Remembering Manno
© AFP

It was a sunny June day in Munich in 1974. Italy, finalists at the previous FIFA World Cup™ finals in Mexico, had not conceded a goal in 19 games and over four years of competitive football. Their reputation was fearsome. Up against Caribbean debutants Haiti, an Italian rout was predicted and the islanders were simply hoping not to be embarrassed.

However, after going 45 sturdy minutes without conceding, leggy striker Emmanuel Sanon caused a sensation seconds after the break. Bursting into space behind the much-feared Italian rearguard, he rounded a flat-footed Dino Zoff and stroked the ball home. In the end, the Haitians' 1-0 lead didn't last and they went home after additional losses to Argentina and Poland.

Defeats aside, the strength of Sanon's performance on 15 June 1974 against the Italians and his consolation goal in a 4-1 loss against Argentina, made 'Manno' the purest of legends back home in Haiti. The esteem in which he was held only increased after stints with clubs in Europe and the USA, and made the effect of his passing at the age of 56 late last week due to complications from a long battle with pancreatic cancer all the more widely felt.

Born in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince in 1951, Sanon showed a tremendous aptitude for sport at an early age. Even so, the speedy youngster did not uncover what would become an abiding love affair with the round ball until his teenage years.

He went on to score nearly 50 goals in over 100 appearances for Haiti, an impoverished island nation in the Caribbean with an unmatched passion for football. His club career brought him to Germinal Beerschot in Belgium and later to the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League (NASL), where he played alongside Mexican icon Hugo Sanchez. After his career ended in the 1980s due to a serious knee injury, Sanon went on to coach in the United States and eventually took charge of the Haitian national team, leading the side out at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2000.

Though his achievements are many, Sanon will forever be linked with the goal he scored against Italy. "It may sound naive but to this day we still feel like Manno won that game against Italy," said radio commentator Herntz Phanord, who watched the game in 1974 in a crowded cinema in Port au Prince. "There was a carnival atmosphere when he scored that goal," said a mourner in the capital at the weekend. "He will forever be linked with that goal."

Sanon's unlikely strike against the mighty Azzurri remains an abiding memory in Haiti, and anyone old enough to have seen it can still describe where they were and how much pride they felt at the moment.

His peaceful passing, in his sleep on 21 February in Florida, will be felt doubly hard in the hearts of his Haitian brothers and sisters by virtue of his noted devotion to the oft-troubled nation. The foundation that bears his name (Foundation Emmanuel Sanon) worked tirelessly to guide at-risk young people toward a future in football.

Prime Minster Jacques-Edouard Alexis ordered a moment of silence throughout the country on Friday, calling 'Manno' "an historic Haitian". As Haitians grieve the passing of their favourite son, the memory of the man, and his petulant goal that day in Munich, will live on forever.