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Joe Gaetjens, and America’s Accidental Emergence on the World Cup Stage

The ninth installment in ‘22 Goals’ involves an assembly of amateur American players who secured a shocking upset in 1950

Daniel Zalkus

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Joe Gaetjens and an assembly of amateur American players making history in 1950.

1. Laughing Gas

I have never taken laughing gas. I’d kinda like to try it? Never had the opportunity. Life simply has not maneuvered me into a nitrous-oxide-adjacent situation yet.

Many rivers do we float upon as we wend our way through this mortal existence, and those rivers have many tributaries, and some of those tributaries lead to a shore where there’s like a blue fire-extinguisher-looking canister thing, and a gas mask, and someone saying, “Here, put this on.”

I, alas, have never seen that shore.

I wouldn’t want to do it at the dentist. That’s no fun. I have some laughing-gas-related stipulations, I guess you could say, for the universe. Number one, no medical situations. Number two, I think I would like to take laughing gas in, like … Gwyneth Paltrow’s living room?

I don’t know where that’s coming from. I just feel like Gwyneth could really curate the bejesus out of a premium laughing-gas experience. Like she’d gesture calmly toward a serious-looking man in a black spa uniform and say, “This is Conrad. He’ll be your oxide shepherd today.”

Conrad’s facial expression wouldn’t change at all. And you’d be like, “OK … I have an oxide shepherd. This is gonna be fine.”

I don’t know. Maybe I just think Goop would sell the best upmarket laughing-gas hookahs. That company’s like the Sharper Image of bad decisions.

Hang on—did this actually happen? Am I remembering something that actually happened? Did Goop sell a home nitrous valve at some point? Am I on laughing gas right now, if I kind of remember this?

Conrad, if you can hear me, I need a shepherd, please.

I do know a little bit about the origin of laughing gas. Or the first uses of it, anyway. First used in the 1790s. I know this because it’s a topic in one of my favorite books of the last, oh, hundred million years.

The book is called The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by the beloved English biographer Richard Holmes.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s just page after page of dudes in wigs going up in hot air balloons and getting struck by lightning.

There’s a moment where this eminent late 18th-century astronomer looks up at the night sky and realizes that because of the distances between the stars, their light might take years to reach Earth, so that when you look at the stars, you’re actually looking back in time. And it’s just—KPPPPPPPRW—heads in wigs exploding all over the place.

Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein in there at one point. It’s a delightful book.

So laughing gas was first studied seriously, if that’s the word, by this young chemist called Humphry Davy—an incredibly important figure in the history of science, and also, based on name alone, unequivocally the best possible person to discover laughing gas.

Humphry Davy. It just sounds like laughing gas.

He was in his early 20s, working at a medical institute in Bristol, England. They had a machine in the basement that they could use to synthesize nitrous gases, and Humphrey’s job was basically just to make gases and then inhale them to see what they did.

Fun gig. He did carbon monoxide one day and almost killed himself. But he pressed on, like, “Of course, for the good of humanity, for the expansion of knowledge, I must continue to huff whatever random drugs come out of my random drug machine. I must experiment … upon myself!”

So after the first time he tried nitrous oxide, Davy was like, “Hm … I think … I must experiment upon myself … again!” And then a little while later he was like, “I think … I had better continue experimenting upon myself … for a while!”

He started doing a lot of laughing gas.

He was friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was also in his 20s at this time, and Coleridge would come over and they’d both just get shitfaced on laughing gas. Because science.

I have to admit, ever since I read this story, I have trouble reading Coleridge’s poems without inserting a lot of inappropriate giggling? Like,

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. [Laughing.] The owlet’s cry
Came loud — and hark, again! loud as before. [Laughing.]
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest, [Giggle.]
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings [Cracking up, falling out of chair.]

And so forth. This is why I need Gwyneth Paltrow, really. Help me keep my tones straight.

