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Haiti, a people's passion

In the wake of the tragic earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation, the world has turned its eyes and attentions to poor, devastated Haiti. The world football family, too, recognises the hardships plaguing the Haitians with moments of silence in bulging stadiums from Buenos Aires to Rio, Madrid to Moscow and all the way to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in faraway Angola. Haiti’s passion for the game is among the most intense on the planet, and now, with members of the country’s football fraternity numbering among the dead and homeless in and around Port au Prince, it is only fitting that offers a moment’s homage of its own, to Haiti’s proud past, trying present and unwritten future.

Salad days of ‘74The country’s so-called golden generation very nearly made their debut at a FIFA World Cup™ in Mexico in 1970, only for a slim loss to El Salvador on neutral ground to scupper their hopes. Haiti, under the Duvalier regime, were charging hard for international recognition and they would not be denied a place among the final 16 in West Germany. They hosted the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers for the 1974 finals and finished top of the heap. Colourful Haiti arrived in Munich with a core of talented players, strong of body and brimming with improvisation and pace.

“None of the newspapers mentioned Haiti when we arrived in Germany,” said Emmanuel Manno Sanon, one of the team’s true gems, looking back on the historic brush with the world’s elite in Germany, where they were drawn alongside Argentina, Poland and Italy. “But I thought to myself: ‘we’re here for a reason and we have to show pride.’ I knew that if I got the chance to break, my speed would be too much for the Italians.”

And so it was. Seconds after the interval, Manno roared through into space, collecting a ball from Philippe Vorbe, considered to this day Haiti’s greatest midfield creator. Sanon ghosted past Luciano Spinosi, one fourth of Italy’s fearsome defence, and sent iconic goalkeeper Dino Zoff clumsily to the pitch before slotting home. It was 1-0 to Haiti, and the first goal Italy had conceded in nearly four years, a stretch of 1143 minutes for Zoff. The joy which met the goal back in Haiti, where the entire nation huddled around radios and TV sets, was unconfined.

I thought to myself: 'we're here for a reason and we have to show pride.' I knew that if I got the chance to break, my speed would be too much for the Italians.

The fancied Italians eventually found their way and won the day 3-1, and Haiti were soundly beaten in their remaining two group games. Still, most on the island consider Sanon’s moment of petulance and pace a win in itself. “I know it sounds naive,” said radio commentator Herntz Phanord, having watched the game in a crowded theatre in Port au Prince. “But I still feel than Manno won that game against Italy.” Sanon - who later went to play in the USA and Belgium and was named Haiti’s athlete of the century - passed away in 2008 at just 56 years of age. The day, fittingly, was marked a national day of mourning.

The team that travelled to Germany in the summer of ’74 was comprised of young men who learned their craft kicking rag balls in the dusty streets of Port au Prince, Carrefour, Delmas and Petionville. Much like in Brazil, the game lives and breathes in the back streets and alleys of Haiti. In 2004 Brazil’s then-world champion cavalcade of stars, including Ronaldo, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Roberto Carlos and Kaka, paid a visit to Port au Prince to take on the Haitian national team, who, in the face of political, social and economic instability, have failed to recapture the glory days of the 1970s despite an impressive Caribbean Cup triumph in 2007. For what was known as The Match for Peace, an almighty throng gathered at the airport and chased the UN vehicles all the way to the Stade Sylvio Cator – now a temporary shelter to many left homeless – where they wildly applauded every goal in a 6-0 win for Brazil.

If ever there were doubts about Haiti’s love for the beautiful game, they were put to rest there and then as tears streamed down the faces of the Brazilian entertainers before the spectacle on offer in the stands and in the streets.

Click on the link to the right for video of Brazil's visit to Haiti.

Famous sons and dear departed
Haiti’s professional club structure has suffered in the face of the nation’s significant challenges, but her native sons and second generation exports, like USA’s Jozy Altidore and Chilean Jean Beausejour, continue to reflect on the country with distinction.

Some have even made their mark on the big time, overseas in Europe, with Wagneau Eloi, who coached Haiti’s national team briefly, perhaps the best known, having played in the UEFA Champions League with Lens and Monaco in the 1990s. Jean-Jacques Pierre is arguably Haiti’s finest native-born export of the moment. After stints in Argentina and Uruguay, he moved on to Nantes in France, and is currently making big waves in Ligue 2.

Unable to make immediate contact with his family back home after the 12 January quake, his club released him to conduct a more concerted effort which, thankfully, ended happily for the player. A call from his mum confirmed she was well, despite her house being destroyed. The family of Jean-Yves Labaze, who led a Haitian U-17 side to a first-ever youth World Cup in 2007, were not so fortunate. The coach died in the earthquake, his body found outside the front door of the FA headquarters which were destroyed on that fateful day.

The world knows too well how Haiti grieves and groans and gives her all to rebuild, to recover from this latest cruelty in a long list of misfortune. For now there are more important things than football. But when the rubble is cleared and Haiti finds her feet again, you can be sure there will be a ball – perhaps scratched and low on air – rolling and bouncing once more.

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