West Germany, 1974
With political misdemeanors filed firmly in the past, the country’s professional league into its tenth season and the national team becoming mainstays in the latter stages of the tournament, West Germany were awarded hosting rights in 1974, with the new FIFA World Cup trophy making its first appearance. The golden statuette wasn’t the only newcomer in West Germany, as neighbours East Germany made their World Cup bow, along with new entrants from Africa, North America, and Asia/Oceana. Zaire arrived to mainland Europe relative unknowns, though would leave an indelible mark on the competition, while Australia emerged from the notoriously weak OFC/AFC section. There was also plenty of mystery surrounding Haiti, who’d ousted CONCACAF’s usual representatives, Mexico, in qualifying.
The squad that travelled to Munich wouldn’t be the first Haitians to play at the World Cup – that title had been claimed by Joe Gaejtens in 1950 – but they did arrive at the tournament with hopes of causing a shock. Beaten only once during qualifying – by Mexico, no less – Haiti emerged top of the CONCACAF pool fully two points ahead of runners up Trinidad and Tobago thanks to a tight defence that shipped just three goals in five games. The goals of Emmanuel Sanon, a striker plying his trade in Haiti at the time, helped edge tight encounters against Guatemala and Trinidad, and qualification was effectively secured on 13th December 1973. That’s not to say qualification was all necessarily smooth running and above board. Jean-Claude Duvalier had succeeded his father as President of Haiti, and in a bid to increase national morale – sapped in the face of an oppressive regime – he pumped money into the Haitian Football Federation.
Home games during the qualifiers were played in a ferocious atmosphere, and if the opposition weren’t intimidated by the noise from the stands, then they were up against some suspect refereeing decisions. When Trinidad visited Port-au-Prince for their crucial qualifier, they had four seemingly good goals disallowed. However, if they were going to progress through the group stage in West Germany, they’d have to do it without their President’s help. Drawn against the Italy team that finished runners-up in 1970, an ever dangerous Argentina side and the up and coming Poland, who had knocked England out in qualifying, Les Grenadiers had a tough job on their hands. The majority of Haiti’s squad played their domestic football in their home country, partly due to Francois Duvalier’s ban on foreign transfers that prevented the impressive youth side of the mid-60s from being snapped up by European clubs, though upon his death in 1971 the ban was lifted, and captain Wilner Nazaire headed over to France to join US Valenciennes. Still, much like fellow newcomers Zaire, the pressure on Haiti to avoid humiliation at the World Cup was huge, and each member of the squad was aware of the difficult consequences that heavy defeats would create.
For the opening game against Italy, they were given little chance. As in 1970, the Italian’s possessed a mean defence, though now it had been augmented by the emergence of Juventus goalkeeper Dino Zoff as their #1. Heading into the tournament Zoff and his team-mates had gone twelve international games without conceding a goal, including entirety of their qualifying campaign. The chances of minnows Haiti breaching the seemingly impenetrable Italian defence were slim to say the least. Journalists expected Italy to rack up a cricket score against the unfancied Caribbeans, though by half-time the game was goalless. Seconds after the restart the unthinkable happened. Philippe Vorbe played a pass into Sanon, and the striker outpaced the Italian backline before cooly rounding Zoff and rolling the ball into the net, becoming the first player since Hristo Bonev in June 1972 to score against Italy. It was a remarkable moment for Haiti, the downtrodden, poverty-stricken state, to come toe-to-toe with some of the world’s greatest teams and take the lead. Sadly the euphoria lasted all of six minutes. Gianni Rivera levelled the game in the 52nd minute, and from then on Italy coasted to a regulation win thanks to further strikes from Romeo Benetti and Pietro Anastasi. There would be no repeat of Ayresome Park, but at least Haiti had enjoyed their moment in the sun. For one player, however, the joy would be very short-lived indeed.
Having played out of his skin for ninety minutes, Haitian midfielder Ernst Jean Joseph was whisked away at the final whistle to take a random drugs test, and tested positive for phenmetrazine. Jean Joseph protested his innocence, claiming that the substance was in his asthma medication, but he was banned from the tournament by FIFA and, less than 24 hours after his heroic display against Italy, was dragged kicking and screaming from his hotel by the vice-president of the Haitian FA, beaten up in full view of the public and media present, and flown back to Haiti.
With the scandal and the forcible abduction of their team-mate playing on the Haitian squad’s minds, they were handed a sound beating by Poland, with Andrzej Szarmach helping himself to a hat-trick in a 7-0 win. Jean-Joseph would eventually contact his team-mates to confirm that he was alive and well, and it would later be said that his standing as one of the President’s “favourites” saved his life. Safe in that knowledge, Haiti posted another decent performance against Argentina, losing 3-1. They may have finished bottom of their group, but Haiti certainly didn’t disgrace themselves, and they’d always have that goal against Italy to remember – though the Italians would be joining the Haitians in the departure lounge having lost to the Poles.
Fear also played a part in Zaire’s performance in West Germany, as a crushing 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia in their second game led to some severe warnings from the country’s government regarding the teams embarrassing performance and the sanctions that could be expected should they collapse against Brazil in their final game. That fear translated to the infamous moment that Mwepu Ilunga booted a Brazilian free-kick up the field before it had been taken, leading to much mirth from the watching public at the perceived lack of intelligence on the African’s part. In the event they lost just 3-0, and returned home with pride bruised but lives intact. Brazil and Yugoslavia progressed from the group, at the expense of Scotland who went through the tournament unbeaten, but could only score twice against Zaire. In Group 1 the biggest shock of the tournament came in Hamburg as East Germany sneaked a 1-0 victory over their neighbours and hosts thanks to Jürgen Sparwasser’s late goal, though finishing top of the group actually decreased the DDR’s chances of making the final. In Group 3, the stylish Netherlands, quickly emerging as favourites for the tournament, finished top ahead of Sweden, and the Cruyff Turn was introduced to the watching world.
A change of format meant that the top two teams in each group would progress to a second group stage, and the winners of those groups would then contest the final. The Netherlands swept Argentina and East Germany aside before a de-facto semi-final against Brazil saw Johans Neeskens and Cruyff both score in the second half to book the Oranje’s place in the final. There they faced a West Germany side who’d followed a similar path through their second group phase. Comfortable wins over Yugoslavia and Sweden, before a narrow victory over fellow final hopefuls Poland gave them to opportunity to win the trophy on home soil.
The award of a penalty to the Dutch in the first minute of the final attracted ire from the West German players, with Franz Beckenbauer in particular furious enough to accuse referee John Taylor of being “an Englishman”. A decent observation from Der Kaiser. Neeskens converted, and the Netherlands took a leaf out of Hungary’s 1954 book of ‘How Not To Win A World Cup’ and decided to take the piss out of their opposition for the next twenty minutes. The attempted humiliation only strengthened West Germany’s steel, and Paul Breitner levelled the game up in the 25th minute after the Englishman awarded the hosts a penalty of their own. Muller, of course, popped up with a goal two minutes before half-time to put the Germans in the lead, and despite carving open chances in the second half, Cruyff and co were unable to retain their grasp on the cup. Once again, style won out over substance, and one of the most iconic players of the decade missed his chance to win the game’s greatest prize.