Warner, Witchcraft and the 1974 World Cup Whipping Boys

It’s one of those moments that you remember; well, I do anyway. Not quite a ‘where were you when JFK…’ sort of thing, and certainly much less of an event on the world stage, but something that stuck in my mind. It’s a memory of a Haitian official, perhaps a trainer, a coach or similar; he may even have been a substitute I suppose. I’m not sure of his precise role and it matters little, but he had a bright red Haitian tracksuit on. And there he was staring into the camera in Wild-eyed disbelief, doing what I can only describe as overexcited star jumps, surrounded by similarly attired celebrating colleagues, with a look of joy that his face simply seemed incapable of containing.

It was 15th June 1974 and the World Cup was being played out in West Germany. The game was at the Olympic Stadium in Munich and Italy, who had sauntered through their qualification group with sublime ease, were taking on the minnows of Haiti. The Caribbean country’s qualification had been a little more ‘interesting’ than that of the Azzurri – but much more of that later. So, what was the event that caused such euphoric celebrations on the touchline on that Munich evening?

It was the opening fixture of Group 4 of the tournament, and a game that Italy were overwhelmingly fancied to win comfortably. Not only had they come through the qualifying tournament unbeaten, not only were they one of the favourites to win the tournament, but their defence, complete with the legendary Dino Zoff in goal, had not conceded a goal since September 1972, comprising a total of ten games. Plus, when playing for Juventus, Zoff had kept the ‘Old Lady’ of Turin’s sheets clean for over 900 minutes. Haiti were considered the most unlikely of candidates to sully that proud record. But, you know how it goes; this is football. Before we consider the events of the match however, let’s wind back a little along the twisted tale of how Haiti came to be in Germany in the first place.

To be fair all things being equal, Haiti should really have taken their bow at football’s big party four years earlier. In the play-off for the last Concacaf qualifying spot at the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico, they had been pitted against El Salvador. In the previous round, the Central American country had fought a war against neighbouring Honduras whilst also engaging with them on the football pitch. The clash with Haiti was less dramatic – at least in terms of armed conflict – although there was a somewhat unusual outcome. Whilst the Salvadorians won 1-2 in Port au Prince, Haiti then travelled to the Central American mainland and secured a 0-3 victory. Unfortunately, no-one had thought to flag up that the tie should be decided on aggregate if each team won a game. Haiti were therefore denied the qualification that modern-day natural justice suggests should have been theirs. A third match to decide the final qualification was played out on neutral territory and El Salvador prevailed. The country from the western half of the island of old Hispaniola would have to put their ambitions on hold for at least another four years.

By the time the next qualification tournament rolled around, there had been a drastic overhaul of the process. Instead of a long drawn out affair, qualification was to be decided over a three-week period, with all aspirants competing in a single group, in one location, with Haiti selected as the venue for all games. There’s a labyrinthine tale about how the location was selected, but two facts are indisputable. Firstly, Haiti was then run by the despotic and corrupt regime of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who had inherited the ‘family business’ from his father ‘Papa Doc.’ Duvalier junior had resolved that this time his country’s team would not be left with noses pressed against the window whilst others went to the big party. He would do what was necessary to get his country to the World Cup Finals. With the qualification being played out within his own private fiefdom, and the widely feared Tonton Macoutes secret police to do his bidding, he was set to achieve his aims, but also had more than a little largesse to spread around if it would lubricate things.

The second fact is that the Trinidad & Tobago FA was headed up by the hugely influential and, some might say equally despotic and corrupt, general secretary, Jack Warner. This time of course was some forty-odd years before the torrential outpouring of FIFA misdemeanours, so many a misdeed was hidden and would stay that way. It would of course be wrong to insinuate that the aspirations of Baby Doc, or the actions of Warner had any unsavoury influence on who qualified from Concacaf, but in the light of the selection for where the games where to be played, and the  events that followed, I guess it’s for each of us to draw our own conclusions.