I am telling you about this because the topic of today’s essay is such that I may at times seem to be writing from a corner of the basement with Humphrey and Sam. I may chortle. I may snicker. A din of mirth may perhaps escape from my nose and throat areas. And I want you to know that I am not experimenting on myself with nitrous fumes.

I am not doing anything for the good of science right now. I just like the story of today’s goal that much.

Most of it. I like most of it that much. There’s a bit of it I don’t like. We’re gonna get to that too.

2. The Ideal Ratio of Mailmen

I have a question for you. It is not related to laughing gas.

The question is, What is the largest number of mailmen ever to feature on one team at the men’s World Cup? How many mailmen did the team with the most mailmen have on it?

I don’t mean “mailmen” in some kind of metaphorical way. I’m not talking about some sophisticated midfield role that the Italians called “Il Postino.” I’m talking about actual practicing postal delivery workers.

How many?

I … do not know what the answer is. I’m just wondering.

I tried to check with the Elias Sports Bureau, the organization that keeps detailed records about sports statistics. They don’t seem to keep stats on World Cup teams’ relative mailman saturation quotients.

rMSQ. Way too advanced a metric for legacy organizations.

I don’t know how many mailmen played on the rMSQ-record-setting World Cup team. I do know of one World Cup team with two mailmen on it. Multiple professional mail carriers on this team.

It was the 1950 United States men’s national soccer team, which traveled to Brazil for the first World Cup since the Second World War. Also the first World Cup ever held in Brazil. Important tournament.

The USA was able to send a team to Brazil that boasted a 20 percent mailman concentration among outfield players. And the reason is that the USA sent an amateur team to this tournament.

What are you gonna do? Professional soccer wasn’t exactly booming over here in the early ’50s. England, Brazil, most of the countries taking part in the tournament had pro leagues. The best players in the world played for those countries, and they were able to get so good because they made their living playing soccer.

We, on the other hand, started a goalkeeper who drove a hearse for a living. Worked for his uncle’s funeral home.

We had a centerback who worked in a meatpacking plant. We had a fullback who stripped wallpaper on Long Island. We had a striker who washed dishes in a restaurant.

A ragtag team, I think it’s fair to say. One of the more motley collections of players ever to make the trip to the World Cup.

These days, when we talk about blue-collar teams, we usually mean something like, “Wow, they’re tough for a group of super-multimillionaires.” The 1950 U.S. men’s national soccer team was a blue-collar team in the slightly more overt way of being made up of blue-collar workers.

It was as if Tom Hanks’s squad in Saving Private Ryan survived the war, came back home, and went to the fucking World Cup.

Why not?

The players went to Brazil because they loved soccer, but also, I think, because spending a few days in Brazil just sounded like a fun vacation.

They got to go to New York before the tournament, to a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria featuring members of the far superior England team. They got to fly on a plane to South America.

Nobody—not even the players themselves—thought they had a chance to win a game.

They got 500-1 odds for the tournament. That was seen as generous. Lambs to the slaughter was the overall vibe.

Exactly one American sportswriter traveled to Brazil to watch the team. His name was Dent McSkimming—possibly the greatest sportswriter name of all time—and he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

And the thing is, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t even want him to go. They were like, “World Cup? Isn’t there a local high school wrestling event you could cover instead?”

They refused to pay for the trip. He took some vacation time and bought the tickets himself.

Dent McSkimming said that these Americans winning a game at this World Cup would be like Oxford University sending a baseball team to America, and that baseball team beating the Yankees.

Lambs to the slaughter.

Well. I don’t want to spoil this story if you don’t already know it. This is not a soccer essay, this is a baby sheep rescue mission.

Let’s sync our watches.

3. The Kings of Football

OK. 1950. The world had just about caught its breath after the end of World War II. Harry Truman was still the U.S. president. The Soviet Union had exploded its first atom bomb the year before. The biggest movie in America in 1950 was the Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic Samson and Delilah. Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” was a massive hit song.

