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In an exclusive sit-down with Get French Football News’ Tony-Thomas DesRois, long time Nantes defender (2005-2012) and arguably one of the most successful Haitian players of all time, Jean-Jacques Pierre (40) reminisced about his days with his beloved Nantes and his current role as the head coach of the Haiti National Team.
Fresh off the plane from Nantes, Jean-Jacques Pierre made time to sit down with me to discuss how his life as a footballer is now translating to coaching. Immediately evident from my first impressions of the coach was his warmth for this inquiring writer with notebook in hand. The second impression of Jean-Jacques was that he is truly a football lifer with a mind for the game. No answer was off the cuff or a generic prepared answer. From the start, it was clear the coach had a passion for his former club so that’s where we started.
What was your fondest memory of Ligue 1?
“Singing in Nantes. I respect a lot of European and French clubs, but it’s Nantes we are talking about, not just some club. When you sign at a club like Nantes it means something. Even now, it’s still a family for me. Their door is always open for me in terms of football.”
Looking back at France’s first World Cup team, they had many players from Nantes. How do you see Nantes historically versus where they are now?
“It’s a very different story. When we talk about Nantes in ’95 we are talking about one of the best clubs in Europe. A club that compares to how Barcelona played in 2011. Nantes had the young players like Barça used to have. Eight or nine players at that time were from the academy of Nantes. Now it’s very different. There have been many different coaches and with every new coach you start over so there is no long term project making it hard to compete at that level.”
Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on how competitive Ligue 1 has become and its newfound popularity? “Monaco’s coach said it last week. If every team in France could keep their players, it would be very hard for a non-French team to beat them. Look at all the players who have left over the last 10 years: Hazard, Kanté, Tolisso. It comes down to taxes. France has some of the highest taxes for clubs who are trying to have “big” players. Except for Monaco. A team in France pays like €200,000 in taxes for a player that makes €70,000 a month wages. I think that would only be something like €12,000 a year in Germany. So, a team in Germany can bring a top player and give them a top salary over a team in France. So teams in France work on young players to sell them and make money.”
Wow, that’s shocking that teams in France are still competing with that being the reality.
“It can be said that Ligue 1 is a mixture of styles and methodology. Where Spain has Tiki-Taka and Italy is strict defensively, France is athletic and physical and mixes many different styles.”
Did playing in that type of environment helps you as a coach?
“Yes, it helped me a lot. I also had like nine different coaches in Nantes. That means nine different styles (laughs), if you look at a team like Marseille and [Jorge] Sampaoli you would say it’s a fluid team, but defensively he gives them a lot of responsibility. When you look at Sampaoli today he is like [Marcelo] Bielsa, running, running, running. I think if Sampaoli and Bielsa played in Spain they would have a lot of good results. Just look at Paris. Paris did not have the upper hand on each match this year because tactically the level is very high. In the game [against Nantes] yesterday Paris won 3-1, but, until the own goal, the game was very tight. When you look at Paris players versus Nantes’ players there is no game, but on the field there is a game. It’s different from playing in Spain where there is a lot of space or England where you have amazing strikers but not the same level of defenders.”
I agree completely. Who are your inspirations in coaching?
“Bielsa. Bielsa is a fighter. At the same time, he’s thinking every second. Every time Bielsa does something he was already thinking about it ten minutes beforehand. That’s why it’s important to have players who understand your way of play.”
So you are saying in the game, you have to adapt?
“Before the game, you have a plan based on the opponent, but when you get into the game it’s up to the players to have the ability to find the solution, but, as a coach, when they can’t, it’s your job – looking from the outside to find it [the solution] and it has to be done in a second. If you miss it it’s done.”
Ligue Haïtienne was recently on the world stage during the CONCACAF Champions League with Arcahaie. What did Arcahaie’s performance mean to Haitian football?
“It was very important for the country and CONCACAF because lately we have been losing the view of people outside of Haiti about football in Haiti. After the ban of the president we have to rebuild again, but who is going to be at the top of the project? That’s more important, but Arcahaie did a great job. I heard someone from Arcahaie say they weren’t ready for the success they had. They didn’t have the infrastructure with training or equipment, so I think they reached their limit of what talent can do without any money, but congrats to them and Haitian football. But, that means if they were supported by other things it could have been different. For example, the only money in Haitian football today is from FIFA with FIFA For All. That means all of Haitian football is based on that money.”
Right because there is no TV rights or sponsorship. So, do you think there is the same sort of push to grow the Haitian league like there is for the national team?
“I think we need that. In my opinion, I’m not saying this is what should happen, but today there are 18 teams in the first division. It’s too much. it’s too much economically. It’s difficult for a team financially to play 18 matches. If you look at Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica they have 12 or 13 teams in the first division which bring top players to the first division and creates competitiveness. The second division has 57 teams. That’s too much. You have to define level.
