THE UPSET THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD : There Is More to Story of America’s World Cup Win Over England in 1950 Than Just Soccer
It is possible that somewhere in the tragic land that is Haiti, Joe Gaetjens is alive and well.
Possible, but not very likely.
What is likely is that Joe Gaetjens will never be heard from again. After all, it has been more than 20 years.
There are those who have their suspicions. Gaetjens’ brother, Gerard, is one.
There is nothing concrete, mind you, just a belief that in a land where dictators and death go hand in hand, where hunger and hatred walk side by side, a man like Joe Gaetjens is unlikely to have lasted long.
For Gaetjens was a simple man who found joy in simple things. He was more apt to laugh than frown, more likely to give than take, more inclined toward good than bad. He got those qualities from his mother, who was Haitian.
Gaetjens had one great passion in life, one overwhelming love. It wasn’t like the love he felt for his wife. This was something different, something more difficult to explain. It was a game that hooked and held him, a game called soccer. He got that from his father, who was Belgian.
So, when after World War II Joe Gaetjens found himself in New York, it was not surprising that he was content to take menial jobs--washing dishes was not beneath him--just so he could devote most of his waking hours to playing soccer.
Joe was good, there was never any question about that. He quickly made his mark in the semiprofessional ethnic leagues that were, and still are, the backbone of the game in this country. He played in New York, for a team called Brookhattan Galicia, but the game also took him to Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston and Chicago.
Wherever Gaetjens went, he found other people from other backgrounds who shared his passion. Many of them were equally simple men from equally plain walks of life.
In St. Louis, for example, there were the Italian-Americans up on The Hill. Men like defender Charley Colombo, the no-nonsense carpenter who, on the soccer field, was hard as nails; Frank Borghi, the goalkeeping undertaker; forward Gino Pariani, who worked in a can factory, and winger Frank Wallace, a mailman who learned that his real name was Valicenti only when he applied for a passport. From another St. Louis neighborhood came another mailman, Harry Keough, an Irish-American defender every bit as tough as Colombo.
In Philadelphia, there was midfielder Walter Bahr, a German-American schoolteacher whose sons, Chris and Matt, decades later would become fine soccer players, only to be lured away by the riches and glamour of the National Football League.
In Fall River, Mass., there were John Souza, a machinist in a knitting mill who was perhaps the most talented forward the United States produced in the 1940s and 50s, and winger Eddie Souza--no relation to John--whose love of the game was as strong as Joe Gaetjens’ and who was just as inclined to get by on odd jobs in order to play. Both Souzas were Portuguese-American.
The hyphenated-American status of these eight players is important because, in later years, there was much controversy over their nationality. The fact is, all eight were American-born.
Gaetjens, however, had been born in Haiti, and there are two other foreign-born characters to introduce. One, a defender from Belgium, Joe Maca, was an interior decorator who came to New York after the war. The other was a Scot, Eddie McIlvenny, who became Bahr’s midfield partner in Philadelphia.
Together, these 11 men were destined to make international soccer history. The greatest upset in the history of the game belonged to them.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. First, Joe Gaetjens.
What happened to Joe? One can only speculate. As a rule, dictators don’t issue press releases on the people they kill to stay in power.
There have been attempts to find out, of course. His family has tried. His friends have tried. No one has had any luck. It appears to have been Gaetjens’ misfortune to go back to the island of his birth only to discover that it would also become the island of his death.
Did the Tontons Macoutes, Papa Doc Duvalier’s dreaded secret police, burst in on Joe one night? Did what novelist Graham Greene called “the president’s bogeymen who wear dark glasses and call on their victims after dark” take Gaetjens away?
Two of his old soccer teammates believe so. Just ask Walter Bahr or Harry Keough.
Said Bahr: “He was killed by Duvalier. They kept that a secret for almost seven to eight years. There was a benefit for him up at Yankee Stadium a number of years ago. FIFA (world soccer’s ruling body) was involved, and Pele came to the game, along with a number of soccer dignitaries. They were trying to put pressure on Duvalier (Baby Doc, Papa Doc’s son and successor) to disclose his whereabouts.