The first World Cup had taken place 20 years earlier, in 1930. They did three of them, in 1930, 1934, and 1938—winners were Uruguay, Italy, and Italy—before the tournament had to be paused for a small disagreement about [checks notes] the fate of humanity.

It’s also relevant here that England had never played in a World Cup before. England had been … let’s say disinclined to join FIFA at first. England had invented the modern game of soccer and spread it around the world—footnote one, see colonialism.

But FIFA was a French organization. It’s based in Switzerland now; it was founded in Paris in 1904.

England saw itself as the natural center of world football, and I think looked at FIFA the way an extremely successful fantasy writer looks at a fan-fiction website.

The fanfic writers are like, these characters belong to the world, and the writer’s like, no, they are mine, because I made them up in the bath.

So England kept its distance from FIFA. Didn’t play in the first three World Cups. This year, though, in 1950? They were going, for the first time ever. And people were freaking out.

Here’s how long ago 1950 was, in some ways. In Brazil, the English were known as “Os Reis do Futebol.” The Kings of Football. They’d been beating the hell out of basically everyone since the end of the war. Twenty-three wins, four losses, and three draws. They’d beaten a Best of Europe team 6-1 a couple years earlier. They’d also beaten Italy, still technically the defending world champions, 4-0.

It was a foregone conclusion, pretty much, that England would reach the final, where they’d show the fanfic crowd what a billion-dollar fantasy IP looked like with the creator back at the helm.

4. Not Even the Vice Presidents of Football

Team USA, meanwhile, had lost to Italy at the 1948 Olympics, 9-0.

Norway wiped the floor with us, 11-0—basically the soccer equivalent of getting drowned in a fjord.

Northern Ireland beat us 5-0.

Not a proud team, is what I’m driving at here. Maybe proud in spirit. Not proud in any other measurable way, really.

Match records from this era can be contradictory or incomplete, but before World Cup qualifying kicked off, the scrappy American team had lost something like seven consecutive international matches … by a combined score of 45-2.

The draw for the World Cup was held in Rio on May 22, 1950. Guess who ended up with England in Group 2?

That is correct. The United States, along with Spain and Chile, was given a firm handshake and a pat on the back, then sent to meet its doom.

There is a question hanging over this essay like the world’s sharpest cleaver over the neck of the world’s cutest lamb. The question is, How many goals will the U.S. team lose by when they play the best side in the world?

If that seems hyperbolic, I’m going to read you something a man named Bill Jeffrey said before the match. He said, “We have no chance.”

Bill Jeffrey was the coach of the United States men’s national soccer team.

5. Step Right Up

All right, we gotta meet the gang. Meet the doomed lads.

Soccer in America in 1950 is a totally fascinating subject. I’m gonna keep this short. The sport, in 1950, is played mostly in immigrant communities—in Italian neighborhoods, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods—and it revolves around local amateur and semipro leagues.

So a local business, say a dry cleaner, would sponsor a team. Give the players a few bucks. What was in it for the sponsors was that local papers would cover the leagues. St. Louis was the biggest soccer city in the country in 1950—remember, Dent McSkimming wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. So the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would send Dent to report on local games and you’d get headlines like “Simpkins Ford Runs Rampant Over Schumaker Funeral Home.”

And that was free advertising in the sports section for those businesses.

The goalkeeper, the one who drove the hearse, was called Frank Borghi. Played for Simpkins Ford, ironically. A team sponsored by an auto dealership.

He’d served in World War II. Battle of the Bulge. He’d won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

He wasn’t a soccer player, really. Not at heart. He was a baseball player. Wanted to play in the majors.

Growing up he’d played in local baseball games against a kid who lived down the street from him in St. Louis. Kid called Yogi Berra. Borghi actually played minor league ball for a couple years before his mom made him quit.

By his own admission, Borghi never learned the basic fundamentals of soccer. He refused to take goal kicks, because he had no confidence in his ability to kick the ball. But he had great hands and a strong arm. (Thanks, baseball.)

