The nil of victory: how Haiti won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup

Fifty years ago, a Haitian football team managed to win the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup without actually playing the final...

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Here’s a riddle: how do you win a football cup without winning the final?

It happened to a Haitian team in 1963, when they won that year’s CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, a competition that pitted the side from Port-au-Prince against seven other clubs from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Racing Club Haïtien, founded in 1923, had come top of the Haitian League in 1962, and hence qualified for the regional competition organised by the recently formed Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football, the umbrella grouping of regional football associations.

There were minnows and much bigger fish in the competition, with clubs from relatively powerful footballing nations such as Mexico and Costa Rica, and teams from much smaller countries such as Haiti. One team from the United States was an amateur side, New York Hungaria, comprised of players of Eastern European origin competing in a local league.

By no means favourites, the Haitians nonetheless went into their first game with some confidence as they faced the champions of the Netherlands Antilles, RKV Sithoc, arguably a smaller club than Racing. Fifty years ago, on 10 March, 1963, Racing recorded a 3–1 victory in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao. The goals were scored by Claude Limagree, Salomón Santvil, and the appropriately named Germain Champagne. In the return match a week later, at the Sylvio Cator stadium in Haiti’s capital, Racing won by 1–0, Santvil scoring again.

The next round saw Racing drawn against Xelajú, champions of Guatemala. For reasons that remain obscure, both ties were played in the Central American republic, and to the surprise of many, Racing thrashed Xelajú 4–1 in the first of them, on 7 June in Quetzaltenango, the Guatemalan team’s home town. More predictably, Santvil was the hero of the hour, scoring a hat trick. But things did not go so well in the return fixture a week later, Xelajú winning 3–1 and — also for reasons that remain obscure, given the concept of aggregate scores — forcing a replay. Three days later, again in Guatemala City, Racing won 2–1 with goals from Joseph Obas and the un-Haitian-sounding Nelson.

Suddenly Racing had made it to the final, and a month later they learned that their opponents were to be defending champions CD Guadalajara — Mexico’s most formidable football club, who en route to the final had dispatched the American amateurs of New York Hungaria and Costa Rica’s respected Deportivo Saprissa. The two-leg final was set for 8 and 10 September, both games to be played in Guadalajara.

How could the valiant underdogs of Racing Club Haïtien overcome the mighty CD Guadalajara? Defeat was initially avoided by the team not turning up for the match. Passports or visas, it seems, had not arrived in time — though the team’s presence in Guatemala had not by all accounts created any such bureaucratic problems. Twice more the final was rescheduled, and twice more the Haitians failed to materialise. By February 1964 (how long did it take to get a passport in Haiti?) the Mexicans had had enough, and complained to the CONCACAF authorities. CONCACAF ruled that due to the Haitians’ non-attendance, the cup belonged by default to CD Guadalajara.

It was now the turn of the Haitians to protest, although history — or any version of it I could locate — does not record on what grounds. Nevertheless, CONCACAF rescinded its decision, and ruled on 2 April, 1964, that the two matches would have to be played within two months. Alas, Guadalajara were already double-booked; they were meant to be undertaking a prestigious European tour, playing the likes of Barcelona, Werder Bremen, and Lille Olympique. They withdrew from the competition — leaving Racing victorious.

The victory was less pyrrhic than hollow: more a triumph for Haiti’s chaotic state bureaucracy than for the players of Racing, who — we must assume — did want to have their day in the Mexican limelight. The reasons for the Haitians’ reluctance to travel to Mexico remain mysterious. Perhaps the club could not afford another set of air fares? Or were there more sinister motives? In any case, Racing’s bizarre victory provided a brief moment of respite in what were the darkest days of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship. Elected in 1957, by 1963 he was under pressure from multiple internal plots and open hostility from the United States and neighbouring Dominican Republic. As his regime tottered, Papa Doc unleashed a wave of terror against his opponents, using the dreaded Tontons Macoutes, his private militia, to brutalise the Haitian people.

One victim was another footballer, who had briefly become an international name. Joe Gaetjens, born in 1924 in Port-au-Prince to a well-to-do German father and Haitian mother, was a gifted sportsman who played for the local Etoile Haïtienne club before leaving in 1948 for New York, where his skills caught the eye of local football clubs. In a country where “soccer” was a minority game, Gaetjens experienced a meteoric rise, and in 1950 he found himself — despite not being an American — in the US squad for that year’s World Cup in Brazil.

Gaetjens’s moment came when the unfancied United States faced England, the world’s top team, in Belo Horizonte on 29 June, in a David-versus-Goliath encounter that the English were expected to win easily. Yet, as Leander Schaerlaeckens of ESPN relates: “England keeper Bert Williams went in pursuit of what appeared to be an easy save when out of nowhere Gaetjens launched into an all-out headfirst dive through traffic, barely connecting with the ball, which flew slowly into the net to the left of Williams, whose momentum was still carrying him in the opposite direction.

Gaetjens, planted face down in the grass, never did see his goal.”

Try as they might, England could not equalise, and so the United States — aided by a Haitian of German ancestry — claimed a famous scalp. Gaetjens was carried aloft from the pitch by jubilant Brazilian spectators. The English muttered darkly about ineligible players and flukes — but the damage to English supremacy was done.

Thereafter Gaetjens’s career went downhill: an unsuccessful period in France and another spell with Etoile Haïtienne that was not much better. Giving up football, he set up a dry cleaning business. He was not political, but members of his family were supporters of Louis Déjoie, the man Papa Doc had beaten in the 1957 election.

One night in July 1964, shortly after Papa Doc declared himself president-for-life, there was a knock at the door, and Joe was taken away by the Macoutes to the notorious Fort Dimanche prison. He was never seen again, one of the estimated thirty thousand Haitians killed under Duvalier.