by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 8th 2014)
Tonight the world of football has the opportunity to do the right thing – honour the legacy of a man the sport badly let down. Riven by corruption allegations and rotten publicity FIFA and its beleaguered President Joseph Sepp Blatter has the opportunity to take a small step to correct the shameful neglect of the legacy of a football icon.
Fifty years ago today a 40 year-old Haitian was forced to drive his kidnappers – venal murdering thugs – to a police station. From there he was taken to the notorious Fort Dimanche Prison – a place many never emerged from alive. Joseph Gaetjens was never seen alive again.
He had been warned to leave – members of his family had already fled. Because they were involved in the opposition to an evil dictator. That they sought refuge in a country ruled by a vicious tyrant Rafael Trujillo says all that needs to be said of the Haiti of dictator François Duvalier. Gaetjens was not interested in politics. He was a genial and generous soul who though that being a good and decent person would protect him – if only.
Sadly in his venal thuggish kleptocracy Duvalierʼs enforcers the Ton Ton Macoutes could kidnap and kill with impunity. It later emerged that Gaetjens was kidnapped and murdered, not as retribution for his brothersʼ politics, but because the Macoutes coveted his laundry business.
Fourteen years earlier Gaetjens had the world at his feet. He had come to the United States of America as a young man. He waited tables to pay for the opportunity to demonstrate his football talent. He played just three times for the USA – never in his adopted homeland. Only Brasilians witnessed his three caps for the USA.
Gaetjens had intended to apply for US citizenship – he never became an American citizen. After the World Cup – Brasilʼs first he played in France before returning to Haiti. Past his best he played once for Haiti before finally hanging up his boots. Nevertheless, Gaetjens left an immense football legacy. He scored one of the most iconic goals in football history – the goal that sent shockwaves throughout football.
The goal – a deft header from Walter Bahrʼs cross – was enough to beat the mighty England, then competing in their first World Cup. Brasilian supporters were enthralled. Gaetjens was chaired off the pitch in Belo Horizonteʼs Estádio Independência. The stadium was refurbished in 2012. We visited it last year. There are no statues of Gaetjens – not even a plaque.
We called on FIFA to do the right thing a year ago. Tonight Germany and Brasil meet in the semi-final of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte – the city where Gaetjens and the US Miracle Team made history. It was the perfect opportunity to do the right thing – remember this shamefully neglected footballing icon with a minuteʼs silence or applause before as we had asked FIFA to agree to a year ago.
The BBCʼs South American football correspondent – expert really – Tim Vickery agrees with us that Brasilʼs World Cup should properly remember and appreciate the football legacy of Joseph Gaetjens. “I think that would be wonderful”, he told us last year. “It would be wonderful and itʼs so appropriate as I say given the relationship between Brasil and Haiti. No Iʼm all in favour. I think itʼs a great idea”.
Gaetjens, shamefully, has been all but forgotten – occasional articles is not enough. He deserves better – far better. “I think itʼs such a fabulous story and you might think that it shows the United States at its most positive in the way that he was involved in the team and he had this role in scoring the goal and the fact that he was forgotten afterwards, I think is a shame”, Vickery told us. “ … given the fact that the World Cup 64 years afterwards will stage games in the city where Gaetjens scored his goal, I think itʼs entirely appropriate that something be done”.
But time is running out. Itʼs tonight or Gaetjens is once again ignored where his legacy should be strongest.
“The case of Joseph Gaetjens is particularly tragic in the sense that it mirrors the stories of so many former players for whom past glories serve as no passport to a comfortable life,” says the President of FIFPro Europe Division and former West Ham winger Bobby Barnes. “At FIFPro we hear many terrible stories of players who have fallen on hard times having once thrilled thousands of fans and the fact that Joseph Gaetjens scored a goal which caused shockwaves around the world at the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 is particularly poignant as we celebrate the FIFA World Cup back in Brazil”.
Barnes is understandably saddened by Gaetjensʼ experiences after his retirement. “It is inconceivable in the modern age that the hero of the United States national team could have faced problems gaining citizenship and even sadder that he came to such a violent end while back living in his native Haiti”, Barnes says. “It is pleasing that his achievements were recognised eventually in the United States, but as is often the case the recognition he achieved after his death was not the case during his life”.
With the tragic death of the great – possibly greatest – Don Alfredo di Stéfano Laulhé yesterday, there will surely be a minuteʼs silence or applause for him. It should include Gaetjens too.