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How Voodoo And Gangsters Took Haiti To The World Cup, Part 1

by Jon Spurling
13 January 2011

Of all the World Cup underdog stories, the Haitian side of 1974 goes criminally unreported. Somewhere between government corruption and sinister black magic, there was born a team who fought for everything and even gave the Italians a bloody nose.

After months of frantic and often fruitless Trans Atlantic telephoning and emailing, several of the surviving members of Haiti’s 1974 World Cup squad – I’m reliably informed – are ready to tell their remarkable story for the first time. Arriving in any new country is often a case of sensory overload. You emerge from the blandness of your aircraft into an explosion of sights, sounds, and unfamiliar smells, and – in the case of Haitian capital Port au Prince – a wave of tropical heat which slaps you around the face like a warm, damp towel. It’s impossible not to feel wired and nervous as, after a two hour flight from Miami, the plane, bound for Toussaint Louverture International Airport, descends towards Hispaniola, the Caribbean island which Haiti shares with its wealthier neighbour, the Dominican Republic. Declared the region’s poorest country by the United Nations in early 2009, British travellers are warned to visit only “if strictly necessary.”

On the face of it, my edgy Caribbean adventure isn’t necessary – strictly speaking anyway. The team’s star striker Manno Sanon unburdened himself on the telephone two years before his death in 2008, and I’ve had email contact with several other players and officials over the last eighteen months. But Sanon always insisted: “You get yourself over here for a visit, my friend, otherwise you won’t understand the impact which our qualification for the finals in Germany had on Haiti.” A few months before deciding to follow Sanon’s instructions, my would be fixer warns me: “Don’t come here if you’re squeamish, or if you think you’re coming for a Caribbean holiday.” After meeting me at the airport, he takes one look at me, snorts derisively, and informs me: “You’ll stand out like a sore thumb, and get yourself kidnapped if you’re not careful.” Although he’s half joking, Trailfinders warned any client bound for Haiti in the previous week to be on their guard against “sudden, violent uprisings, and illegal road blocks.”

Even the passport checker gets in on the act: “Why are you here buddy?” he asks. “You a James Bond fan? We’ve had a few of them from the USA and Europe here recently.” Port au Prince, despite being hit by outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery, has benefited economically from Daniel Craig’s visit to the city’s decaying docks in The Quantum Of Solace. When I inform him of the purpose of my visit – to interview those connected with Haiti’s 1974 World Cup adventure, he shoots me a quizzical look. “You looking for voodoo and the Duvaliers,” he chuckles, “or music and sunshine? You’ll get both if you do your research properly.” During my brief two day stay, the passport checker’s words prove uncannily accurate.

According to a recent Government report, the Haitian economy has remained almost stagnant for a decade. The vast majority of the population scrabble a living in agriculture, or move to the capital to work in the plethora of struggling small businesses. The average wage is around $500 a year. It wasn’t always like that. Back in the 50s, Europe’s literati, including the likes of Noel Coward travelled to Haiti for inspiration, and were captivated by the tropical climate, rich history, and stunning coastal views, along with the colonial gingerbread houses, which sit perched perilously close to Port au Prince’s shanty towns. These days, the tourist trade has taken a huge battering, due to decades of political turbulence, and the tourists who disembark from the huge cruise ships which dock in Port au Prince have a ghoulish for the herds of swine which forage amongst the refuse left around the beaches when the tide is out. The $19 per night joint I stay in the middle of town (most tourists prefer to stay in the upwardly mobile Petionville region in the hills above the capital, with designer shops and boutiques, but Manno Sanon told me I’d be a fraud if I did) is classic high schlock – all brown wallpaper and deep orange carpets. And no air conditioning. The owner, who has mastered the art of irony and sarcasm in English explains: “This place was a fashionable establishment thirty years ago. But like everything else around here, we’re in a timewarp. Architecture, music, football…most people hark back to what happened thirty years ago. And don’t drink the water, by the way, else you’ll spend most of your time here on the toilet.”

Even the passport checker gets in on the act: “Why are you here buddy?” he asks. “You a Jams Bond fan? We’ve had a few of them from the USA and Europe here recently.”

