In 1974, West Germany played host to the memorable World Cup of Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. However, there were other heroes that year; men from a small Caribbean nation who briefly stole the hearts of a watching world.
Haiti, a territory that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to its east, became only the second country from their small corner of the globe to feature in football’s summer festival.
“It was extraordinary”, Haitian defender Serge Racine, who was part of the squad which travelled to Munich in 1974, explained. “There were people who didn’t know Haiti existed; people were asking us where Haiti was.”
But those 22 men who made the almost 5,000-mile trip to Europe 44 years ago left a lasting impression on German soil and went some way towards putting their small island on the map.
Although Les Grenadiers did not claim a single point in the tournament, they left West Germany with pride and adoration, partly due to the day XI amateur footballers shocked Italy’s Dino Zoff. The Azzurri goalkeeper had not conceded a goal in 12 international games heading into the opening tie of the competition and had also been part of a Juventus defence who went 903 minutes unchallenged. But all that was quickly about to change.
“The crowd helped us a lot because we were adopted by the German fans”, Racine reminisced. “When we played against Italy, there were 70,000 there, and every time we touched the ball, there would be cheering.”
However, nobody watching on inside Munich’s Olympiastadion could have foreseen what was to come, as 20 minutes in, Emmanuel Sanon, the only man in Haitian history to this day to score at a World Cup, rounded Zoff to give the 1973 CONCACAF Championship-winning side a shock lead.
“Italy had Zoff who had that incredible record”, Philippe Vorbe, who provided the assist for the goal, said. “Once I got the ball at my feet I looked up, and I saw Sanon, who was in space because there was only one defender. Sanon was one-on-one with Zoff, and we were all transfixed wondering what he would do. Would he shoot? Would he try to go around him?
“He dropped a shoulder, he took Zoff out of the game, and he scored. This was really the most beautiful joy of our careers, even of our lives; to score against Italy. It was so fantastic.”
Azzurri came back to win 3-1, but the amateurs from Haiti had provided a moment they or indeed the footballing world would never forget.
“The Footballers of Haiti, who came from the Caribbean for this World Cup knowing that at best they would be patronised, at worst dismissed as imposters, gave the competition one of its genuinely electric moments here tonight when they took the lead against Italy – by beating Dino Zoff, a goalkeeper who had not conceded a goal in an international match since September 1972”, The Guardian read that evening.
However, the overwhelming pride, spirit and sensation that had been instilled into Haiti following their performance against Italy quickly diminished when facing Poland during their second group match, with the Eastern Europeans steamrolling the Haitians 7-0.
“It was as different as day is tonight in comparison to the performance against Italy”, Vorbe, known today as his nation’s most complete midfielder in its history, recalled. “We were literally destroyed by Poland. We lost 7-0, and I think it could have been more.
“It was a sad thing to happen. It was a sad thing for the World Cup, with so much sympathy for Haiti.”
Despite losing their final group game to Argentina, which brought an end to the World Cup journey, the squad who had made the trans-Atlantic trip to West Germany to represent an unknown nation were happier, as again there was something to celebrate.
Sanon found possession 30 yards from goal before unleashing a thunderbolt through a crowd of Argentine players and finding the top right-hand corner of the net. The striker had restored levels of unrivalled joy, and had Cruyff or Beckenbauer not graced the tournament, it could have been held as one of the 1974 World Cup’s most spectacular moments.
“It was a really beautiful goal”, Vorbe said. “We ended up with two superb goals scored with honour.”
And despite going down 4-1 to Argentina, rounding off the tournament with three defeats from the same number of outings, it was Sanon’s duo of sensational strikes that allowed Haiti to escape heading home bottom in the tournament’s rankings.
“We managed not to finish last in that World Cup because we scored two goals”, Vorbe explained. “Bulgaria and Zaire didn’t manage to score, so in FIFA’s classification Haiti came out as 14th out of the 16 teams. We were very happy with our World Cup.”
Today, the squad of ’74 remain men of history in Haiti as their only national side to have ever qualified for a World Cup.
“We have a lot of respect for the team of 1974”, Haiti international and former Paris Saint-Germain forward Jean-Eudes Maurice said. “They put Haitian football on the world map. Now we’re desperate to carry on and go as far as possible, and hopefully, there will be another generation like that.”
Haiti will not be part of Russia 2018; however, the dream of Qatar in 2022 is still very much alive.