When you score one of the most significant goals in the World Cup history, chances are you would be lauded and feted with all kinds of rewards and, in all probability, would be set for life.
However, things turned out completely opposite for the hero of the United States’ unprecedented victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. In a match in which no one gave the Stars and Stripes a passing chance of getting past the much superior England national team, Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal of the game with a header to confine the Three Lions to a 1-0 defeat and secure one of the greatest upsets in the history of the beautiful game. And he did it at the grandest stage of all.
However, Gaetjens was a Haitian. He was plying his trade for the New York-based club Brookhattan leading to the World Cup in Brazil, following which he went to play for Racing Club de Paris in 1951 and later Olympique Ales based in Cevennes, France.
After hanging his playing boots in 1953, Gaetjens went back to his home country in 1953 and became a successful businessman. However, things in Haiti changed for worse in 1957 when Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power upon his election as the country’s president.
Duvalier, like most despots, was extremely possessive of his powers and didn’t tolerate even a semblance of dissent. His regime became notorious for rounding off people suspected of being critical of the government and filling the country’s prisons with political prisoners. And all this was executed by the Tonton Macoutes – the secret police that Duvalier established in 1959.
Although Gaetjens wasn’t politically inclined, his family members were. On the day in July 1964, when Duvalier declared himself to be the “president for life”, a majority of Gaetjens’ family members opted to flee the country for the fear of being prosecuted, but the footballer decided to stay, reasoning that him being a mere sports personality, he would hold no significance to Duvalier.
But Gaetjens was to be proved wrong. Two armed men picked him at gunpoint from a dry cleaning business he ran and put him in the notorious prison called Fort Dimanche, a place that gained infamy for inhumane practices, including castration and brutal beatings that were administered to the prisoners.
Following his arrest by Duvalier’s regime in 1964, nothing was known about Gaetjens, but his death was confirmed by the government officials eight years after his arrest – it’s another matter that the striker was presumed dead days after his incarceration – although his body has never been recovered.
Gaetjens was honoured in a benefit game in 1972 in which the New York Cosmos played a team composed of local Haitians. He was posthumously inducted into the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.
For the player who arguably scored the greatest goal in the history of the United States’ football, Gaetjens certainly deserved better in his last days.