“This is the story I got from his brother and his wife: The day that they took Joe away in Haiti, he was shot. His brother was a lawyer (in the United States) and a few other family members were involved on the fringe of politics. The story is that they took Joe to get at the others, Joe was more or less a hostage. But he was never heard from again, and all reports are that he was killed the day they took him.”
Keough said: “It was a shame that a poor guy like Joe ended up being taken away in Haiti like they say as a political prisoner and wiped out, because Joe didn’t know who the hell the president of the country was. He was non-political completely.”
The story behind Gaetjens’ disappearance will probably never be known. But, no matter how tragic his end, it will be for what he accomplished in life, not the manner of his death, that Joe Gaetjens will be remembered.
And his greatest accomplishment is what this story is about.
The afternoon of June 29, 1950, was one of unusual activity and excitement in the Brazilian mining town of Belo Horizonte.
Brazil was playing host to the World Cup, international soccer’s quadrennial tournament, and the fans in Belo Horizonte were about to see as unlikely a pairing as could be imagined. England, founder of the modern game and the country many expected to win the championship, was playing the United States, a country of modest, if not nonexistent, soccer credentials.
It was considered a monumental mismatch. Although this was England’s initial appearance in World Cup competition, its experience and talent were thought to be too great for anyone except perhaps Brazil itself. The English team featured a galaxy of internationally known stars.
The U.S. team, on the other hand, consisted of two mailmen, an undertaker, a teacher, an interior decorator, a carpenter, a machinist, a jack-of-all-trades, a factory worker and one professional player. Oh yes, and one sometime dishwasher--Joe Gaetjens.
Picked on the basis of one tryout game between east and west all-star teams in St. Louis two months earlier, the U.S. team was as short of practice as it was of professionals. The Americans had played together exactly twice--once in St. Louis in May when they had been beaten, 5-0, by the Turkish club team Besiktas of Istanbul, and once in New York on the eve of their departure for Brazil when they had done well to hold a strong English select team to a 1-0 victory.
Getting to Brazil hadn’t been any picnic for the U.S. players, either. It took the team nearly two full days to fly from New York to Rio de Janeiro, in part because of mechanical problems with their aircraft that kept them grounded in Puerto Rico for 12 hours.
Still, the Americans had surprised themselves in their first match, leading powerful Spain, 1-0, for most of the game before finally falling, 3-1. England, meanwhile, had won its first game quite comfortably, beating Chile, 2-0.
Just how confident the English were about the game was evident. They chose to rest Stanley Matthews, the Pele of his day and perhaps the greatest player England has produced. All the same, it was virtually a full-strength England team that kicked off against the Americans.
Of the 11 men on the United States team that day 35 years ago, three have died, Eddie Souza, Joe Maca and Frank Wallace; a fourth, Joe Gaetjens, has disappeared and is believed dead, and two others, Eddie McIlvenny and John Souza, could not be found.
The others, however, were interviewed by The Times last week. Two, Keough and Bahr, will be guests of honor at the Coliseum today when England and the United States again face each other. All five players have vivid memories of the game in Belo Horizonte, and their memories center on two incidents--Joe Gaetjens’ goal in the 37th minute and Charley Colombo’s tackle in the closing stages.
The goal won the game. The tackle almost lost it.
British writers have long disputed Gaetjens’ goal, claiming that it was more the result of accident than intent.
John Thompson of London’s Daily Mirror wrote:
“The goal was appropriate to the whole bizarre situation. Bahr tried a shot . . . the ball was sailing straight to goalkeeper Bert Williams when . . . Gaetjens, trying to duck out of the way, got a stinging blow on his left ear, and the ball shot into the English net.”
