In disaster, soccer infrastructure becomes Haitian lifeline

But Jean-Baptiste, twice Haiti manager, says that the player pool has not been accounted for in total. With Miami’s World Cup venue committee he has been organizing a fund-raiser to feature the Haitian national team, tentatively scheduled for Mar 6 at Dolphins Stadium. National-team training in the past has shifted to South Florida during political turmoil, most recently during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Jean-Baptiste expects that this option again will be considered. On the island, grassroots and youth football will benefit from FIFA redevelopment funds. But it is not clear yet how such sums would be disbursed given the loss of football’s core. Jean-Baptiste expresses sadness about the disaster at federation headquarters while recognizing that domestic organizers have not always been football’s best friend. “Now it will be worse, that’s for sure,” he says.

Whether in diaspora or in Haiti, the claw-shaped western half of Hispaniola, soccer gives Haitians a tantalizing glimpse of self-sufficiency and of, one day, becoming known as an independent country. Jean-Philippe Belleau, a Haiti scholar, sees positive news in Haitians’ attachment to Brazilian football—strong enough to entice Brazilian stars to Port-au-Prince for a one-off match that took place in a frenzied atmosphere in 2004. “This desire to appropriate victory,” he writes, “also involves a rejection of passivity, and the desire to be an actor in one’s own history.”

Haiti's passion: spectators at Manno Sanon Soccer Park, Little Haiti, Miami, 3 May 08

Haiti's passion: spectators at Manno Sanon Soccer Park, Little Haiti, Miami, 3 May 08

Mission workers say the sport is so ingrained that toddlers start by kicking avocado seeds. “You can’t turn a channel in Haiti without seeing a soccer game, every hour on the hour,” Robert Duval, founder of L’Athlétique d’Haiti, told me in Miami in 2008 (see 31 May 08). The former political prisoner and Violette footballer in 1996 sought out the “most wretched place in Haiti” to start a youth soccer program and school. This is Cité Soleil, a gang-ridden dumping ground of 300,000 not far from the airport in Port-au-Prince. “When you go in,” Duval says, “the air is so dense with dirt it compresses your skin.”

Duval’s charisma and high profile accentuated tension with the football federation, which he called the “last bastion of the macoutes,” referring to the malicious paramilitary force established by dictator François Duvalier. Duval has bypassed the FIFA money chain and created his own connections in football. The 15-acre facility, where Cité Soleil families are presently encamped (see interview), also has backing from celebrity music producer Wyclef Jean. On Dec 18 the facility hosted Inter-American Development Bank president Luis Alberto Moreno and New York Red Bulls players Seth Stammler, who formed his own foundation to help Haiti, and Jeremy Hall.

Haitian rapture over football became apparent when a L’Athlétique side scrimmaged an ad hoc team from Miami to open Emmanuel “Manno” Sanon Soccer Park in Little Haiti. From the grandstand at halftime, egged on by Kreyòl patter from loudspeakers, men wadded up American money and threw bills onto the pitch. Some of the biggest cheers came when a petite Haitian defender, being closed down by an American striker, dragged the ball back in his own penalty area rather than clearing the ball into touch. Haitians always play their way out of trouble.

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