Baby Doc apparently decided that throwing a chunk of his ill-gotten financial gains at his aspirations would be a good way to smooth the path to success. Joe Namphy, who headed the Haitian Football Federation at the time, explained that a special bank account was set up for the federation “He financed the whole show, including the national Sylvio Cator Stadium, which was totally refurbished for the 1973 Concacaf at the cost of a million dollars. He also built the Olympic Track and Centre Sportif de Carrefour, and the Gymnasium Vincent for basketball. He was almost like Berlusconi at AC Milan. He was in complete control of things.” Player, Manno Sannon whose exploits were later to create excited emotions in Germany adds that “He made it clear that it was his team, and his money which got us to where we were. He was much more accessible than his father, and he’d show up to training, and regularly ‘phoned me and several of the other players to check that we were OK. Some of the guys felt it was dangerous to have Jean Claude (Duvalier) too close to the team. Although he was young, he was still like an old fashioned father, who gave us life, but could also punish us if he wished.” There’s more than a hint of perceived threat in Sannon’s words. Baby Doc’s carrot was dangling from the end of a very big stick, and he had the Tonton Macoute to wield it on his whim.

All of the qualifying tournament’s games were played at the Sylvio Cator stadium in Port au Prince; a cauldron filled to boiling point by 30,000 people when the home nation played. Sannon related how the atmosphere helped the Haitian squad along. “The crowd made a huge noise, and intimidated the opposition. Games in Central America and the Caribbean can always be vocal, but this got fairly toxic at times, with objects thrown onto the pitch and at rival players, and there were stories of opposition players getting hassled in car parks. It wasn’t something any of us would condone, but it happened, and I can’t deny that it helped us.” The last sentence is indicative of the fact perhaps Duvalier was less than prepared to let fate take its natural course in the games.

Did such antics prevail? It’s difficult to discern the effects, but the players were certainly influenced. Jean Austin, a midfielder in the team related that, “Those three weeks were the most incredible I can remember in Port Au Prince. After every victory in the tournament, there were carnivals in the streets, and the whole place came to a virtual standstill.”

The tournament’s pivotal match-up was between the hosts and the highly-fancied Trinidad and Tobago, played on 4th December. Trinidadian striker, and the the tournament’s leading scorer, Steve David, charged that the dictator had enlisted malevolent forces to his aid, “Dark arts enabled Haiti to get through that. You can’t tell me that that game was fair and above board.” It’s unclear just how far these “arts” influenced events, but there’s little dispute that government-sponsored ‘cheerleaders’ were employed to whip support for the team into a frenzy with drums and megaphones beating out the need for victory. Witchdoctors were also placed amongst the fans to conjure up evil spirits and incantations. Such things may sound a little bizarre, but Haiti was the home of voodoo, and perception trumps reality every time.

The game finished with a 2-1 victory for the hosts, but only after four seemingly legitimate goals for the Trinidadians had been strangely disallowed for nefarious reasons, and two clear penalty claims were rejected. These things happen of course, and it’s possible that Haiti were just the recipients of good fortune. Their opponents however were, by common consent, the best team in the tournament and to say the result was unexpected probably does it scant justice. Most of the Trinidadians were clearly less than happy.

Steve David, later said, “It was as though we were in a trance. We felt we could score at will so we didn’t argue, we just continued playing every time they disallowed one of our goals. We were so sure that we could not lose.” It was a feeling echoed by Oliver Camps, a Trinidadian official, who described how “big men were crying like babies (after the game). I don’t know which match the referee and linesman were seeing but it certainly wasn’t the one between Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago.”

In such circumstances one would surely expect some kind of protest from the top brass of the Trinidadian FA. There was however one member of the entourage who kept his thoughts very much to himself. Mr Jack Warner, General Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association, the man charged with looking after the welfare and interests of his team chose to remain silent. Some reports suggest that such a non-response was the result of a purchased silence. Unsurprisingly perhaps, no real evidence of any collusion came to light. Recent revelations of ‘disloyal payments’ amongst football’s hierarchy however, may offer support to such views. Then, to compound the issue, the referee and both linesmen were banned from officiating in games for life. Mr Warner still however chose to sit his ample girth on his hands and say nothing to support his team’s feelings of resentment. Who knows why? Some think they do. Only Mexico chose to officially complain about the game, perhaps prescient about the way things would pan out. The result could well have cost them qualification. It was an action doomed to failure, but the gesture speaks loudly of what they, and others, believed had happened.

