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Posted June 11, 2010
new observer

By Way of Joe Gaetjens, Haiti Unreservedly Assists U.S. Soccer

joe gaetjens


U.S. player Joe Gaetjens scored the goal that beat England 1-0 in a World Cup soccer match.


DURHAM -- Tomorrow the U.S. faces England in its first game of the World Cup. The two teams last battled over the Cup 60 years ago. In one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport, the U.S. won 1-0, thanks to help from an unexpected place: Haiti.

The winning goal - a beautiful diving header - was scored by Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian man and onetime Columbia University student who lived and played soccer in New York. In those days, athletic officials were a little more flexible about citizenship requirements for teams. They let Gaetjens, as well as other immigrant players, slide onto the team if the players promised they would apply for U.S. citizenship. Gaetjens determined the outcome of that game. There are no pictures of the goal - all the cameramen were at the other end of the field, expecting the heavily favored English team to pummel the U.S. But we do have an image of Gaetjens being carried off the field, the hero of the moment.

Unfortunately, the story ends in tragedy.

Gaetjens went home to Haiti. There, under the Duvalier (my victims) dictatorship, he was imprisoned and killed. He wasn't into politics - he ran a laundromat and coached youth soccer. But some of his family members were, and that was enough. He died in Fort Dimanche, Duvalier's most notorious prison, where his only testament was his name scrawled on a wall, later found by one of his relatives.

Today, despite a book, movie and some recent articles on that 1950 World Cup game, few in the U.S. know the name of an athlete who gave us one of our greatest international sporting victories.

The World Cup tournament returns this week, and for billions of fans throughout the world, time will slow down. Untold stories will play out before our eyes in the next few weeks. Some moments will become legendary, sustaining conversation for decades to come.

Soccer transcends boundaries, and even as it divides people up into fans of different teams, it also brings them together around one common obsession. Even though the U.S. is one of the few places on Earth that remains a bit aloof from the event, a lot of Americans will stop everything to watch four weeks of dramatic sport unfold. In fact, the largest number of foreigners going to the World Cup will be coming from the U.S. - me among them - in part because fans here are better off than fans in most places and can afford the long trek to South Africa.

If the few quirky studies that scholars have done on the subject are to be believed, a few tangible things will happen during the World Cup. Work productivity will go down worldwide. And sperm counts will go up - but not conception; everyone will be too busy watching games to do much of anything else.

But it is the intangible, the unexplainable, that makes this event what it is. Academic commentators often try to explain the draw of sports. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, including by some who consider sport mainly as a "narcotic" that distracts people from more serious things. Even though I'm among those who've tried to explain soccer's allure, I'm not sure anyone can truly say why billions of people gather together at World Cup tournament time to watch 22 men and a ball. Either you get it, or you don't.

Here's one reason to pay attention. When the U.S. goes onto the field Saturday to play England, our team's hopes will center on a remarkable striker named Jozy Altidore. He scored a beautiful goal last year against Spain during the Confederations Cup, leading the U.S. team to an unexpected victory against arguably the world's greatest international team.

Altidore grew up in New Jersey, where his parents immigrated when he was a child. Where did they come from? Haiti. The same country that gave us Gaetjens 60 years ago.

It's foolish to look for redemption on the soccer field, where nothing ever goes as planned. Still, this Saturday I'm going to be praying for a replay: a 1-0 U.S. win, with Altidore scoring the winning goal. It would be a fitting tribute to Joe Gaetjens, who died all those years ago in a prison in Haiti.

Laurent Dubois, a professor of romance studies and history at Duke University, is the author of "Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France." He is the founding editor of the Soccer Politics Blog,

Copyright 2010, The News & Observer Publishing Company A subsidiary of The McClatchy Company. Published Friday, June 11, 2010.

What's more?

Who invented soccer? The earliest evidence of soccer being played as a sport can be traced to China during the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., but the English are given credit for developing the modern rules of the game in the 1860s.

Credit: The Boston Globe of Tuesday, June 8, 2010.
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