Disentangling memory from truth

In the collective consciousness of global football, Zaire and Haiti—which both qualified for the 1974 World Cup—are remembered for their dismal performance. But is this legacy justified?

Image via FIFA on Twitter.

Soccer is the global sport. It is so universal that it often intersects with global events. One can read 20th-century world history through international soccer. A major theme of the century—European colonialism—is written all over the sport. In 1974, as the last African countries were winning their independence, colonial dynamics erupted on the biggest soccer stage of all. The 1974 World Cup in West Germany was the first time a Black team made it to the tournament, won eventually by West Germany. (They beat the Netherlands in the final.)  In fact, it was two Black teams: Zaire, the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify, and Haiti. In the collective consciousness of football history, both teams are remembered for their dismal performance. But is this legacy justified?

By the numbers, there is not much to brag about in their showings. Both teams lost all three games they played, and each suffered one staggering defeat. If we look at the details, however, it becomes clear that their performance wasn’t as atrocious as collective memory would have it. Memories of the Zaire and Haiti teams in the World Cup were skewed by contemporary commentators, who were writing in a historical context characterized by anxiety over the loss of Europe’s centrality in world football in particular and world politics in general.

In their opening match, a 2-0 loss to Scotland, Zaire nevertheless proved their mettle. Before the game, Scottish manager Willie Ormond said, “there’s no danger of us underestimating Zaire […] we go for as many goals as possible, for that is the only way we will make Brazil and Yugoslavia respect us.” After the game, however, Ormond said “Zaire surprised us with their second half performance and are obviously a side for the future. In fact, they may well trouble both Brazil and Yugoslavia.” Midfielder Billy Bremner admitted that “they played better than we ever believed possible.” A French reporter remarked, “The African players justified both their reputation and their presence,” while a Scottish commentator said, “they showed they had status in their own right as they fought with great fun and sweeping long balls to test Scotland’s defence to its limits.”

Haiti also exceeded expectations in their first game. Italy’s keeper was none other than Dino Zoff, one of the greatest of all time. Zoff was accumulating a clean sheets record; he hadn’t let in a goal in over 1,200 minutes of international play. This record—which stands to this day—came to an end 46 minutes into their match against Haiti, when 22-year-old stiker Emmanuel Sanon delivered a goal that has gone down in Haitian sport history. For the next six minutes Haiti was ahead of one of the best teams in the world. The Italians turned it around for a 3–1 victory, but Haiti sent a message that they were by no means out of their league.

In short, both teams started strong. Things went downhill after that. Zaire faced Yugoslavia next; it was a massacre. Yugoslavia scored a staggering nine goals. Haiti, similarly, lost 7–0 to Poland. The results of their third and final matches were more typical. Both lost by three goals. This doesn’t tell us much, because Brazil and Argentina just needed a win to advance, so the scores were moot (notably, however, Manno Sanon managed another goal against Argentina). History remembers the crushing defeats, but there is reason to believe that their opening matches are more representative.

The performance of both teams in their respective second matches was hampered by events off the field. Before the Zaire–Yugoslavia match, President Mobutu Sese Seko pulled their Yugoslavian coach, Blagojev Vidinic, out of fear that he was “selling their secrets” to his compatriots. The team had to rely on the ad hoc directives of Mobutu’s officials. Likewise, Haiti’s defeat was pinned on their own president’s meddling. After Haiti’s first match, a random drug test on midfielder Ernst Jean-Joseph showed a positive result. Jean-Joseph attributed it to asthma medication, but he was nonetheless booted from the tournament. But it was the reaction of their furious president, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, that was most troubling. On his orders, Jean-Joseph was roughed up and sent home in disgrace. His teammate Fritz André later recalled that “as successful footballers, we’d been protected from that side of the regime, but now we saw the dark side. We had a sleepless night before the game against Poland, and to be honest, I was only thinking about Ernst, not the game.”

