Writing about an astounding soccer goal made half a century ago by the U.S. team in the first round of the 1950 World Cup, sportswriter Alexander Wolff could have focused on the circumstances of Joe Gaetjens’ improbable header, which led to the shocking 1-0 defeat of Great Britain. In our latest Notable Narrative, however, the Sports Illustrated reporter contrasts Gaetjens’ transcendent moment of victory, in which the crowd raises him up as the champion of the game, with a another moment 14 years later, when he is taken to Haiti’s notorious Fort Dimanche prison.
In “The Hero Who Vanished,” Wolff shows how much and how little Haitian-born Gaetjens’ historic score meant in the long run. Only one American sportswriter attended the game (and even that one on his own dime). The British press dismissed the goal as a lucky accident. After years of working in America, Gaetjens was celebrated in his homeland and managed to play in France for a time, but the country for which he won the game of a lifetime didn’t even remember him long enough to have anything to forget.
To bring us the bigger story, Wolff delves deep into the rise of the Duvalier family, which tyrannized the Haitian people for decades. Wolff shows how Gaetjens’ refusal to hide from the lethal Tontons Macoute, even though he knew his whole family had been targeted for arrest, manifests the same belief in the long shot demonstrated by his unlikely goal. At two key points, Gaetjens’ willingness to play against the odds had staggering consequences.
Wolff suggests that the time the stakes really mattered, Gaetjens doubled down and lost everything. And he notes that in this season where the U.S. and England are slated to play each other again in the World Cup—a season in which the U.S. relationship with Haiti continues to be deep and complicated—we should remember the game in which the island nation gave the extraordinary gift of Joe Gaetjens to America.
[Come back tomorrow for our interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Alexander Wolff, in which he talks about writing narrative steeped in history and the future of news-based storytelling.]