Up in front of Frank Borghi, we had a defender called Charlie Colombo. Also from St. Louis. Charlie worked in the meatpacking plant.

His nickname was “Gloves,” and I’ll tell you why. It’s because he always wore gloves.

A straightforward name, in that way. Humphrey Davy studied laughing gas. Dent McSkimming was a sportswriter. And Gloves Colombo wore gloves.

He wore gloves on the pitch during games. And not just any gloves. He wore boxing mitts.

I did not believe this story when I first heard it. No way are you allowed to play a game of soccer in speed-bag gloves. But you are, apparently, in 1950. We’ve got photographic evidence!

Gloves Colombo. His deal was that he wasn’t any good at soccer at all, basically, but he was hard as nails, mean, maniacally competitive, and enjoyed hitting people. Apparently Gloves was viciously foul-mouthed and basically just dogged the opposing team’s best attacker through the whole match, saying shocking shit to break down his confidence while knocking him down at every possible opportunity.

Imagine if the voice in your head at your first junior high dance had a body, with arms and everything, and wore boxing gloves for some reason. That’s our guy.

OK. I’m gonna have to leave out most of the guys on the squad, because otherwise this episode would be six and a half hours long. There’s a book about the team that you can check out if you want to know more. It’s called The Game of Their Lives, by Geoffrey Douglas. Came out in 1996.

A really fun read. It is a little 1996 in some slightly wince-inducing ways—there’s some white-guy magazine writer pontificating about, like, teen pregnancy that is not my speed, personally. Also there are a few places where his facts don’t totally agree with most of the other accounts I’ve seen. Still pretty good. Check it out if you’re interested.

All right. Up front for the Americans was a striker named Joe Gaetjens. He was the guy who washed dishes in New York. Worked at Rudy’s Cafe, a little Spanish place in Harlem, at the corner of 111th Street and Lenox Avenue.

Joe Gaetjens was actually not an American. He was Haitian. Came from a wealthy family in Port-au-Prince. He was descended from a German emissary and the daughter of a Haitian general.

In 1950, you didn’t have to be an American citizen to play on the U.S. soccer team, you just had to sign a document saying you intended to become an American citizen someday.

Kind of like how you don’t have to have money to buy a used car. You just have to intend to have money eventually.

Gaetjens was in New York studying accounting at Columbia. In his free time he played for Brookhattan, a team in the old second-generation American Soccer League, which was basically a Northeastern regional league at that point. The owner of the team also owned Rudy’s Cafe. That’s convenient.

Gaetjens was 26 years old and didn’t know the other players on the U.S. team well. He was kind of a free spirit, apparently. “Loosey goosey” is a term one of his teammates used to describe him.

He liked to play with his socks rolled down. He wore shirts that were way too big for him.

He constantly tried weird stuff in games. This may be my favorite detail I’ve ever learned about a soccer player—he would evidently throw himself at headers that were not even remotely reachable. Like the ball would sail 35 feet overhead and he’d fling himself forward, headlong, in the full Superman pose.

Why do I love that so much? I don’t know. Why do certain chemical compounds make people giggle when inhaled in a gaseous state?

The team flies to Brazil. That is a wild trip in 1950. The world’s first commercial jetliner was not yet in service at the time. The Americans have to fly south on one of those big propeller planes—like on the map sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark? With the red line following along behind it?

They have six layovers in three countries and spend something like 30 hours in the air. Yoof.

In Brazil, they do some souvenir shopping. Do some drinking. Their first match is against Spain. They lose that match 3-1, and a great indication of how the world saw the U.S. team is that the general feeling is shock. Shock that we’d even scored one goal.

6. Oh God, the Movie

Should we … should we talk about the movie here? Should we address the movie?

Do you even remember the movie? Probably you don’t.

The movie about the 1950 American World Cup team came out in 2005. It was directed by David Anspaugh, who made both Hoosiers and Rudy. My dude enjoys an underdog story.

