We’re on the upset train from yesterday, so it’s time to discuss the upset, the biggest upset of all time. And it was the result of a diving header by an unlikely hero.
Meet Joe Gaetjens. Gaetjens was born in Haiti to a well-off family in Port-au-Prince, and got his club soccer career started with Etoile Haïtienne when he was fourteen. But, he eventually moved to the United States to attend college at Columbia when he decided that his club career in Haiti was never going to pan out. While at Columbia, he played for Brookhatten of the American Soccer League and made $25 a game while working at the restaurant of the team’s owner.
Gaetjens had played with the Haitian national team in a World Cup qualifier in 1944 against Mexico, but in 1950, after his play with Brookhatten caught the eye of U.S. Soccer coaches, he was asked to play for the United States, who had just qualified for the 1950 World Cup. He wasn’t an American citizen, but rules back then only required that a player sign a declaration of intent to become a citizen to join a national team. Gaetjens signed the declaration of intent, and he was allowed to join the team (he never actually obtained the passport, but just the intent to get one was enough). At the time, he was one of the first people of color to appear for the national team.
The USMNT was made up of a bunch of part-time players but had some legends, including Hall of Famer Walter Bahr. The team headed to Brazil for the World Cup, ending up in a group with Spain, Chile and England. After a 3-1 loss to Spain, the USMNT faced off against England on June 29, 1950 in Belo Horizonte. England was one of the two favorites at the time to win the tournament, along with hosts Brazil. It was supposed to be a glorified scrimmage with the USMNT sending eleven part-time players onto the field with one of the best teams of that era.
The match began with England performing target practice on USMNT goalkeeper Frank Borghi. None of them got through, but it was a one-sided affair. Still, the Americans were hanging on, waiting for their moment to strike. In the 37th minute, it happened. Walter Bahr tried a shot from 25 yards towards the far post, but as England keeper Bert Williams moved to try and save it, Gaetjens used his head to redirect the ball past him into the net. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Walter Bahr described Joe Gaetjens’ moment and his overall game:
“Joe could score a goal out of nothing...[you] wonder how he got to the ball, let alone put it in the net. I played in a half-dozen games with Joe and against him, and he was that type of center-forward: Not necessarily the best player on the field, but he always got himself in pretty good position if the ball bounced his way. I never saw the shot after I hit it because it was into traffic. Whether Joe’s getting a piece of it was by accident or design I don’t know, but I know he went after it with his head. It’s the mystery goal.”
Now, there is no known image of the goal. The most famous picture of that match is the picture of what has been incorrectly attributed as the picture of Gaetjens’ goal. In fact, the picture does not have Gaetjens diving, as Walter Bahr described the goal, and the ball is on the back of the net. Still, it’s one of the more iconic images in world soccer history for the game it represents.
The game eventually ended 1-0, a result so unbelievable, many of the newspapers around the world thought the game result was a typo. The belief was that England had really won 10-1 instead of the improbable result that actually occurred. It was real: it was the greatest upset in FIFA history and one of the greatest upsets in all of sports. A rag-tag bunch of players representing the United States beat one of the top teams in the world.
The United States would not advance out of the group in 1950 (and neither did England), and the three matches were the only 3 that Joe Gaetjens played for the United States. Gaetjens played for a couple seasons in France before returning to Haiti to finish his career at Etoile Haïtienne, the club where he first started as a 14-year-old. He retired from the game in 1957. His story ends tragically, as his family was active in politics (though he stayed out of it) and was involved in trying to overthrow the Haitian president, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. After Duvalier declared himself “president for life” in 1964, Gaetjens family fled Haiti for fear of retribution. Joe decided to stay, partly because he never obtained the U.S. passport he intended to when he played for the USMNT, but because he figured that he had nothing to fear as a sports figure. He was wrong. Two days later, he was arrested and taken to a prison in Haiti known for torture, never to be seen again. His body was never found, but he was presumed to be killed by Duvalier in that prison.
Joe Gaetjens’ legend will always reside in Belo Horizonte, where an unlikely header was the difference in the greatest soccer upset of all time. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame along with the rest of the 1950 World Cup team in 1976, but for his heroics on that day against England, Joe Gaetjens will live on in USMNT and world soccer history.