A Look Back At One Of The Greatest Soccer Upsets

On the eve of the World Cup, we take a look back at one of the greatest upsets ever in soccer. Robert Siegel talks to Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff about the U.S. team that beat the U.K. in the 1950 World Cup, and about the man who scored the lone victory goal for the Americans.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

On the eve of the World Cup, here's a World Cup memory that's full of ironic twists. One of the greatest upsets in Cup history was by a team whose own country barely noticed. And for the game's hero, well, it wasn't even his own country.

(Soundbite of soccer match)

Unidentified Announcer: (Speaking foreign language).

SIEGEL: That's a German newsreel from 1950. The announcer speaks of an absurd outcome for the nation that invented modern soccer. He means England.

The 1950 tournament was in Brazil, and the absurdity was that powerhouse England was upended one-nothing by a negligible territory on the world's soccer map: us. That's right, amazingly, the U.S. beat England one to nothing in 1950. It's an upset vividly remembered elsewhere but largely unnoticed or forgotten here, and the American who scored that one goal wasn't actually an American.

He's the subject of Alexander Wolff's article "The Hero Who Vanished" in Sports Illustrated, and Alexander Wolff joins us now. Welcome.

Mr. ALEXANDER WOLFF (Writer, Sports Illustrated; Author, "The Hero Who Vanished"): Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: And first, the player was named Joseph Gaetjens. Tell us about him.

Mr. WOLFF: Joe Gaetjens was a member of a family that could be fairly described as part of the Haitian elite. After World War II, he went off to New York City to study accounting and work as a dishwasher. On the weekends, he played semi-pro soccer, and the U.S. World Cup team wanted a ringer, a guy who could score goals, and if there was one thing Joe Gaetjens could do, dancing in front of a goal mouth, he could get his head or some body part on a ball and deflect it into the goal.

So he found his way down to Belo Horizonte, where he scored this fabulous goal against England.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us about the goal that he scored.

Mr. WOLFF: Everybody has a slightly different take on how the ball went in the goal. People on the English side all say it was just an utter accident. The Americans all say yeah, it was lucky, but it wasn't an accident. Gaetjens left his feet. He kind of laid himself out horizontally, and to hear the surviving members of that team put it, the ball just slightly glanced the side of his head, I mean, just enough to redirect it past Bert Williams, the English goalie.

SIEGEL: He scored the only goal in that 1950 game against England. I read that he went on to play some soccer in France afterwards, but you really pick up the story with what happened after he returned to his native Haiti.

Mr. WOLFF: Yeah, he comes back to Port-au-Prince, where his family is comfortably living, and then by the mid to late '50s, there is a hard-fought election campaign between the country doctor, Duvalier, Papa Doc, and someone named Louis Dejoie, who was a very good friend of the Gaetjens family, not particularly of Joe, but two of Joe's brothers were very close to Dejoie.

Dejoie loses, Papa Doc takes over and instantly becomes a ruthless dictator, and what happens on one very sorry summer's day in the early '60s is Papa Doc's personal militia trundle Joe Gaetzens off into a car or a van the details are a little bit hazy and he's taken off to Fort Dimanche, this dungeon, and is never seen again.

SIEGEL: Now by that time, in Haiti, did everyone know who Joseph Gaetjens was, this hero of the game in 1950?

Mr. WOLFF: Oh, when he came back from his seasons in France as a professional, there were virtually tickertape parades. Once the Duvaliers are into power, nobody dared mention Gaetjens' name for decades. Now, of course, the irony is in the States, in the U.S., the country that was the great beneficiary of this goal, no one had even heard of his name.

SIEGEL: What, if anything, has been done to get people to know about it or those who knew about it, to remember Joseph Gaetjens?

Mr. WOLFF: Just in the last month. Haiti, as we all know, has been very much on the minds of Americans, and here is a case where Haiti really gave the United States sometimes in this goal for this incredible upset that's finally getting a little bit of attention and appreciation.

SIEGEL: Alexander Wolff, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WOLFF: Oh, my pleasure, thank you.

SIEGEL: Alexander Wolff, who spoke to us from the studios of Middlebury College in Vermont, was talking about Joseph Gaetjens, the Haitian soccer player who scored the one goal in that 1950 game. It's the subject of his article in Sports Illustrated, "The Hero Who Vanished."

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This Saturday, the U.S. faces England in the World Cup for the first time since that upset victory 60 years ago.

SIEGEL: Yes, and if you've always wondered why we call it soccer and the rest of the world calls it football, put an end to the mystery. Visit our World Cup blog at npr.org/cleats. That's C-L-E-A-T-S.

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