The other day, I ran across an article listing the worst World Cup performances of all time, and Haiti made the list, of course.
The article was entitled “World Cup Crimes Against Soccer “ and it was written by Leander Schaerlaeckens, who was described as a former soccer columnist for Guardian.co.uk and a contributor to World Soccer magazine.
At first, the article annoyed me, but as I read further, I found it more and more amusing. Haiti made the World Cup out of the CONCACAF in 1974 and met powerful teams from Italy, Poland and Argentina in West Germany. It was a proud moment for the troubled nation, but this is the way Schaelaeckens described us:
“Haiti, then under the yoke of brutal dictator Francois Duvalier, had no business at the tournament hosted by West Germany. Not only were the Haitians simply not good enough, they hadn’t qualified legitimately. In the deciding qualifier, which was to send them to the World Cup, they benefited from the disallowing of four goals by their opponent, Trinidad. Although the referee was suspended, Haiti’s qualification stood.”
Yes, of course, Haiti was not the strongest team in that year’s tournament, but it did indeed qualify. And there’s no denying Duvalier’s was a brutal dictatorship, but if that’s the basis for delegitimizing a country’s World Cup success, then countries like Brazil and Argentina would all have to return championship trophies. And as for the phantom calls in Haiti’s favor, surely Schaerlaeckens realizes that France only qualified for the 2010 World Cup because referees allowed a goal that was clearly scored by Thiery Henry’s hand, as was Argentina’s Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal scored against the British team in the 1984 World Cup semifinals. I half-expected Schaelaeckens to ascribe Haiti’s advancement to “Voodoo.”
“Shocking one and all, Haiti did take the lead in its opening game against Italy, interrupting a string of a dozen straight Italian shutouts. It eventually lost 3-1, and would go on to lose 7-0 to Poland and 4-1 to Argentina.”
It’s hard to argue against facts and Schaelaeckens is dead on. But he glosses over the fact that Haiti’s goal against the Italian team demonstrated that it deserved to be in the World Cup. Until Haiti scored on the Italians, no team had scored on the Italians in four years. I remember this goal vividly. I was a coltish 12-year old boy watching the game in Port-au-Prince with about a dozen visitors at my uncle’s home when Emmanuel Sanon tore through the Italian defense in the first quarter, dribbled past Italy’s goalkeeper Dino Zoff, and tapped the ball into the net. Haiti 1- Italy 0. The house exploded in cheers and I assume the whole country did so simultaneously.
As if the goal jolted them from a deep sleep, , the Italian team ratcheted up its offense, changing the tenor of the game. The Haitian team crumbled under the relentless Italian attack, eventually losing 3-1.
“Shortly after the match, Haitian defender Ernst Jean-Joseph failed a test for doping. Jean-Joseph protested, saying he had taken pills to treat his asthma, a claim disputed even by his own team doctor, who added that Jean-Joseph was too dumb to understand what he’d put into his body. Embarrassed, Haitian officials dragged Jean-Joseph from the team hotel, beat him up and put him on a flight back to Haiti the next morning.”
Despite all of this turmoil, this was a proud moment for Haitian soccer and Haiti in general. An air of optimism pervaded throughout the country and people felt that this was the beginning of great things to come. To Haitians, “the crime we committed against soccer” was akin to the crime we committed against France when we won our independence after a bitter war.
The optimism of more than three decades ago has faded and as much as we’ve tried to return to those glory days, soccer, clearly, has not been Haiti’s top priority. Now, we would give anything to be, once again, called criminals in the sport.
But the game has passed us by. We no longer dominate the Caribbean region and small countries have stars playing in first division clubs in Europe that can wear their national colors. But Haiti’s Parliament has for the longest time refused to vote dual citizenship bill that would allow us to get some of the top players to suit up for Haiti.
History is a funny thing and so too is sport. Who wins and who loses is so often a matter of perspective. Schaelaecken has every right to tell the story of Haiti’s day in the sun from his perspective.
And so do we.