Fittingly for a nation dogged by political upheaval, economic boom and (mainly) bust, and a series of controversial rulers (the autocratic Duvaliers – Francois and his son Jean Claude are the most infamous), Haiti’s fifteen minutes of fame in 1974 represents much more than a purely sporting adventure. Stories of black magic, partial deification of Haiti’s star players, music, and Secret Police involvement are intertwined with the whole story. Although football had been played in Haiti for years, it was Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s rise to power which raised the game’s profile, mainly due to the fact that he soon began to pour money into the game in the mid 1960s. A passionate follower of Italian and South American football, he fully understood that when it came to getting the populace on your side, football was arguably the most powerful mechanism of all, and when it came to World Cups, the team and the nation – if conditions were favourable – could become one. With Haiti’s notoriously primitive medical facilities, low literacy rate, and high instances of rural famine, Papa Doc knew that a strong national football team could benefit him hugely in the long term, and provide a ray of hope for the country’s beleaguered populace. He was lucky; after the team performed well at the 1965 Caribbean Youth tournament, the emerging Roger St Vil, goalkeeper Henri Francillon, and future skipper Philippe Vorbe began to rise to prominence, attracting the interest of European club scouts. Papa Doc, determined to keep his emerging diamonds together, and fearing that they might vanish into the mushrooming Haitian diaspora, banned all foreign transfers. St Vil, now a New York resident, recalls: “Our training facilities improved, and whenever we played a rival Caribbean country, we stayed in good hotels, and were fed well. You have to remember our background. Many of us came from impoverished families, and already, Francois Duvalier brought light into our lives. For us, he was a giver of life; a ray of hope, and we’d do anything for him.”

The team underwent serious training for the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico, and it’s still a matter of bitterness that they failed to qualify. The berth instead went to El Salvador (who’d earlier knocked out Honduras – thus sparking the “soccer war”) after a rubber match played on a neutral ground in Jamaica, which Haiti lost 1-0. Earlier, they’d lost 2-1 at home, before defeating El Salvador 3-0 away a week later. “That was heartbreaking,” recalls Joe Namphy, former Secretary General of the Haitian Football Federation, “because this was in the era before aggregate scores counted. If they had done, we’d have been in Mexico as well. That vintage was easily as good as the one four years later.” Under wily coach Antoine Tassy, Haiti’s bold attacking play attracted the attention of respected English football journalist Brian Glanville, who remarked upon “the sheer tenacity and fluid movement of the gallant Haitians.” The Duvalier Government issued a statement which read: “We pledge to our people that the football team will reach the 1974 World Cup Finals, and that President Duvalier will continue to monitor his team’s progress, and to back the team, its player and manager to ensure that this dream becomes a reality.”

Papa Doc had already interfered in the life of one high profile Haitian star, with devastating consequences. Before the golden generation emerged during the late 60s and early 70s, the nation’s most famous player was Joe Gaetjens, who opted to play for the USA rather than his homeland. The lanky striker’s fifteen minutes of fame arrived in the 1950 World Cup, when his diving header squirmed under England goalkeeper Bert Williams to give the USA a highly improbable 1-0 win. Gaetjens’ moment of glory made him a national hero back in Haiti, and after his football career ended, he returned to Port au Prince, where his family still lived, and opened a dry cleaning business. “Everyone loved Joe,” explains local resident Roger St Vierre, wearing the loudest of Hawaian shirts, and swigging beer with both fists. “And he loved both his family and his football. His life was rich and full. Little else mattered to him. He was really what you might call a ‘”salt of the earth character.’” Gaetjens later organized a youth soccer league, and for a while coached the national team, where he was universally known as “Gentleman Joe.” At no time, according to anyone who knew him, did he show so much as a passing interest in politics. But unfortunately for him, his brothers did.

“Papa Doc became convinced that Barbot was plotting against him, and after he had him executed, was told by a witch doctor that Barbot had been transformed into a black dog. Duvalier ordered that all black dogs on the island be shot on sight.”

When Papa Doc won the Presidency in 1957, and again in a sham election backed by money and guns in 1961, Gaetjens’ brothers openly supported his opponent, an industrialist and close family friend named Louis Dejoie. Gerard Gaetjens was one of Dejoie’s closest advisers. On the morning of July 8th 1963, two member of Papa Doc’s Secret Police – the dreaded Ton Ton Macoutes (taken from the Creole term for bogeyman) showed up at the family’s dry cleaners, got into Gaetjens’ car and at gun point, ordered Joe to drive away. Three days later, his blue station wagon was found parked in front of Police Headquarters in Port au Prince. The rumours continue to rage about exactly what happened next. Twenty years after Joe’s disappearance, a former Haitian senator claimed that he’d shared a cell with Joe, in Fort Dimanche military prison, and that Gaetjens was shot dead by prison guards.

