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.

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.

This resilience shines through in the 1974 photograph of Sanon, who died of cancer in 2008, from that year’s World Cup finals. In the picture by Dominique Frank Simon, Sanon evades the prone figure of Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff and appears to run free into endless potential. His goal, giving Haiti a temporary 1–0 lead, showed Haiti’s face to the world. The West’s capacity to look past that face is the problem, not that Haiti lacks extraordinary deeds. We have witnessed well to her dictators, but not to Haiti’s creators.

In a collection of Haitian diaspora writing, edited by Edwidge Danticat, Jean-Pierre Benoît remembers watching the 1974 match at Madison Square Garden. In the day before soccer moms and ESPN, New York Haitians and Italians viewed the game as one expatriate whole. “The poor Haitians have no hope. And yet, Haitians hope even when there is no hope. The tri-syllable cry of ‘HA-I-TI’ fills the air.”

The slave republic that has inspired American fear since Thomas Jefferson resembles the Book of Judges in its history more than Job. That is, exploitative neighbors have a hand in these tragedies, not just God. Living in Haiti means seeing people die. The BBC calls it a “revolving door of pain.”

Even soccer on occasion cues violent opportunists. Authorities since last year have been investigating state police involvement in Aug 05 killings of Lavalas backers at a football match in the capital’s Martissant area. This was a “Play for Peace” game sponsored by the US Agency for International Development, with United Nations peacekeeping forces standing by across the street.

The world’s skewed witness to Haiti and to Haitians goes on and on. Non-Haitian business owners in Miami openly wondered whether an urban soccer park, pursued by the diaspora community for 10 years, would become a crime haven. Following the earthquake, unsubstantianted press accounts of violence in the streets perpetuate the stereotype of a people incapable of self-control. If someone knows what else to call it, I would like to hear. I call it racism.

In contrast, an American mission worker refers to the peace she discovered at a soccer field, where Haitians raised hosannas during aftershocks. “All night long,” says Linda Graham, “people prayed and sang to God.”

In the vast gardens near the pancaked presidential palace, camp residents, aided by shovel-wielding soldiers from Martinique and Guadeloupe, arrange their own garbage collection.

They maintain tidy aisles between tents and improvise space for football.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (3)

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  1. Davy says:

    Thank you for creating space for Haiti. A truly remarkable and insightful piece on the triangle that is catastrophe, football and hope.

  2. Sports Tip says:

    Football lover and sports lover always find the way to play the game. they are motivated. Its a good news that American mission worker refers to the peace she discovered at a soccer field. Thank you John Turnbul.

    Eugenio J. Coutee

  3. Dave, beautifully said about an amazing piece.

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