Borghi had his first save to make after just 90 seconds when Roy Bentley delivered a shot from a Stan Mortensen cross. By the end of the first 12 minutes the England side had already had six good chances on goal, hitting the post twice.

The Americans managed a first attempt on England’s goal in the 25th minute but the England keeper Bert Williams saved easily.  This stirred England on to exert more pressure and, just after the half hour mark, they had three good chances in quick succession but found the keeper Borghi having the game of his life.  The Americans then broke away and won a throw in England’s half.  From the throw Walter Bahr picked up the ball on the right wing and fired a shot at England’s goal.  Williams looked like he was going to save it easily but a full length dive from Gaetjens saw him get a minimum of contact with the ball but it was just enough to totally wrong foot Williams and put the ball into the net to give the USA the lead.

The game had kicked off with an attendance of just 10,000 people but with the half-time score being 1-0 to the USA the crowd tripled in size with locals, who had been listening outside on radios, pouring in to cheer on the USA team in the hope they that they could do the unthinkable and defeat England, who were viewed as one of Brazil’s main rivals for the World Cup.  In the second-half England pressed and pressed but could not get the breakthrough.  The Brazilians in the crowd were not helping matters either.  Not only were they cheering every American touch of the ball but everytime it went into the crowd they would hold play up by passing it around amongst themselves for a while before throwing it back.

An appeal for a penalty was turned down in the 82nd minute when Charlie Colombo’s foul on Mortensen was adjudged by the Italian referee to have been outside the box despite the impassioned pleas of the England players.  The resulting free kick again saw the England players surround the ref this time insisting that Mullen’s header from Ramsey’s free kick was over the line before being tipped away by Borghi.  Again the ref was having none of it waving the England players away.  England seemed to sense it was not going to be their day and the fight left them.  They almost let the Americans in for a second in the 85th minute when Frank Wallace’s goal bound shot was cleared off the line by a last ditch clearance by Ramsey.  That was the last attempt on goal by either side and the USA team, scarcely able to believe what they had achieved, left the field to the tumultuous cheers of the crowd some of who ran onto the pitch and lifted Gaetjens onto their shoulders and carried him off.

The only American journalist at the game, Dent McSkimming of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, described the result as being comparable to Oxford University travelling to the USA and beating the Yankees at baseball.  Perhaps luckily for the England players they were not the only side to lose unexpectedly that day and the story of their defeat was overshadowed by the news that the England cricket team had also lost for the first time ever to the West Indies.

England were not yet out of the World Cup, but another poor performance and a 1-0 defeat to Spain in the next game, a lacklustre affair which saw both teams booed off the pitch, meant they were packing their bags early. They were joined by the USA who lost their next game 5-2 to Chile, but they had surpassed all expectations and could hold their heads high.

Gaetjens, who was actually a Haitian but was in the US on a scholarship, was boosted by his part in the success and decided to try his luck in France as a professional.  He first signed with Racing Club de Paris, but struggled to adapt to the discipline required for full-time professional football.  He played just four games for them before dropping down the divisions to play for Ales.  He made fifteen appearances for them, scoring two goals, but he was not offered an extension on his contract at the end of the year.  He returned to Haiti where he was something of a hero.  He was met at the airport by thousands of well-wishers welcoming him home and he was escorted back to his house in a parade of cars.  He re-signed for the club who he had first played for, L’Etoile Haitienne, and he played for the national team in a World Cup game against Mexico on 27 December 1953 but, with increasing injuries, this was to be his last competitive game.  He retired from playing football to run a dry-cleaning business and coached youth teams in Haiti.

A popular figure in Haiti his life seemed to be ticking along nicely over the next decade but was to take a shocking turn in 1964.  He had never been interested in the turmoil of politics in Haiti but his family were and it was their opposition to the dictator Francois Duvalier that led to Gaetjens sudden disappearance that year.  Duvalier had pronounced himself the president for life on 7 July 1964 following an ill-fated attempt at a coup.  The next day, taking the advice of a friendly police officer, the whole Gaetjens family went into hiding the next day.  All that is except for Joe who figured that as he had never expressed any political opinion he had no reason to hide.  Sadly his faith in the president was misplaced.  Because of the politics of the rest of the family he was arrested on 8 July 1964 by the same police officer who had warned the family to flee.  He was taken to the police prison Fort Dimanche and never heard from or seen again.  Although his fate was never known for certain it is known that all prisoners in the Fort Dimanche were executed shortly after the day of Gaetjens’ arrest. In 1979 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report that sadly concluded, “The fact that Mr. Gaetjens, a football player of international standing, has not been seen since his detention in 1964 leads to the conclusion that he is dead.”

The USA team and their game against England was largely forgotten in the US but was rediscovered by author Geoffrey Douglas who told the story in a book the Game of their Lives, which was also made into a film.  In the film Gaetjens was seriously misrepresented.  He was portrayed as a serious man with an interest in voodoo.  All who knew him described as the complete opposite of this.  He had never showed any interest in voodoo and rather than being serious he was, if anything, guilty of taking everything too lightly.

Gaetjens name was honoured in the USA when a benefit game was held in his remembrance between the New York Cosmos and a team of New York Haitians at the Yankee Stadium in 1972, and he, along with the rest of the victorious 1950 team was inducted into the US Soccer hall of Fame in 1976.  Haiti authorised plans to issue a postage stamp with his picture on in his remembrance in 2000, but this has yet to come to fruition.  Outside of Haiti Gaetjens name is largely unknown and unremembered, but the goal he scored that day in 1950 led to the scoreline that will always be remembered, and is a reminder why people keep on watching football, because there is always hope for the underdog no matter how impossible it may appear.