Wholly at odds with their rank outsider status and squad of total unknowns, no other participating nation at the 1974 World Cup would provide such a source of lurid fascination for the world’s media as Haiti. Voodoo, witchcraft and World Cup football make for unusual bedfellows and this potent and alluring mix ensured the Haitian squad arrived in West Germany cloaked in dark and mysterious exoticism with a pervasive frisson of danger.
Haiti’s players would go on to bring a distinctive splash of colour to the competition beyond the vibrant orange of their jerseys, but scratch beneath the surface of the heart-warming underdog narrative and any positive publicity their efforts generated would quickly be stripped away. Since 1957 the country had suffered under the barbaric dictatorship of the Duvalier clan: first François ‘Papa Doc’ and now Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ who succeeded his father in 1971. Whether through his regime’s exploitative use of voodoo-inspired mysticism or the more conventional tyrant’s tactics of violence, repression and murder of opponents; Haiti’s cowed population, and their World Cup footballers, lived in a state of perpetual fear and paranoia.
How Haiti came to qualify for the World Cup was a story in itself. Baby Doc Duvalier was a big football fan and he diverted money from US humanitarian aid to finance the development of the sport in the republic. Local progress wouldn’t have registered to a wider audience back in a pre-digital age, but during the early 1970s Haiti rose to become the third strongest ranked nation in the CONCACAF region behind Mexico and Costa Rica. A highly suspect qualifying campaign notwithstanding, Haiti’s appearance in Germany was still a surprise, if not the outlandish event it would be considered in modern times.
A surprise and an opportunity. With his footballers as ambassadors, an appearance on the biggest of global stages offered a chance for the reviled Duvalier to present a more positive face of Haiti to the watching world. And it all started so promisingly too.
In Haiti’s opening match they faced an impregnable Italian side coming into the tournament with goalkeeper Dino Zoff looking to extend his world record for the number of minutes since last conceding a goal. After successfully weathering Italy’s incessant first-half attacks, Haiti shocked the watching world by taking the lead just after half-time when their star striker Emmanuel Sanon broke clear and calmly shot low past Zoff. Italy eventually prevailed 3-1 as expected, but this was a brave performance by the outsiders and their bravado spirit was warmly acknowledged by the Munich crowd at the final whistle.
The exuberance around the Haitian camp would dissipate all too rapidly. Problems started straight after the final whistle when Ernst Jean-Joseph was randomly selected for a dope test. The defender was found to have traces of the prohibited stimulant Phenmetrazin in his system and the head of FIFA’s anti-doping committee, Dr.Gottfried Schoenholzer, announced his immediate suspension from the tournament. Jean-Joseph claimed he had taken pills to counter asthma but was awkwardly contradicted by the team’s French doctor who admitted he had no such medical condition. The same doctor unhelpfully suggested that the player might deserve clemency as he was too stupid to know what he was taking.
How Duvalier might react to this national embarrassment back in Port-au-Prince was a concern: this was after all a man who, when approached before the tournament by the players seeking to negotiate a $5000 per man bonus for their participation, counter-offered with a threat of death if they dared to ask again. The Haitian Federation Head, Jean Vorbe, launched into damage limitation mode. Firstly he contradicted the testimony of his team doctor and then he reassured journalists that Jean-Joseph would stay on in West Germany to watch the remaining Haitian games.
The defender duly spent two days hanging round the lobby of Munich’s Penta Hotel with the menacing presence of the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier’s feared and reviled secret police, in close attendance. Jean-Joseph remained at least visible, if not accessible to the curious world’s media. The next day however the player was dragged kicking and screaming from the squad’s base at the Grünwald Sports School by a group of Macoutes, badly beaten and shut overnight in a room at the airport Sheraton Hotel. The following morning he was marched onto a Pan Am flight bound for Port-au-Prince and an audience with Baby Doc. An alarming enough prospect in any circumstance, acerbated in this instance by the embarrassment he had caused and the dictator’s state of high dudgeon after the team’s coach Antoine Tassy had failed to answer one of his regular middle-of-the-night phone calls.
The rest of the Haitian players were understandably concerned for their teammate’s wellbeing and these fears were reflected in a distracted performance during the 7-0 defeat to Poland. Those worst fears were allayed somewhat when Jean-Joseph was ordered to telephone his captain Phillipe Vorbe to prove he was still alive and Haiti’s performance in their final group game was more spirited despite Argentina’s comfortable 4-1 victory.
So what became of poor Ernst Jean-Joseph? Chinese whispers will always fill a void in the absence of any official, verifiable information and unsubstantiated rumours began to circulate that the player had both of his arms broken as punishment for embarrassing his leader. We do know the defender at least did not suffer the same terminal fate of so many of his compatriots and that he did eventually play again for the national team.
A lesser-known strand to this story concerns FIFA’s unsavoury involvement in the affair. In that Munich hotel lobby Jean-Joseph had befriended a French-speaking West German hostess and he made several terrified phone calls to ask for her help when the Tonton Macoutes came calling for him. The hostess immediately related the story to Kurt Renner, FIFA’s designated team attaché to the Haitian travelling party. A deeply troubled Renner reported the incident to his bosses and spoke of his concerns to several members of the media who duly published the damning story. Renner was promptly sacked by the World Cup Organising Committee for his indiscretion. No investigation was carried out by FIFA to ascertain either the whereabouts, or the state of health of a player who had been forcibly marched onto a plane and flown out of the country under duress.
Baby Doc Duvalier’s grim adherence to violent type during the 1974 World Cup was all too predictable and surprised no-one, but the footballing world was entitled to expect a better example from FIFA. The governing body’s craven pandering to an awful regime in their desperation to avoid negative publicity was depressingly typical of the spinelessness that we still associate with the organisation to this day.