It starred Gerard Butler. The 300 guy. “This is Sparta”? That guy. Butler played Frank Borghi, our hearse-driving goalkeeper.

The movie’s called The Game of Their Lives. It’s an adaptation of the book I just told you about.

The cast list of this film is one of the most dizzying documents I have ever personally perused. The coach of the U.S. team, Bill Jeffrey, a Scottish guy, is played by John Rhys-Davies—Gimli from the Lord of the Rings movies? Big up to Wales.

The English player Stanley Mortensen is played by Gavin Rossdale from the rock band Bush. What?

Zachery Ty Bryan—remember the asshole quarterback dude that Lucas Black races at the beginning of Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift?—he’s in this movie playing future U.S. soccer Hall of Famer Harry Keough.

Patrick Stewart shows up in this movie playing Dent McSkimming.

How … who … why … what is this?

It is not a good movie. Not a successful movie either, sad to say. Cleared about $389,000 at the worldwide box office against a production budget of $20 million.

After this movie’s theatrical run, the bank came and repossessed Sparta. The entire city-state.

OK. Enough talk. Let’s look at the trailer for this thing. Here we go.

Eleven men.

One chance.

To beat.

The best.

Yeah. So that’s the movie.

Patrick Stewart plays Dent McSkimming in a frame narrative. He plays the old Dent McSkimming, looking back, decades later, at the events of 54 years earlier.

Pretty common film device, right?

There’s just one problem with it here, which is that the frame narrative is set in 2004, and Dent McSkimming died in 1976.

That’s not the half of it, from a facts standpoint.

So as we know, Joe Gaetjens, the striker, was Haitian. The filmmakers were like, Haitian, you say? Hm, how can we best be respectful of his actual cultural experience and avoid reducing him to a stereotype … I am one hundred percent kidding. They’ve got him practicing voodoo in this movie. Literal voodoo. Joe Gaetjens was Catholic. His family said he never saw voodoo in his whole life.

It could probably be worse, but I don’t see how.

7. Call the Roller of Big Cigars

OK. Back to the real world, or at least the version of it that takes place at the World Cup.

The match between the United States and England takes place on June 29, 1950. This is the week the U.S. enters the Korean War.

The game is held in Belo Horizonte, which is the venue that’s been reserved for the shitty World Cup group games. The ones that are guaranteed to produce no competitive drama whatsoever.

The biggest question heading into this match, remember, is whether England will win by double-digit goals.

If it seems like I’m overstating the underdog aspect of this whole situation, again, please consider the pre-match analysis of the U.S. manager, Bill Jeffrey.

Bill Jeffrey was a really good coach. He was at Penn State for a long time and won 10 national collegiate championships there. But he had just taken over the U.S. national team.

“We have no chance,” he said. He also said his players were, quote, “Sheep ready to be slaughtered.”

These were public comments. He said this stuff to the press!

If you watch the movie, the locker-room scene before the game was basically wall-to-wall inspiring speeches. Just one St. Crispin’s Day address after another. But in fact, the only thing any of the American players could remember Jeffrey telling them was, “Do the best you can.”

Imagine Gene Hackman measuring the court in Hoosiers and being like, “Actually, guys, this court is 500 feet long. Oh my god, there’s no hope for us.”

OK. Pre-match. Here’s what the Belfast Telegraph said about the scene in the American locker room:

The Americans came strolling into the dressing rooms in Belo Horizonte, surely the strangest team ever to be seen at a World Cup. Some wore Stetsons, some smoked big cigars, and some were still in the happy, early stages of hangover.

Good stuff. Joe Gaetjens, in particular, felt he played his best if he’d partied a little the night before. Apparently he was barely awake before the England game.

One piece of good news for the Americans is that because we pose so little threat, England has decided to rest its star player, Stanley Matthews, maybe the best player in the world in 1950. And there are no substitutions allowed in 1950, so Matthews is just out of the game.

8. Laughing in Xanadu

Opening whistle. Here we go.

