Mysterious fate of a World Cup hero

Todd Baer investigates the disappearance of Haitian-American footballer Joe Gaetjens.

When England face the United States on the second day of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa it will be just the second time the two nations have met in a World Cup competition.

Their only previous meeting – back in 1950 – is considered one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time.

Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian footballer who played for the US, scored the decisive goal on that day, giving the underdogs a 1-0 victory.

Carried off the pitch as a hero, Gaetjens would later disappear at the hands of Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Exactly what happened to him has long remained a mystery, but Todd Baer, whose grandfather was friends with Gaetjens, went to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, to try to find out.

I didn’t know Joe Gaetjens, but my grandfather did. Like Gaetjens my grandfather, John “Frenchy” Boulos, was a Haitian-born American football star.

They both played professionally in the US and today both are members of the US Soccer Hall of Fame.

“Frenchy and Joe were a lot alike. They were good players, fair players and overall good guys. Everybody liked them,” says their former teammate Walter Bahr.

They both scored some great goals during their careers, but one by Gaetjens is still talked about today.

World Cup upset

“Frenchy” Boulos was, like his friend Gaetjens, a member of the US Soccer Hall of Fame

It happened during the first round of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The United States were playing England – then known as the kings of football – and were considered such underdogs that even the US coach, Bill Jeffrey, told his team: “We have no chance … do the best you can.”

But, in the 37th minute, US midfielder Walter Bahr took a shot and as the ball sailed towards the net, Gaetjens launched himself forward and deflected it in with his head.

“It was a legitimate shot. I hit it fairly well. I knew it was going to be on goal and the goalkeeper had to move to his right to handle my shot,” Bahr explains.

The US held on to their one goal lead and defeated England 1-0 in perhaps the greatest upset in World Cup history.

“How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?” defender Harry Keough asked after the game.

Sixty years on, Keough says the English players were great sportsmen who simply came out on the wrong end of a shocking result.

“The better team on that day did not win. On paper England was a better team than ours. But when you go out to play in any game, there is always a chance and you should really never forget that.”

Different paths

After he was carried off the pitch by fans on that June day in 1950, Gaetjens went on to play professionally in the US and Europe.

In the American soccer league, Gaetjens played for Brookhattan in New York, while Boulos played for Brooklyn Hispanos.

But, when their professional careers came to an end, the two men’s lives took two very different paths.

Boulos stayed in New York, while Gaetjens returned to Haiti as a hero in 1953.

He started a successful business, married, had children and coached youth football in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

He was doing well, but life in Haiti was changing.

In 1957 dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president.

He formed the Tonton Macoutes – a brutal militia that kidnapped and killed anyone Duvalier felt threatened his grip on power.

Gaetjens was not involved in politics, but his brothers were, which made him a target.

Death chamber

On the afternoon on July 8, 1964, two officers from the Tonton Macoutes showed up at the dry cleaning store Gaetjens owned in downtown Port-au-Prince and arrested him.

They took him to Fort Demanche prison – a torture and death chamber in one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest slums. When the inmates there were not shot, they were starved to death. Some died of disease.

Life in Fort Demanche was unbearable says Bobby Duval, who like Gaetjens was locked up there without charge.

“The conditions were horrendous – when they send you there they don’t want you out. After eight months in there I was down to 90 pounds and dying,” Duval says.

Six years after he was taken away, the Haitian government admitted to Gaetjens’ family that he was dead.

He was one of 3,000 people imprisoned in Fort Demanche who never walked out.


Team picture from 1946 Liverpool game shows Boulos (top row, third from right)

But exactly how he died remains a mystery to this day. His family has had to sift through the teledjol (the Creole word for rumours).

One story has it that a few days after he was taken to Fort Demanche, Duvalier stormed into the prison in a fit of rage and personally shot Gaetjens.

But this has never been officially confirmed.

“I believe this is possible,” says Mathilde Flambert, Gaetjens’ youngest sister. “I believe this is possible, yes why not. He [Duvalier] was an assassin, he was one assassin.”

There is no official record of what happened and most of those who might know – the head of the Tonton Macoutes at the time, fellow inmates, prison guards and “Papa Doc” – are dead.

A handful of current and former Haitian government officials refused Al Jazeera’s request for interviews.

“I want to know who killed my brother, I want to know,” says Flambert.

“It’s beyond understanding why someone can’t come up with an answer,” says former teammate Walter Bahr.

When I started working on this story I just wanted to find out what happened to my grandfather’s old friend. But 60 years after Joe Gaetjens scored one of the most significant goals in international football history the truth remains as elusive as ever.

Source: Al Jazeera

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