Minnows’ hope

There are no Caribbean teams in the FIFA World Cup finals this year, James Ferguson reminds us. But sports fans can still reflect on past victories and hope for future ones

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

As if you didn’t already know, there are no teams from the Caribbean in this year’s FIFA World Cup finals. Jamaica could only manage five draws from ten games in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football) qualifiers, and so the United States, Costa Rica, and Honduras made it to Brazil. Trinidad and Tobago were nowhere to be seen, having been ignominiously beaten by Bermuda and Guyana in the first round group stage. Cuba stumbled in the third round. At least Antigua and Barbuda had the satisfaction of thrashing the US Virgin Islands 10–0.

Football — that’s soccer to North American readers — is a cruel game. (Trust me, I know, I’ve supported West Ham for forty years). It’s also usually rather predictable: rich clubs buy great players and beat poor clubs with less good players. Big countries beat small countries. Money talks, and size matters.

So we take refuge in nostalgia and hope against hope for that elusive miracle, for the moment when the minnow triumphs over the big fish, when the predictable fails to materialise. That moment may be fleeting, but in a game where shared memories carry an enormous emotional weight, it can live on forever.

Take the West Germany finals, forty years ago. Perhaps the least fancied team in the contest was Haiti, who had overcome the less-than-mighty Puerto Rico and Netherlands Antilles on their way to Germany. Reputedly bankrolled by the portly dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the Haitians, with one exception, all played amateur local football. Their star was Emmanuel “Manno” Sanon, whose goals had fired Haiti into the finals. Born into a poor Port-au-Prince family in 1951, Sanon played with the Don Bosco club in the posh suburb of Pétionville, where his speed and appetite for goals caught the eye of former Racing Club Haïtien player and national coach Antoine Tassy.

Haiti’s first game was against mighty Italy, runners-up in 1970. In goal was the legendary Dino Zoff, who had just completed twelve full internationals without conceding a single goal. The daunting fact was that Zoff had played 1,143 minutes of top-level football with a clean sheet. If ever there was a David and Goliath contest, it was on 15 June, 1974, at the imposing Olympiastadion in Munich, in front of over fifty thousand, largely Italian, fans.

In the first half, Haiti survived wave after wave of Italian attacks. At half-time it was 0–0. Then, in the forty-sixth minute, something sublime happened. As Sanon himself recalled:

“With my pace, you can’t leave me with just one defender, but that is what happened. I was one-on-one with Spinosi. I received a pass from Philippe Vorbe. I beat the defender with my speed. One-on-one with Dino Zoff, and the goal was wide open. I dummied to go left, and then went right. I rounded him, and rolled the ball into the net.”

Italians, watching the game live on TV, were aghast. Haitians, almost all listening on radio, were ecstatic. What was on paper the worst team in the contest was leading one of the best. If only the game could have ended then . . .

But it didn’t. For six heroic minutes Haiti led, then Italy equalised. Then an own-goal gave the Italians the lead, which they solidified in the seventy-ninth minute with a goal from substitute Pietro Anastasi of Juventus.

The defeat was a crushing anti-climax, but worse was to come. The next day, defender Jean Joseph tested positive for a banned substance (it was, he claimed, an asthma medication). This enraged an army colonel — presumably a minder sent with the team by Baby Doc — who slapped Joseph, provoking a general melée in the team’s hotel. With their morale rapidly evaporating, and fearful of reprisals back at home, the Haitians lost heavily to Poland (7–0) and, more creditably, to Argentina (4–1), with Sanon scoring the consolation goal.

Fast forward twenty-four years and six contests, and Jamaica were the surprise package in the 1998 finals in France. The Reggae Boyz had beaten the leading CONCACAF nations of Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as drawing with the USA and Mexico. With the guile of Brazilian coach René Simões and the experience of several UK-based Premier League professionals, it looked like Jamaica might not be the competition’s whipping boys, though their group — Argentina, Croatia, and Japan — looked tough.

Jamaica faced Croatia on 14 June. After Mario Stani scored for the Croatians, Wimbledon’s Robbie Earle equalised just on half-time, with a powerful header. The Reggae Boyz had enjoyed as much possession as the skilful Croatians, and came close to scoring on a couple of other occasions. Could a shock be on the cards?

The second half, alas, was a different story. As Jamaica began to tire, midfielder Robert Prosinecki lobbed the ball over the Jamaican keeper Warren Barrett. Then, after Burton had come agonisingly close to equalising, Davor Šuker settled the game with a sixty-ninth–minute goal. There was no way back from 3–1.

The next match, against Argentina at Paris’s Parc des Princes on 21 June, is one that most Jamaican fans would probably rather forget. Although the Reggae Boyz started with purpose and courage, they were overwhelmed by the technically brilliant South Americans. The first goal came on thirty-two minutes, when Ariel Ortega capitalised on Juan Sebastián Verón’s through ball. In the second half, ten-man Jamaica fell apart under the persistent pressure exerted by Argentina. Ortega scored again, then Gabriel Batistuta chalked up a hat-trick, including a penalty. Simões was telling the truth after the game when he admitted that “we were beaten by the better team.”

If the Jamaicans were deflated by their treatment at the hands of the Argentines, they managed not to show it in their third and final game on 26 June against Japan, who were also without a point after defeats by Croatia and Argentina. Neither side could therefore qualify for the next round. Perhaps it was because the pressure was effectively off (or because the Japanese were a less formidable proposition than the others) that Jamaica finally began to play.

In front of twenty-four thousand spectators in Lyon, the Japanese started more brightly, but the break came for Jamaica in the thirtieth minute, when Theodore “Tapper” Whitmore fought off two defenders to score with a low shot. In the second half he doubled his tally, and although Masashi Nakayama pulled a goal back, Jamaica held on, with Aaron “Spider” Lawrence forced to make some fine saves.

It was redemption of a sort. The Reggae Boyz had won a game at the highest level, and the relief was palpable. To have returned beaten three times to Jamaica would have been unbearable, and even though there was a sense of deflation among players and coaching staff, there was also pride that a poor country of 2.5 million people had produced a world-class team. If the players did not return to a tumultuous reception, they at least went home with their heads held high.

So if disappointment is likely in football, at least hope springs eternal. There will be another World Cup finals in 2018, in Russia. And there will be a Caribbean team there — or perhaps not.