When you look at the young teams in Haiti, like the under 17s who went to the World Cup in Brazil, you don’t know where they playing today. They could have been the under 20s today, but the league in Haiti has stopped since May. Where are you going to see the young players to call them up? We need a program to follow these players. If they made it to the World Cup they have something. We should know exactly where to find these players. The under 20s should be a path to the senior team.”
So the only place to see the players to cash them up is outside of Haiti?
“Right, but when you are looking at the young Haitian players playing outside of Haiti most of them are playing at a university. I have a lot of respect for them, but when you have players who don’t play together consistently and don’t play in large tournaments together and then try to play against the USA, Mexico, and Canada it’s going to be difficult.”
True, I’ve also heard the youth teams in Haiti are only playing 3-5 official games a year?
“That’s not enough. Players need playing time to understand the situation.”
Right, so repetition?
“Exactly, if you want a player to be good at something they need to be doing it three times every minute. [In practice] if you want a player to improve his left foot then they should be taking three left foot passes every minute. It’s the same with learning the game time. The more you play the more you understand the game.”
Changing focus a bit, what are your goals with the Haitian national team?
“For now, the Nations League in March 20-23. Then we will use Gold Cup and Gold Cup qualifiers to help get prepared for 2026 [World Cup], along with friendlies along the way to get ready. It’s going to be in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, that means those three teams are not going to be in the qualifiers, you have a place but be careful you still have El Salvador, Panama and Jamaica Who have been working on 2026 for a long time and we (Haiti) are just now thinking about it. Everybody sees the project but no one is working on it yet.”
So what do you need? What will it take to get there?
“For example, I’m in contact with top players in Ligue 1. The last time we had first division players on the team has been quite some time [ago]. We have top players in the first division and I know what those players can do for us, but if you want to bring in those types of players there’s a lot of things off of the field you have to do and we’re not ready to do that. We need to work on how we prepare for the games. The players that are coming are not coming for the money, but they need to see that the flights, the communication, etc. are taken care of. They need to see that the process is organized because right now if you call them they will come one time and never come back. So, we need to take our time. Right now is a hard time. Not just a hard time for football but the country in general. You can’t just say we need to win this game if you just got the players the week before the game. For example, Canada has been building for over five years and now they are in first.”
So more tournaments and more games for the national team along with back-office structure? Is that what you’re saying?
“Yes, more tournaments, more games, but more league games for the young players in Haiti.”
So it all goes back to what you said about building up the league in Haiti?
“Exactly. If you look back when I started on the national team, I love the French players, but we only had three French players the rest of us were playing in Haiti. If you look at Mauritania they qualified for their first CAN (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations), the majority of their players are from there. That means they are working on something with the money they receive from FIFA. They built a centre for football.”
But because Haiti is such an interesting country with the Diaspora population, here in Miami for example with Little Haiti, is it important to plan for them also at the youth level?
“It’s very important. Most of the top football countries have players that represent that country who were not born there. USA, Canada, even France, so Haiti is the same. When the young players in France aren’t ready they can find a way here (Haitian youth nation team), it’s important. Most of the youth international tournaments are played here in Florida. It’s close, it’s easier. But it all starts with development in Haiti at the base.”
Speaking of players in France, The second and third division in France has been a hotspot for Haitian players, most recently a player like Mondy Prunier in National 2 who has been player of the month. Why are Haitian players thriving in the French system?
“When I say top players, we are striving for Ligue 1. Yes Ligue 2 players are playing in a tough division. Ligue 1 players are playing against the top talent every weekend. That forces them to find solutions to a different level of difficulty. However, it is important to bring together all the Haitian players across the board.”
Understood, but what about the system in France creates such a hotspot for those Haitian players to develop and play?
“Well, the language and many of them are born in France.”
Right, but it seems even a lot of players from Haiti have left and been successful in France. For example, Danley Jean-Jacques at Metz, the Haitian players from Strasbourg.
“The thing is, in Haiti, there’s no TV, there are no TV rights to show off the players. That means it’s a lot of work to get a player from Haiti to France. You have to be close to the team to get a player from Haiti to France without having video on them.”
So what you’re saying is that there are relationships?
“Yes! You need that. When you’re looking for players you pull up the video, you watch the game, you go on Instagram and you have the information on individual players. But in Haiti, you have nothing.”
So that goes back to what you originally said about having the structure all the way up to the national team from the league. You have to have the league structured and televised. That’s brilliant. What are the biggest challenges with the national team?
“The national team is the window to Haitian football. When you don’t have the base, when I say base, I don’t mean on the field. The field is pure football, but that’s the last part of it. The base is everything else, the 99%. The field is only 1%. Without the 99% people can ask for results but without the 99% you can have results once but not twice. When you work on the 99% consistently for one or two years you can have a good project on the field. When you have players asking “when am I coming?” or “when will I receive my tickets” you can’t make any conclusions about the project.”
Right, so not only do the players have to worry about their production on the field they have stress off the field.
