Caring about soccer
By Laurent Dubois On Saturday, the United States will face England in its first game of the World Cup. The two teams last battled in the tournament 60 years ago, when - in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport - the Americans won, 1-0, thanks to help from an unexpected place: Haiti.
By Laurent Dubois
On Saturday, the United States will face England in its first game of the World Cup. The two teams last battled in the tournament 60 years ago, when - in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport - the Americans won, 1-0, thanks to help from an unexpected place: Haiti.
The winning goal - a beautiful diving header - was scored by Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian and onetime Columbia student who lived and played soccer in New York. In those days, U.S. athletic officials were a little more flexible about citizenship requirements. They let Gaetjens and other immigrants join the American team as long as they promised to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Gaetjens determined the outcome of that game in 1950. There are no pictures of his goal; all the cameramen were at the other end of the field, expecting the heavily favored English team to pummel the United States. But we do have an image of Gaetjens being carried off the field as the hero of the moment.
Unfortunately, the story ends in tragedy. Gaetjens went home to Haiti, where, under the Duvalier dictatorship, he was imprisoned and killed. Gaetjens wasn't into politics; he ran a laundromat and coached youth soccer. But some of his family members were, and that was enough.
He died in Fort Dimanche, Duvalier's most notorious prison. His only testament was his name scrawled on a wall, later found by one of his relatives.
Today, despite a book, a movie, and some recent articles about that World Cup game, few Americans know the name of an athlete who gave us one of our greatest international sporting victories.
As the World Cup returns this week, time will slow down for billions of fans around the globe. Many stories will play out before our eyes in the next few weeks. Some moments will become legendary, sustaining conversation for decades to come.
Soccer transcends boundaries, and, even as it divides people into the followings of different teams, it also brings them together around a common obsession. Even though the United States is one of the few places on Earth that remains a bit aloof from the event, a lot of Americans will stop everything to watch four weeks of dramatic sport. In fact, the largest number of foreigners going to the World Cup will be from America - with me among them - partly because fans here are better off than fans in most places and can afford the long trek to South Africa.
If the small number of quirky studies on the subject are to be believed, a few tangible things will happen during the World Cup: Worldwide productivity will go down. And sperm counts will go up - though not conceptions, because everyone will be too busy watching games to do much of anything else.
But it is the intangible - the unexplainable - that makes this event what it is. Academic commentators often try to explain the draw of sports, and a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, including by those who consider sports mainly a "narcotic" that distracts people from more serious things.
Even though I'm among those who have tried to explain soccer's allure, I'm not sure anyone can really say why billions of people gather together at World Cup time to watch 22 men and a ball. Either you get it, or you don't.
But here's one reason to pay attention: When the United States takes the field this weekend against England, our team's hopes will center on a remarkable striker named Jozy Altidore. He scored a beautiful goal last year against Spain during the Confederations Cup, leading the U.S. team to an unexpected victory against arguably the world's greatest international team.
Altidore was born in New Jersey, where his parents immigrated when he was a child. Where did they come from? Haiti - the same country that gave us Gaetjens 60 years ago.
It's foolish to look for redemption on the soccer field, where nothing ever goes as planned. Still, on Saturday, I'm going to be praying for a replay: a 1-0 U.S. win, with Altidore scoring the winning goal. It would be a fitting tribute to Joe Gaetjens, who died all those years ago in a prison in Haiti.