During my time in Port au Prince, two drunken barflies in a decrepit down town joint tell me they also came across the terrified Gaetjens at the prison shortly before his apparent murder at the hand of Duvalier’s heavies. My fixer suggests I “treat these stories with caution. Everyone over fifty with a grudge against Papa Doc claims to have been in a cell with Joe Gaetjens in Fort Dimanche.” Roger St Vierre explains: “Haiti has got many dark secrets, and Joe’s fate is just one of them, albeit one of the most infamous. You can be sure that there are still residents here in this street who really know what happened to him. Papa Doc’s men didn’t simply vanish when Duvalier died. They may have got older, but many are still here. At the time, no one discussed what happened to Joe, although most people probably surmised it. If you uttered the name ‘Gaetjens,’ you only did so with people whom you trusted with your life. Who is to say who was listening to you?”

The Duvalier regime always denied any knowledge of Joe’s eventual fate, and he remains among the country’s disparus. Even the great Pele, whilst at New York Cosmos, implored the Haitian Government to open its files on Joe Gaetjens. In 1971, the Cosmos staged an exhibition game at the Yankee Stadium to raise money for Gaetjens’ wife and three sons, who went into hiding for two years after his disappearance, before emigrating to the USA for good. Papa Doc also stands accused of fixing matches by Haiti’s CONCACAF rivals. During the 1970 World Cup qualification tournament, an unnamed Dutch Antilles player claimed to have seen a Duvalier official disappear into the referee’s room prior to their clash with Haiti, and emerge smiling minutes later. Duvalier’s boys won 2-0, but the Dutch Antilles – according to a report from the game by a Jamaican journalist, had four blatant penalty appeals turned down. Haitian historian Jean Antoine explains: “One can view these stories in two ways. On the one hand, there may well be some truth to the Dutch Antilles player’s claim, because Duvalier had a huge amount of power and wealth, in those days when referees were paid a pittance. During the 1974 qualification round, his son Baby Doc clearly pulled some strings, so it would hardly be a surprise. On the other hand, it’s too easy to claim that they won matches through foul means. You can just blame Duvalier for everything, and that detracts from the fact that Haiti were a bright, attacking side. One has to consider that rivals from El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras – more established football countries – were jealous of Haiti’s rise to prominence”.

“You can just blame Duvalier for everything, and that detracts from the fact that Haiti were a bright, attacking side.”

By 1964, Papa Doc had awarded himself the title “President for Life” after securing 28 million votes (3000 brave souls voted against him) in another sham election. A staunch advocate of negritude (black pride) he garnered much support from poor blacks anxious to challenge the power of Haiti’s mulatto (mixed race) elite. Striker Manno Sanon, emerging as Haiti’s star performer in the early 70s, explained: “For most of us guys, we came from very humble backgrounds, but both Duvaliers pushed the idea of negritude, which made them very popular with the masses. It meant we were something worthy, rather than just another black person. Both Duvalier and the coach Tassy were very adept at inspiring all players. I knew that when I pulled on the orange shirt, I was representing both Haiti and pushing the concept of negritude. But there were also a number of mulattos in the side also. Some spoke French, some Creole. But Tassy spoke both languages, and the squad was united, because Tassy would have stood for nothing less. I firmly believe that the national football team was a beacon – a symbol – for what Haitian people should have aspired to.” As well as following Italian football closely, Duvalier was also a fervent admirer of Mussolini’s black shirts, and modelled the Ton Ton Macoutes on El Duce’s Private Army. Papa Doc’s bogey men weren’t paid for terrorising would be opponents, but they were able to make their money from extortion and intercepting funds supposedly bound for social aid in Haiti’s poorest areas. Sanon recalled: “It was the side of the regime that the players weren’t aware of, although there were always guys hanging around the team, particularly when we travelled abroad. They smiled at us though, like friendly big brothers. We didn’t see their ugly side, not until the 1974 World Cup, anyway.”

Several Haitian stars decline to comment on their relationship with Papa Doc, which seems to confirm the fact that he ruled by fear, and even now, as Sannon admitted: “The mention of his name still makes many Haitians shudder.” Yet when asked to recount a Duvalier story, three members of the side trot out the tale of former Ton Ton Macoutes leader Clement Barbot. Sannon explained: “Papa Doc became convinced that Barbot was plotting against him, and after he had him executed, was told by a witch doctor that Barbot had been transformed into a black dog. Duvalier ordered that all black dogs on the island be shot on sight. Then he ordered that Barbot’s head be packed in ice and sent to him. He spent several hours staring at the head, trying to connect with Barbot’s spirit.” Sannon laughed. “So many people know the story that it must be true, but he was still our benefactor nonetheless. I’m not always comfortable with that,” he added. Many of Haiti’s 1974 team, directly or indirectly, for better or for worse, were affected by the Duvaliers’ frequently uneasy mix of voodoo, oppression, and negritude.

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