“That’s the thing, when they ask I understand because I was born in Haiti with nothing. I’ve seen Haitian football with nothing, it still has nothing, but we’re in a transition. You were working with a president and staff of 15 to 20 people. Today, we are working with three. Before FIFA would send the money and the federation would just use it on the project. Today, you have to send the project and budget to FIFA and then they send you the money. That means it takes the federation three times the time to get the money for the budget and the travel. That creates frustration for the players.”
So the biggest challenge is administrative?
“If you want a result on the field, administrative things should not be an issue. Once your players are frustrated your plan is out the window. We are a small Federation. Didier Deschamps knows before the World Cup that he has eight games to prepare. For Haiti that’s not the case. Other countries have long term projects, have the money and they know where they are going so it’s easy for the players.”
Is that due to there being a role within the Federation that needs to be filled? In regards to the structure and not having Friendlies and smaller tournaments planned before your major tournaments?
“We don’t have the staff. We only have three people.”
“The president was banned and FIFA is controlling the federation. They are preparing for the election in 2022, but we don’t even have sponsorships. Football is marketing first.”
Well, I must say, on the field, It was very impressive to see how you were able to compete while dealing with the Covid situation in the Gold Cup. What was that like?
“I remember before we started the Gold Cup we had our game plan, but we did not have the chance to train [due to Covid], so we could only review the film. Training before a game is when you do setup for your opponent. You can show in film how the USA does a corner and explain how we want to counter, but you can’t see the reaction of your players based on simulation in training. So they saw it on video but they didn’t get the use of it.”
So there was a lack of on-field training for the Gold Cup?
“Absolutely, after the USA were down nine players with Covid. So against Canada, we had zero training due to Covid and had 10 players out. We finished the tournament with only 12 players. 11 starters and a sub goalkeeper. Plus you lose the social contact which is more important than the training on the field, but we fought hard and competed.”
Who are you most impressed with during the gold cup?
“Frantzdy [Pierrot of Guingamp], unfortunately, he had Covid. I think he could have been one of the best players for us. But, I was very impressed Martin [Expérience of Avranches] he played when Alex [Junior] got injured. He is young but played with pressure and did the job, but in all, we had a very good team that played very well even with all of the trouble we had during the Gold Cup. I don’t think any other team has had to deal with anything like that.”
Tell us what’s in the plans of Jean-Jacques Pierre?
“I’m still learning. I’m working with Nantes, Brest and Caen. We had a week with them to see how they managed the players. I’m not talking about football, I’m talking about people management. It’s very different from youth [development]. When you bring in a player you know what skills he has, you just need him to understand how to move [in your system] and manage them. So we spent a week learning all of that.
It’s very different [compared to] the national team. With the national team you need to know if your players played that weekend, knowing the North American calendar, when will they start their pre-season, what type of shape will they be in when you get them, and discovering new players. It’s a lot of work, but as a coach and as a person I work for the team. The national team is above me and that’s what I tell the players. The national team is above you. It’s above everyone. No one is above the national team. Players have been there before you and will be there after you. You are just here to bring what you can to help the country. If you can’t or won’t, someone else will do it. We need players that will respect the team and its cause and that’s what I’m trying to do, to bring Haitians together. The thing with Haiti is when something is going on we fight together but most of the time in Haiti we try to destroy each other. That’s what I’m trying to fix. Things have been bad in Haiti for ten to fifteen years. We need to be together. It’s the time to be together.”
In Review: I was lucky enough to have spent the day with the Haiti National team during the Gold Cup. Getting to see Jean-Jacques in action was a special moment. I’m not sure there has been a coach that has had a start like Jean-Jacques has with the Gold Cup and dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak but seeing him navigate it gave me great hope that he was up to the challenge of taking on the role as Haiti’s next head coach. We could very well look back on Jean-Jacques’ initiation to coaching with Haiti as the catalyst to a great coaching career.
Jean-Jacques seemed eager to learn and develop as a coach. Jean-Jacques has “it”. An eagerness to learn along with the presence of a leader. Any time someone is trying to bring change, especially the size of change Jean-Jacques is attempting, it’s never met with the welcome arms. Haiti is a special place. Football is in its DNA, but so is turmoil and years of bad press left by past leadership of the federation. Jean-Jacques’ quest to bring Haiti back to its place as a Caribbean powerhouse is more than a dream. He seems to have real, feasible ideas. Restructuring the Haitian league is vital to the success of the development and exposure of their young players. Re-inventing the wheel is unnecessary. There are smaller countries with great leagues that do not have half the talent but have more exposure and more resources to develop their talent.
Football can not fix all of Haiti’s issues but it can serve its purpose and provide a platform for its athletes. Jean-Jacques is a Ligue 1 and Haiti National team legend. If there ever was a man for the job it’s Jean-Jacques Pierre. I can only hope everyone in the country will understand what Jean-Jacques told his team: “The national team is bigger than all of us”.