Laurent Dubois

The 2010 World Cup began in South Africa today, with the first game, between South Africa and Mexico, ending in a tie. With the US-England game coming up tomorrow, Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, explores the legacy of Joe Gaetjens, the player from Haiti who led the US team to victory over England in the 1950 World Cup.

In an interview Wednesday with BBC’s The World “How We Got Here” podcast, Dubois discussed how soccer, national identity and history intertwine in France.

This Saturday, the United States faces England in its first game of the World Cup. The two teams last battled over the cup 60 years ago. In one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport, the United States 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 man and onetime Columbia University student who lived and played soccer in New York.

In those days athletic officials were a little more flexible about citizenship requirements for teams. They let Gaetjens, as well as other immigrant players, slide onto the team if the players promised they would apply for U.S. citizenship.

Gaetjens determined the outcome of that game. There are no pictures of the 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, the hero of the moment.

Unfortunately, the story ends in tragedy. Gaetjens went home to Haiti. There, 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, where his only testament was his name scrawled on a wall, later found by one of his relatives.

Today, despite a book, movie and some recent articles on that 1950 World Cup game, few in the United States know the name of an athlete who gave us one of our greatest international sporting victories.

As the 2010 World Cup tournament takes the stage, for billions of fans throughout the world, time will slow down. Untold 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 up into fans of different teams, it also brings them together around one 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 unfold. In fact, the largest number of foreigners going to the World Cup will be coming from the United States—me among them—in part because fans here are better off than fans in most places and can afford the long trek to South Africa.

If the few quirky studies scholars have done on the subject are to be believed, a few tangible things will happen during the World Cup. Work productivity will go down worldwide. And sperm counts will go up—but not conception; 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. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, including by some who consider sport mainly as a “narcotic” that distracts people from more serious things.

Although I’m among those who’ve tried to explain soccer’s allure, I’m not sure anyone can truly say why billions of people gather together at World Cup tournament time to watch 22 men and a ball. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Here’s one reason to pay attention. When the United States goes onto the field this Saturday to play 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.

Mr. Altidore grew up 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, this Saturday I’m going to be praying for a replay: a 1-0 U.S. win, with Mr. 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.

—Laurent Dubois

This op-ed originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is published here with the author’s permission. Photo credit: Les Todd, Duke Photography