Caribbean football: Who the Cup Fits

Caribbean football's history at the World Cup, and the Reggae Boyz' journey to the 1998 tournament

Fitzroy Simpson celebrates; photograph by Ben Radford/ AllsportJamaica’s Ricardo Gardner and Tab Ramos (USA) in pursuit of a goal. Photograph by Jaime Squire/ AllsportTheodore Whitmore of Jamaica, flanked by USA players. Photograph by Doug Pensinger/All port

For a small country, a national sports team is a potent symbol, a repository of civic dreams and aspirations. If that team happens to be a soccer team, and if that soccer team happens to make it to the World Cup, the experience can be transformative. When Trinidad and Tobago’s “Strike Squad”, one point away from the 1990 finals in Italy, lost its qualifying match to the United States in front of a home crowd, a stunned populace, all clad in red, processed out of the National Stadium in silence. That may have been the quietest moment in the history of that garrulous nation.

The World Cup dream drives some 180 countries to compete for places in soccer’s most prestigious tournament, though few manage to elevate their game to the level required to take on Italy, Brazil and other countries whose places in the tournament have been etched in stone since the beginning of its history. The Caribbean region shares a soccer zone (CONCACAF) with larger, more soccer-savvy countries like those of Latin America, and also with wealthier countries like the United States and Canada. And since most Caribbean nations lack professional leagues, some driving force is usually required in order to sort out (and, in some cases, repatriate) the best players and build teams and campaigns.

Only three Caribbean nations have ever made it to the World Cup. Cuba, in 1938, was spared the trouble of qualification, having somehow been invited to the tournament, which took place that year in France. Not so for Haiti and Jamaica, the other two teams who have mounted successful World Cup campaigns.

Haiti had their special moment in the sun in West Germany in the summer of 1974. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was in power, and his regime decided to support a national team (which goes to show, one supposes, that dictatorships have their uses). He even brought in a satellite dish so the country could watch the games.

The Haitian team of 1974 brought together a remarkable collection of complementary talents, including Emmanuel Sanon and Philippe Vorbe. That, combined with a weak field in CONCACAF (the US failed to put together a decent team; Mexico was having its troubles; Canada was a joke), saw the western hemisphere’s poorest country cast, after two years of interminable playoffs, onto the world stage. There was also a national motto: “Tou Pou Yo” (“All For One”), which, as happens in this part of the world, spawned a popular song by the same name.

Haiti’s first match in West Germany was against Italy, a soccer world power. Haiti’s chances looked as bleak before the first whistle as they do this year for the US, facing Germany and Yugoslavia in the first round in France.

For the first half of that first match, however, the little republic threatened to pull off one of the great upsets in World Cup history. Playing their best game as a team, the Haitians led Italy 1-0 by half time. The experts were stunned. As one Haitian soccerphile eloquently put it: “The two stars I remember best were Mano Sanon, of course, who blasted a remarkable goal past Italy’s renowned goalie Dino Zoff. That acrobatic score was later voted the greatest goal of the tournament by writers. Philippe Vorbe, maybe Haiti’s greatest player at that moment, impressed me even more. Playing the key center midfield position, he controlled the tempo of the game, distributing beautiful passes, blunting attacks, pushing his team to a higher level.”

Haitian dreams, unfortunately, have had a way of coming to a premature end, and the World Cup dream followed suit. In the second half, the Italians, who had surely endured a blistering speech from their coach, re-asserted themselves. They scored three times. Haiti lost 3-1.

Haiti’s participation was also marred by an ugly incident. As in many international tournaments, some of the Haitian players were routinely tested for drugs. An important defender, Jean Joseph, tested positive (it’s said he took a cold medicine containing a banned substance), and was barred from the rest of the games. Joseph was taken severely to task by a member of the Haitian delegation and was apparently roughed up by Tonton Macoutes (Duvalierist thugs) accompanying the team.

The Haitian team that took the field for its remaining games was not the same. Haiti lost badly (7–0 to Poland, and 4–1 to Argentina) and came home in disgrace. Sanon, the scorer of both goals of the tournament, accepted offers to play in Europe. Vorbe, just as hotly pursued, declined, having to go home to the family business. Since then, Haitian soccer has not been anywhere near that level.

Jamaican reggae god Bob Marley loved soccer, as we know from those famous photos; but Jamaica is not a soccer country in the manner, say, of Brazil or some of the other Latin American nations. Jamaica’s successful World Cup bid does, however, say certain things about that country and its abilities. With the help of a Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes, corporate sponsorship and the moral support of the Jamaican people, the “Reggae Boyz”, currently ranked 39th in the world, secured their place in France ‘98 last November, tying with favourites Mexico in a glorious home match.

Their journey to that position was not without its share of plot twists. A strong first two rounds, in which they demolished Suriname, Barbados, Mexico, Honduras and St Vincent, placed them at the top of their group and earned them a spot in the CONCACAF qualifying round. At which point the team began to fade, and after four matches they found themselves at the bottom of the six-team group with only two points. France ‘98 seemed to be receding in the distance after a 0-0 home draw with the US, a 3-1 defeat in Costa Rica and a 6-0 thrashing in Mexico City. Under the pressure, rifts appeared between Simoes and two of the team’s strongest strikers, Walter Boyd and Onandi Lewis. Simoes’ decision to drop them from the team was a hugely unpopular one, but the Jamaican Football Federation backed him and the search began for replacements.

Four players from England were brought in. Of these, Derby’s Deon Burton proved to be the most crucial addition, emerging as the third-leading goal scorer in the final round. It was Burton who secured the home victories against Costa Rica and Canada which served to put the team back into the running. His third goal in Washington, only minutes after the US were awarded a penalty, and his goal against El Salvador, were just as crucial.

Both the US and Salvadorean matches ended in draws, which meant that Jamaica needed only a draw against already-qualified Mexico in their final match on November 16, 1997. The day after qualification was designated a national holiday and street parties broke out all over the nation.

Jamaica’s initial First Round World Cup match will take place against Croatia on June 14 in Lyon, followed by Argentina on June 21 in Paris, and Japan on June 26. For the first time since 1974, Caribbean people will really have a team to root for.