In disaster, soccer infrastructure becomes Haitian lifeline

Stade Silvio Cator, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Stade Silvio Cator, Port-au-Prince, Jan 13. (© 2010 Geo Eye)

In disaster the football ground means refuge. This has long been true, not just in Haiti the past two weeks. Albert Camus in The Plague (1947) eerily anticipates the scene at Stade Silvio Cator in Port-au-Prince and at countless other Haitian grounds when he imagines the football stadium in Oran, Algeria, as open-air hospital.

The field was dotted with several hundred red tents, inside which one had glimpses of bedding and bundles of clothes or rugs. The stands had been kept open for the use of the internees in hot or rainy weather. But it was a rule of the camp that everyone must be in his tent at sunset. Showerbaths had been installed under the stands, and what used to be the players’ dressing-rooms converted into offices and infirmaries. The majority of the inmates of the camp were sitting about on the stands. Some, however, were strolling on the touchlines, and a few, squatting at the entrances of their tents, were listlessly contemplating the scene around them. In the stands many of those slumped on the wooden tiers had a look of vague expectancy.

Casual research provides a range of historical parallels. In Liberia during civil war more than 50,000 fled to the national stadium in Monrovia, where they shared one pit latrine. In Oxford in 2007, in more genteel surroundings, at least 100 people traveled by dinghy and bus to the home ground of Oxford United to escape floodwaters. Viewing boxes became bedrooms. The idea of the “multi-purpose” stadium is a modern cliché with disturbing twists—consider the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in 2005 (the “shelter of last resort”) and Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile, in 1973.

That, when in trouble, Haiti should lean on football is no surprise.

“Haitian people only have one thing now that can make the day happy for them—it’s soccer,” said Ernst “Nono” Jean-Baptiste in an interview Jan 22. “The national stadium was not damaged too much. People can camp there. If you look at the pictures you see some kids playing soccer, because they’re kids. They don’t know exactly what’s going on. They’re seven, eight, nine—they just take a soccer ball and kick it.”

A fixture in Miami soccer for more than 30 years, Jean-Baptiste, 53, lost cousins and friends in the Jan 12 earthquake. When he picks up the phone in his house these days, he expects bad news. Caribbean media confirmed Friday that Alix Avin, coach of the national side, died along with more than 30 other administrators and coaches from injuries sustained in the collapse of Fédération Haitienne de Football headquarters. A government official sets the death toll in Port-au-Prince at more than 150,000.

Jean-Baptiste recalls an earthquake from childhood that struck in Limbe when he and his parents were attending church. The instinct, especially when expecting aftershocks, is to seek and to stay in cleared space. Players from the national selection that Jean-Baptiste has talked to are living under open skies with fellow Haitians. “Everyone is sleeping on the streets,” reports Eduardo Almeida, Inter-American Development Bank country representative, on his blog on Jan 21.

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