After each team’s second match, commentators were quick to proclaim that the teams did not belong. Although Zaire had astonished Scotland, and Sanon’s goal had shocked the world, reporters began to refer to an “abyss between the standards of the best in Europe and the best in Africa.” One reported called the teams “an embarrassment to a series endowed with so much talent.” Denunciations went all the way to the top of football administration. UEFA president Artemio Franchi proposed changes to the qualifiers, in order to keep developing nations out. And the outgoing FIFA President, Sir Stanley Rous, believing that teams “devalue the currency of a World Cup,” planned “to table a … proposal that would help to separate the sheep from the goats in the early stages.” The game two scores were certainly an embarrassment to the losing teams, but it was not as if World Cup audiences hadn’t witnessed crushing defeats before (e.g., Scotland 0–7 Uruguay in 1954) or since. But it is doubtful that anyone called for the restructuring of World Cup qualifiers to keep Brazil out after their 7–1 loss to Germany in 2014.

So, what was going on in 1974?

The historical context is key. At the start of the 20th century, Western Europe was in many ways the center of the world. But by 1974, political and economic centers had moved to the US and the Soviet Union. With the loss of their African and Asian colonies, Europe became parochial. Football was one of the few domains where Europe still ruled; FIFA is based in Switzerland, and every president since its founding had been European. Just two days before the 1974 World Cup began, however, FIFA elected a new president, the Brazilian João Havelange. Europeans saw his election as a symptom of Europe’s loss of centrality in world football. The incumbent president, the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, said to European members during his campaign “I appeal to you to vote for me because it is Europe versus South America, and we want Europe to retain the leadership of football.”

But Havelange won. He did so mainly by courting votes in the underdeveloped world. By 1974, 38 African nations were FIFA members—up from four in 1957. Havelange realized if he won in Africa, he would win the presidency. He toured the continent and promised a massive football development program. A key part of his platform was to add slots to the World Cup with more reserved for African nations. This proposition scandalized European football. Louis Wouters, president of the Belgian Football Association said, “In the finals this year we have Zaire, Haiti and Australia. […] If this is what you want, the organization of a world championship where the Soviet Union, Slovakia, England, Spain and Belgium are not taking part in the final, I would rather be a European champion than champion of the world.” The West German captain said, “For Haiti and Zaire to be coming here and not England does not make sense,” while his Italian counterpart remarked, “the competition should be for the best 16 teams, no matter where they come from, and we should forget these arguments about fostering the game in little countries by encouraging them to play.”

Conversely, as Kuwait’s delegate to the 1978 FIFA conference argued, “one of the major means by which the standard of the game could be developed is the creation of incentives, the best of which as far as Asian and African teams are concerned would be to give them the opportunity for more than one team to qualify to [the] World Cup Finals.” Asian and African teams have since distinguished themselves against Europeans (e.g., Senegal 1–0 France in 2002). But in 1974, the European football community wasn’t interested in this conversation.

So, when Haiti and Zaire arrived in West Germany mere days after Havelange was elected, a lot was riding on their performance. Europeans had already made up their minds about who belonged. For them, it was a stroke of luck that both teams happened to choke in one of their three games. Despite Sanon’s famous goal and Zaire’s impressive showing against Scotland, the memory of the first two Black teams at the World Cup was a casualty of European attempts to protect their privileged position in world football. More broadly, European backlash against the Haitian and Zairian sides is emblematic of the continent’s crisis of identity following decolonization.

For the record, things are remembered differently in Haiti and Zaire. Here, the 1974 World Cup is not an embarrassment. Both countries are proud of their teams’ success at qualifying. Emmanuel Sanon, for his part, joined the pantheon of Haitian sports. You can still see murals bearing his face in Port-au-Prince today. In other words, the memory of an event depends on who is doing the remembering and is influenced by the way it is depicted at the time. It is important to go back and disentangle memory from truth so that false narratives like Haiti and Zaire’s failure at the 1974 World Cup don’t live on to reinforce racist ideas and policies.

Further Reading