In his History of the World Cup, Brian Glanville, of the London Sunday Times, provided a more accurate view of the game and of the goal:
“For their ill-starred second match against the United States, the formality that turned out a fiasco, England traveled to Belo Horizonte. Though the little stadium with its bumpy surface and inadequate changing facilities was primitive--the great 100,000 stadium of today lay far in the future--England seemed otherwise to be in clover. . . . Even Bill Jeffrey (the Americans’ Scottish coach) admitted that the U.S. had no chance. Several of his players stayed up into the small hours the night before.
“For England, the game would turn into the waking equivalent of an anxiety dream in which it was impossible to do the one essential thing which should have been so farcically easy--to score goals. . . . The England attack quickly set up camp in the American half, hit the post, shot over the bar and, all in all, they seemed to be comfortably adjusting their sights. In the meantime, the excellence of Borghi in goal and the resilience of the halfback line of McIlvenny, Colombo and Bahr kept them at bay.
“Eight minutes from halftime, the incredible happened. Bahr shot from the left, Williams seemed to have the ball covered when in went Gaetjens with his head to deflect it out of his reach. Did he (Gaetjens) head it or did it hit him? There were supporters of both views, but the question was irrelevant. The goal was valid.”
Keough and Bahr, who went on to become two of the United States’ top collegiate soccer coaches, Keough at St. Louis University and Bahr at Penn State, provided the description from the players’ viewpoint.
“It definitely didn’t hit Gaetjens accidentally. You’ve got to know a little bit about Gaetjens, the type of person he was. Joe was a free spirit many years before the word free spirit was coined. Joe was a happy-go-lucky guy. Later, when he went to Paris to play, Joe told me that he always played better if he could go out and carouse a little bit before the game than if you locked him up. He performed better, he said.
“Joe Gaetjens was the kind of guy who didn’t like to wear his socks rolled up. He’d say to me, ‘Harry, Harry, they want me to . . . ' and I’d say, ‘Joe, wait till the game starts and then let them fall down.’ Then his jersey was a little too tight, a little too small for him, so he just ripped it down the front. I mean they wouldn’t have tolerated a player like that on the England team, but Joe was just that type of guy.
“In any case, the first time I ever saw Joe Gaetjens was in that tryout game in St. Louis, but Walter Bahr had told me about him. He said, ‘Harry, this guy Gaetjens is a little silly, a little cuckoo, whatever you want to call it, but he makes some of the most uncanny goals you ever saw.’ This was long before he made the most uncanny goal of his career.
“Bahr . . . took a shot at the goal from the right half position, I’d say from about 35 yards out. The ball that he hit was about four foot off the ground and it looked hard, but it didn’t look like it had any defect on it.
“Joe Gaetjens was standing pretty close to the penalty spot and he dove headlong at the ball--I mean he must have dove 12, 14 feet when you count where his feet were to where his head hit the ball. I don’t know what he was trying to do. I don’t think he even knew what he was trying to do.
“If he had made what you’d call direct contact with that ball, flush with his head, then I think it would have gone toward the corner flag. Obviously, he made some kind of contact with it, because the ball disappeared as far as Bert Williams, myself or anybody else was concerned. It must have changed the speed and trajectory of the ball, and the next thing we knew, Bert and everybody else, the ball was behind him in the goal.
“Now how the hell it went in, over his shoulder, through his legs, I can’t say. It didn’t go in the opposite corner, it went in right behind him.
“It certainly was a lucky goal. That nobody can doubt. But it wasn’t accidental. I don’t mean that Joe Gaetjens made shots like this around the clock, but Joe was--what’s the right word?--an eccentric, flashy-type of player. I don’t mean he made a bunch of goals like that, but, like I said, Walter Bahr had used the phrase uncanny. “Well, that was the most uncanny goal probably of his career. It wouldn’t happen again in a thousand tries.”
