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There is a Haitian proverb: Se lè koulèv mouri, ou konn longè li. Only when the serpent dies can you take its measure. And only in February 1986, with the overthrow and exile of Baby Doc Duvalier, did it become even possible to speak of Gaetjens in Haiti again.
On April 26 of that year Matho Gaetjens, joined by Bobby Duval and scores of unarmed others, helped lead a march on Fort Dimanche to urge the prison's immediate closure and dedication as a memorial to its victims. The military fired on the marchers, killing six and wounding 51. The next day Gaetjenses from all over the Haitian diaspora nonetheless gathered at the family's church in Port-au-Prince, L'Eglise de Sacré-Coeur, for a mass in Joe's memory. More than 1,000 worshippers held candles that were intended, Matho says, "to ignite the flame of hope" at the service's conclusion. As it happened, one of Port-au-Prince's frequent blackouts plunged the church into darkness, pressing those candles into service earlier than planned.
In the early 1990s, as Haiti's minister of social affairs, Matho, known formally as Mathilde Flambert, created a youth soccer team in her brother's memory. The team no longer exists. "The last time I went to a game I could see all my brothers on the field," says Matho, who now teaches ceramics. "Now they're all dead. It's even hard for me to watch my grandchildren play now. I stayed in this country alone, and it was very hard to be without my brothers and sisters."
Over 21 years as a phys-ed teacher at a high school in Washington, D.C., Lesly Gaetjens, one of Joe's two surviving sons, has coached basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, tennis and track, but never soccer. Part of the reason is his exile as a boy to Puerto Rico, where the game had little standing. While his daughter Ekaterina is a sixth-grade goalie, he says, "I've blocked a lot out because of what happened. When people call my mom, she doesn't want to talk about it. It's too painful."
As the pain persists, so does Joe Gaetjens's obscurity. Last summer Haitian soccer commentator Jean (Zenono) Baptiste was in New York City visiting the headquarters of CONCACAF, soccer's governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, where he watched on TV as the U.S. upset Spain 2--0 in the Confederations Cup. When Haitian-American striker Jozy Altidore scored the decisive goal, "I told everyone in the room, 'Hey, we did that in 1950,'" says Baptiste. "No one knew what I was talking about."
Upon hearing that The Game of Their Lives might include a postscript in which Joe Gaetjens receives U.S. citizenship in tribute to his goal, Jean-Pierre howled, for if Joe had been a U.S. citizen, Duvalier wouldn't have dared to seize and kill him. According to Matho, the U.S. offered her brother citizenship after the 1950 World Cup, but he declined it, heeding his mother's admonition, "Always remember, you are Haitian." After Joe's abduction, his exiled brothers begged the U.S. government to honor the spirit of his "first papers" and intercede on his behalf. But their pleas went nowhere.
As Americans look across the water to an island they have alternately feared, subjugated, scapegoated and, since the Jan. 12 earthquake, poured their hearts and money into, it's worth noting how much Haitians have given the U.S.: the city we know as Chicago, thanks to its first nonindigenous permanent settler, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable; a valiant stand at the siege of Savannah, thanks to more than 700 islanders who fought alongside Washington's army; the Louisiana Territory, thanks to the Haitian slaves whose uprising curtailed the colonial ambitions of Napoleonic France. "There should be monuments to Haiti all over the United States," says Duke professor Laurent Dubois, a historian of both Haiti and soccer.
A modest beginning is the 18-inch-high sculpture that stands in Clive Toye's home office in Ossining, N.Y. A gift from Jean-Pierre Gaetjens, the statue features two players, one leaping to head a soccer ball in a pose for posterity. The inscription reads, JOE GAETJENS, FOOTBALLEUR HAITIEN, HÉROS DE LA COUPE DU MONDE, BRéSIL 1950. MORT POUR LA PATRIE. Died for his country.
That Gaetjens's immortal achievement came in the service of a country that wasn't his—a nation as bountiful and blessed as his native land is impoverished and star-crossed—highlights what soccer, every universalizing quadrennial, has a knack for reminding us: that next to humanity, nationality is trivial.
"I had the honor," Joe Gaetjens would say, "and especially the luck...." The luck of a teammate's shot glancing just so off his head. The luck of his head attracting the business end of a Macoute's pistol.