England immediately seizes control of the game. Big surprise! Match reports from 1950 are not known for their completeness or accuracy, but the best account I can find says that 90 seconds into the match, before the Americans have even touched the ball, England’s Tom Finney plays a cross to Roy Bentley for the first shot on goal.

Six clear shots on goal for the English in the first 12 minutes of the game.

Basically two things keep the U.S. alive in the first half. Number one, Frank Borghi, our goalkeeper, is playing out of his mind. This is a player, remember, who feels so unsure of his soccer technique that he won’t even take a goal kick. Today he’s hurling himself from one side of the goal to the other, saving shots with his fingertips.

The other thing that saves us is that the condition of the pitch is absolutely appalling. The English players are used to playing on well-tended lawns. On lush, evenly mown green grass. The pitch today is hard. It’s dusty. Imagine, like, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, only instead of a gunfight it’s a soccer game.

You tell ‘em I’m coming, and hell’s coming with me, and hell’s bringing shin guards.

This is great if you’re Gloves Colombo, because it means that when you, let’s say, gently help the English forwards understand the concept of gravity, it takes them longer to get up. And it’s great for the whole American team, because half the time when an English player shoots, the ball kind of chuffs off a Wild West tumbleweed and flies harmlessly over the goal.

Relentless English pressure. The last time an English squad drove this hard into American territory was the War of 1812. They burned the White House, I believe, during that war? Shot after shot narrowly misses, or gets narrowly blocked by Borghi.

England is playing with the inspired fluidity of a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.

It’s like …

Mannion passes to Ramsey: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan …
Ramsey to Dickinson: A stately pleasure dome decree …
Dickinson to Bentley: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran …
Bentley to Mortensen: Through caverns measureless to man …
Mortenson shoots! Down to a sunless sea.

But they just can’t seem to score. Also a problem Samuel Taylor Coleridge had at certain times in his life.

The crowd, the Brazilian crowd, gets inspired by all the high-wire defending and starts cheering loudly for the Americans.

Then, in the 37th minute, all hell breaks loose.

The American captain for the match, Ed McIlvenny—who’s not actually American, he’s Scottish, playing on the “low credit, no credit, no problem” future citizenship pledge—takes a throw-in and sends the ball to Walter Bahr, a 23-year-old gym teacher from Philly, on the right side of the pitch.

There’s no video footage of this, so we have to reconstruct the moment from contemporary accounts of the match. What we know is that Bahr takes the ball from McIlvenny about 10 yards inside the English half. He breaks with the ball and goes on a 20-yard run toward the English goal. Finally he gets closed down by the England defender Billy Wright.

He’s about 25 yards from the goal.

Before Wright can take the ball from him, Bahr tries a long, speculative shot toward the far post. Ball sails across the pitch about shoulder high. Looks like an easy save for the English goalkeeper, Bert Williams. Bert hasn’t had a ton to do today. He comes out to make the easy save … but just before he can, someone else gets to the ball.

Exactly what happens here is a little hard to reconstruct. Joe Gaetjens appears out of nowhere and gets his head to the ball.

Joe Gaetjens, our Catholic, non-voodoo practicing, posh, Haitian accounting student slash dishwasher of a striker. Still in the happy early stages of a hangover, to quote the Belfast Telegraph. I have no idea what that means, by the way. The early stages of a hangover feel to me like getting shot at the O.K. Corral.

Gaetjens, remember, plays the game in a way no one else seems to quite understand. Before the World Cup, his teammate Harry Keough thought he was crazy, and Walter Bahr took Harry aside, and said, “Harry, I’ve seen this guy play. He’s a little nuts, a little cuckoo; you call it whatever you want. But he makes some of the most uncanny goals you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Gaetjens gets his head to the ball. Barely. The ball deflects just enough to fly by Bert Williams and into the English net.

Pandemonium in Belo Horizonte.

It is 1-0 to the United States. Joe Gaetjens has just scored perhaps the most improbable goal in the history of the World Cup.

Oh my goodness.