On the 13th December, Haiti played a key game against Guatemala. After defeating Trinidad and Tobago, a win would put them in a strong position. “The crunch game was against Guatemala” Austin recalled. “Before the game Duvalier was in the dressing room urging us to “Win, win, win for Haiti. And we did just that.” Sannon spoke of how he “…sank to my knees and thanked God.” He mentions nothing of any thanks due to Baby Doc Duvalier.

The following day, the Trinidad and Tobago players apparently took their frustration out against hapless Mexico, defeating them 4-0. The result meant that Haiti where in the comfortable position of being able to lose their last game against the Mexicans, still win the tournament and qualify, with the Trinidadians in second place. Whatever shenanigans had – or had not – taken place, the Haitians were on their way to Germany to compete in football’s global extravaganza. Trinidad and Tobago left Port au Prince feeling bewildered. Mexico left feeling cheated. Jack Warner left quietly. Baby Doc Duvalier was left feeling vindicated.

Some months later, the Haiti squad flew out to Germany to take their place amongst the world’s elite footballing countries. If they left the Caribbean with any optimism however, it was unmatched by many pundits. For example, having observed the squad in training, Hugh McIlvanney of The Observer suggested that, despite having a six month period given over to preparation for the tournament, “The marking by defenders is so haphazard as to suggest a fundamental weakness. It is easy to imagine hefty scores being piled up against them in the World Cup.”

It was not an assessment disputed by one particular unnamed player who, whilst happy to discuss his team’s prospects in the tournament, was more sanguine about revealing his identity. The reputation of the Tonton Macoutes, probably explains the recalcitrance. Admitting that his team had “no chance”, he went on to comment that, “For us to take on the countries we are facing is like Haiti declaring war on the US. We have 11 good players. Poland, Italy and Argentina have maybe 4,000. It is all very well to say the game is played with 11 players but no one is fooled by such thoughts.” So there it was Haiti took the pitch against Italy in their opening group game, and so back to a certain excitable Haitian.

Despite fairly consistent Italian pressure, a combination of luck determination and an outstanding display by the athletic and acrobatic Haitian goalkeeper Henry Fancillon, the score at the break was still goalless. Then, one minute after the restart, and 1,143 after last conceding a goal, Manno Sannon took the curtain call for his fifteen minutes of fame. Receiving a pass from Phillipe Vorbe, he shook off the attentions of Spinosi, drew Zoff, slipped by him and coolly slotted the ball home. Haiti 1 Italy 0. Cue celebrations on the touchline in Munich with red tracksuited Haitians jumping with joy, and the guy I remember looking wildly into the camera with a face about to explode with joy.

Sannon’s fame probably lasted a lot less than fifteen minutes in reality. Just half a dozen minutes later, Rivera netted the equaliser, before goals by Benetti and Anastasi brought a semblance of reality to the result. In the other group games Haiti lost 7-0 to Poland and 4-1 to Argentina, with Sannon again scoring. They finished rock bottom of the group table with zero points having scored twice and shipped 14.

When the squad returned to the Caribbean, it’s safe to say that there were no wild celebrations and some reports even hint at Baby Doc prescribing treatment of his own to those he felt let down the country, and more particularly him. Manno Sannon went to America, playing in Miami and San Diego. Duvalier was eventually overthrown in 1985, and briefly fled to exile in France before returning to the island and promptly being arrested five years ago. He died after a heart attack in October 2014. Jack Warner of course had a Teflon coating around his reputation until recent events ripped open the door of serial misdeeds. Whether a light will ever be shone on the seemingly perverse events that took Haiti to the 1970 World Cup Finals however is a different question.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ magazine).

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