Grassroots | A big day for Haiti, a big day for little Haitians

University of Virginia Haiti expert Robert Fatton speaks of the Duvalier regime’s partial dependence, “for its well-being,” on the national side’s performance in the 1970s and alludes to particular clubs’ associations with society’s upper tiers (see podcast below). To the mind of Robert Duval, founder of L’Athlétique d’Haiti in Cité Soleil, “The elites have always shied away, the people of money have always shied away from soccer.”

He describes, in fact, his grassroots organization as a model of self-sufficiency, relying on local resources (“those who believe in social justice”) and its associations with mobile-phone company Voilà and Yéle Haiti, the foundation of Haitian musician Wyclef Jean, for backing of its soccer, basketball, athletics and education programs. Given food riots in April, Duval said he now must devise a sustainable agriculture program, on top of his efforts to back a Caribbean soccer league as an alternative to the Haitian system. Although L’Athlétique, established in 1996, has contributed players to the senior national side, Duval says of Fédération Haïtienne de Football, “They don’t give us a dime.”

Sanon and other players from 1974 had their own tribulations with Haitian soccer authorities. Le Nouvelliste, a French-language newspaper in Port-au-Prince, characterized a meeting between the Préval government and representatives of the 1974 team in May 07 as a reconciliation, a belated recognition of what the players had done to place Haiti on the map of world sport. Writer Enock Néré says the meeting “was an act deserving of the [René] Préval government and served to reconcile these heroes, frustrated to have been abused and cheated, without shame, by unscrupulous leaders” (“Pour dire adieu à Emmanuel Sanon,” Mar 5).

The front page of Le Nouvelliste (Port-au-Prince) on Mar 6 shows the cadre of 1974 World Cup players who served as Sanon’s pallbearers. At front is Philippe Vorbe, who launched the long speculative pass that led to Sanon’s goal against Italy.

The power of deeds such as Sanon’s and those of his teammates lies, however, in their capacity to reach the population directly, without mediation from authorities. Fatton’s connection to this generation of Haitian players came almost accidentally. After living in Spain, he had developed his own artistic flair for prolonged cries of gól and came to the attention of Radio Métropole. “Suddenly,” Fatton recalls, a Métropole producer “gave me the microphone and said, ‘You’re on.’ And that was it. I was on.” A resident of Pétion-ville, Fatton had the opportunity to see Sanon’s rise through local side Don Bosco, a small club compared to Port-au-Prince teams with large followings. The team won the national championship in 1971 for the first time. Feeling for the 1974 national team, says Fatton, was accentuated as a result of the poor infrastructure for athletic training.

You would see them literally in the streets of Port-au-Prince running, because we had very few places where they could run. They would go up the road to Pétion-ville, which is a very tough, long kind of a ride. You would see them several times a week running for four or five kilometers on that very painful road. It was extremely hot. They knew they were representing the country.

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