England redoubles its attack. England dominates play. There’s no Opta in 1950—nobody’s keeping possession statistics—but from everything I’ve read, I’d estimate that England has about 247 percent of the possession for the rest of the game.

Unofficial possession breakdown: England, 247 percent; America, the microscope emoji followed by the upside down face emoji followed by dropping your phone into a sewer grate.

But the crowd cheers for the USA. And the Americans harass the English like they’re writing 11 separate instances of this essay.

If the English are Samuel Taylor Coleridge writing a poem, the Americans are a cloud of laughing gas.

It’s like,

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold: [Chortling.]
Her skin was as white as leprosy, [Chortling some more.]
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, [Giggling in a high-pitched voice.]
Who thicks man’s blood with cold. [Tears rolling down cheeks, cracking up.]

The American team of knockaround amateurs hangs on to defeat the mighty English, the Kings of Football, 1-0.

Remember the question we asked earlier? The question is, how many goals will the outmatched U.S. team, which is foreordained to lose, lose by?

The answer is … negative one goals!

And who better than a team made up of mailmen and hearse drivers to deliver English soccer to the cemetery?

The win represents the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup. Arguably even to this day. The crowd swarms onto the pitch and carries Joe Gaetjens and Frank Borghi on its shoulders.

Afterward, when the match report comes out, people don’t believe it. They assume it’s a typo. They think England won 10-0, and that the dash in the scoreline ended up in the wrong place.

8. A Pretty Solid Vacation, All in All

Or anyway, that’s what they think around the world.

Back home in America, they don’t think anything, because the papers are dominated by the war in Korea, and hardly anyone covers the match.

The win over England was pretty much it, as far as moments of glory for the 1950 U.S. men’s national soccer team go. They lost their next match to Chile, 5-2, and failed to advance out of the group.

England also lost its next match, to Spain. And also failed to advance out of the group.

It’s not a transformative win. It doesn’t transform the fortunes of soccer in the United States. After 1950, we don’t even qualify for another World Cup for 40 years.

The team doesn’t get better. The sport doesn’t get bigger. All that will take a while.

But in a way, I think that makes the upset more delightful. Because it’s just what it is. We don’t have to force it into some grand historical narrative. It’s a story about some working-class guys and immigrants who went on vacation to Brazil and upset the best team on earth.

It’s the baseball team from Oxford University coming over here and beating the Yankees. It’s a magnificent one-off.

Joe Gaetjens never did take American citizenship. He wound up moving back to Haiti, where he was greeted as a hero.

Remember how I told you there was one part of this story I don’t like? This is that part.

When the politician Francois Duvalier, who was known as Papa Doc, rose to power in Haiti in the late ’50s, he formed a death squad to eliminate his political opponents.

Tens of thousands of people were killed. The Gaetjens family—which was prominent, remember, in Haiti—was opposed to his rule. Dangerous. Joe’s two younger brothers worked against the regime from the Dominican Republic. But Joe chose to stay in the country. Said he was not a political person. He didn’t think he was in any danger as someone who was only a sports figure.

In 1964, Papa Doc Duvalier declared himself president for life. Most of the Gaetjens family went into hiding. Joe didn’t. He was taken away by the death squad.

We know he was taken to the Fort Dimanche prison, which was infamous as a torture site and as an execution site. He was never seen again.

OK. That part is not funny. But this is one of the rare cases where the World Cup, in its limited way, can be a political force for good. It didn’t save his life. That’s why it’s limited.

But you can’t execute a scoreline.

Joe Gaetjens’s name and his story are preserved in the story of the upset against England. As long as the history of soccer is remembered, he’ll be remembered, and what happened to him will be remembered.

As long as the history of soccer is remembered, they’ll all be remembered—all the players who contributed to that marvelous, bizarre, astonishing day in Brazil. When for one afternoon, they reminded us that kings are not invincible. That the sheep always have a chance.

And that sometimes, the most beautiful poem is the one that makes you laugh.

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