And from Bahr, who took the shot:
“All I can tell you is what I’ve repeated a thousand times. Eddie McIlvenny had a throw-in from the right-hand side of the field. I got the throw-in from him and I controlled the ball, took it toward the penalty area and it seems to me I took the shot from some 25 yards out on the right-hand side of the goal. The shot was well hit. It was going to the goalkeeper’s right, to the opposite side. There was no question that he had to make the move to the far post to get to the ball, and I’m sure he would have gotten the ball.
“But Joe Gaetjens--and this is the controversial part; the English magazines say that the ball inadvertently hit Joe in the ear or the head or something and went into the goal. This point I don’t know.
“All I do know is that I played with and against Joe for about five years, and he was probably as acrobatic as any center forward I played with or against. He would score impossible goals, he would reach around people and over people and so forth. He was like (former West Germany star) Gerd Mueller in that he was a goal scorer.
“If anybody else on our team had been in that position, I would say most likely yes, it was an accident. But knowing Joe, it wasn’t. There’s no question of him not making an attempt to get to the ball. His energies were to get to the ball and try to get it in that goal. It certainly was not a ball that hit him, he went for the ball.”
In doing so, Joe Gaetjens, of Haiti, scored the most important goal in United States soccer history. America has not qualified for the World Cup since 1950. Gaetjens’ goal was the last it has scored in World Cup competition.
Charley Colombo had a nickname. It wasn’t a very popular one and it wasn’t used all that often, but it was appropriate. They called him Gloves Colombo.
The reason was that throughout his playing career, Charley Colombo wore a pair of leather mittens, the kind fighters wear when working on a punching bag. Charley was a fighter, too. No doubt about that. Just listen to teammate Gino Pariani:
“I played with Charley here in St. Louis. They can say all they want about him, they can say he was a dirty player or this and that, but they didn’t come in the clubhouse after the games and see all the kicks and bruises that he had. He put out all 110%. And he had no hard feelings. If somebody kicked him, he wouldn’t say a word or anything like that.”
Charley Colombo still is a man of few words. Call him up in St. Louis and ask him what he remembers about the victory over England and he’ll say: “We won, 1-0. Shoulda been 2-0.”
Maybe, but it just as easily could have been 1-1 because of Colombo’s tackle of English center forward Stan Mortensen. It was not a legitimate soccer tackle. It was straight out of the Raiders’ playbook, or something you’d see in rugby.
“Mortensen broke through at the center circle and started to go for the goal. This might have been with about seven or eight minutes to go in the game. I was at right fullback, trying to catch him from a side angle, but I still was seven or eight yards to one side of him and not as deep as he was.
“Charley Colombo was playing center half. To give him a break, Colombo was a very rugged player. Other people would say dirty. I would say dirty myself, but he was an opponent of mine here in St. Louis, so my testimony may not carry much weight. But Charley was a competitor. Anybody, whether they’re friend or foe, would call him a very, very strong competitor.
“Anyway, he took after Mortensen and just before Mortensen hit the penalty area--he was in the arc outside the penalty area--Charley Colombo made a football tackle. He made a tackle that any rugby or American football player would be happy to claim. He dove headlong and he hit Mortensen right in the back of the knees. I mean, arms around him and everything.
“The momentum that they had carried them well into the penalty area, but he hit him about a yard or so outside. In other words, he (Colombo) thought, ‘This is my last chance to get this guy before he gets into the area.’ In any case, he brought him down and the referee admonished Colombo with his finger while they were both lying on the ground.
“England was given a free kick from outside the area and very nearly scored. We put up a wall, but they made a feint and chipped the ball with a little spin and somebody, I’m not sure who, headed one down and it hit the ground and started to bounce into the goal.
“Borghi made a very near-miraculous save. It was a very un-goalie-like save because he just reached out at it and scooped it out and snapped it away. Some of the English players close by were screaming that it was over the line. I had about the same view. I don’t think it was over the line, but I was not completely lateral to it to be a perfect judge. So they come very close to scoring on that.”
Colombo’s own recollection of the tackle is not much different. He admits to bringing Mortensen down illegally, but adds a bizarre and perhaps apocryphal footnote about the referee.
Said Colombo: “Stan Mortensen was the center forward, very, very fast and very cagey. I think he was one of the best center forwards England ever had. So he took a pass through the slot and he had me beat by about half a step. He was going in on the goal, so all I did was just tackle him and brought him down outside the penalty box about 25 or 30 yards out (from the goal).
“The referee come running up to me--he was an Italian referee--he’s shaking his finger at me and this and that and he kept saying ‘Buono! Buono! Buono!’ which means good. Otherwise he would have went in and scored. That’s all I could do. It’s either that or let him go in and take the shot. The goalie might have stopped it, but he probably would have scored.”
Not all the players on the U.S. team agreed with Colombo’s tactic, no matter what it accomplished.
Keough said: “Little Eddie McIlvenny later said, ‘Harry, it’s a play you and I would never have done (he means we’d either stop the guy legally or not at all) but there’s no denying it saved the game.’ ”
Bahr said: “I can’t remember a bad play in the game other than Charley Colombo tackling Mortensen. He brought him down, there was no question, but it was not a dirty-type foul. He grabbed him and tackled him down, but it wasn’t a vicious-type foul. It was a necessary foul at that point in the game (but) I didn’t like it at the time and I still don’t like it. I don’t think anybody could have been upset if Charley had been expelled from the game.”
But Gloves Colombo stayed in the game.
He was still there in the closing minutes when the Brazilian fans began chanting ‘Meis un! Meis un! ' a call for one more goal from the U.S. team they had backed throughout the game.
He was still there when John Souza made his dazzling run, covering half the length of the field and keeping the ball away from the English players for a precious half-minute or more.
He was still there when the final whistle blew and the Brazilians spilled onto the field to carry Joe Gaetjens and Frank Borghi off on their shoulders.
And in his basement in St. Louis, Charley Colombo still has the punching bag gloves that were his trademark.
There have been other upsets in soccer, but none comes close to matching the impact of the United States’ 1-0 victory that day in Belo Horizonte.
Geoffrey Green, soccer columnist for The Times of London, captured some of the feeling in his book, Soccer in the Fifties.
“Imagine the incredulous consternation when the news of America’s 1-0 victory reached England,” Green wrote. “The newspaper offices thought it was a typographical error when the score came through on the teleprinter and tape machines. Surely it must be 1-10 to England. But no, soon it was confirmed on the radio and shame-faced self-conscious laughter went in a slow ripple around every public house in Britain.
“For the American players themselves, it was an event none of them will ever forget. For the Brazilian fans, reared on the weird and exotic in a land of surprise and beautiful colors, it was something very close to their childlike temperament. To them, it must have resembled the unexpected appearance of a conjurer at a children’s party. To the English players, for all their reported sportsmanship, here, surely, was a very bitter pill to swallow. To the British public, on the other side of the Atlantic, it was all quite incomprehensible.”
To the English fans, the truth became painfully obvious the next morning when the newspapers arrived on their doorsteps. The story of the loss was carried on the front page, a page bordered in black.
In Brazil, one newspaper printed nothing but the score on its front page, a huge 1-0.
In the United States, however, the Americans’ tremendous feat was all but ignored. Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post Dispatch was the only U.S. sportswriter at the game, and his account was carried mainly in the St. Louis papers. The rest of the media all but ignored it. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, accorded the game one 37-word paragraph on the bottom of Page 2.
Bill Jeffrey, the United States coach, was quoted after the victory as saying: “This is all we wanted to do. This is all that is needed to make the game go in the States.”
Not quite. The next three games against England resulted in successively larger defeats for the United States.
In 1953 in New York, England won, 6-3.
In 1959 in Los Angeles, England won, 8-1.
In 1964 in New York, England won, 10-0.
And in 1985 in Los Angeles, England will win again.
Unless history takes another odd twist, the upset of 1950 will not be repeated today.
Joe Gaetjens is still missing.