It proved an emotional occasion as Joseph S. Blatter met with Yves Jean-Bart, President of the Haiti Football Association (FHF), for the first time since the country was hit by a major earthquake on 12 January. “We’d got some second-hand accounts but we weren’t able to speak to Mr Jean-Bart directly just after the earthquake,” said the FIFA President. “After a few days, I managed to speak to him on the telephone and I can tell you that was a huge relief.”
Jean-Bart still carries the scars of the event, with several fingers on his right hand wrapped in bandages after being crushed. He also suffered an injury to his elbow, which has recently undergone an operation. “I was running to escape our headquarters when a block of stone fell on my back and shoulder,” he recalled.
“It’s painful but I’m still alive. Jean-Yves Labaze, the coach of the U-17s, was just behind me and was less fortunate. The earthquake happened around 5pm. A lot of our players were training then, which maybe saved their lives. On the other hand, all of them or nearly all of them suffered losses within their families.”
Exact figures for the human toll remain hard to gauge, but the statistics provided by the United Nations speak for themselves: between 100,000 and 150,000 deaths, 1.1 million people homeless, 700,000 in need of first aid, 200,000 lacking food and 500,000 having fled Port-au-Prince for the countryside.
The FHF itself was not spared by the tragedy and Jean-Bart lists the victims among FHF employees with a profound sadness: “The national team’s masseuse, the cameraman, the executive director and so many more. It’s impossible to give a precise figure at the moment.”
The FHF needs help on all fronts, having lost its headquarters as well. “We don’t even have the money to pay for the heavy machinery to clear away the rubble. We estimate that there are at least 33 bodies buried underneath, and we’ve also lost all our assets, plus the whole of our administrative system.”
Thousands of homeless Haitians have gathered in the national stadium, on the artificial pitch laid down for the match between Haiti and Brazil in 2004. As for the FHF’s technical centre, built thanks to FIFA’s Goal programme, it remains intact save for the surrounding wall and has been made available to footballers and their families. On 4 February, FIFA elected to release special funds to aid the country.
“The Finance Committee decided to allocate an extra USD 3m,” explained President Blatter. “We had already granted an emergency aid of USD 250,000 after the catastrophe.” The additional sum has been set up as a Special Projects Fund which will be managed directly by FIFA from Zurich to finance projects submitted by the FHF.
Amid the chaos, President Jean-Bart attempted to form a list of priorities. “The first thing is to help the athletes so that they can go back to leading normal lives,” he said.
“After that, we want to take back the grounds that are still being used for relief operations. Lastly, we want to get our competitions back under way as soon as possible. The clubs Racing CH and Tempete have already asked to be entered into the CONCACAF Champions League.”
The very idea may seem strange just a few weeks after such an overwhelming tragedy, but hope is vital at times like these. “We handed out the FIFA balls we still had to people in the camps,” explained Jean-Bart.
“It’s incredible, but amid all the ruins young people wanted to play. Football is an integral part of our society and that’s why it’s important that we get our football activities up and running – to bring a little serenity and joy.”
“In life, there are miracles,” added President Blatter. “Football persists and brings hope and emotions, but money is also necessary to rebuild and carry on again.” The task now is to begin planning for the future. “The pitch in Petit Goave was finished off by an aftershock and the stadium in Leogane, at the epicentre of the quake, was totally destroyed,” said Jean-Bart.
“There are numerous building sites, but football wasn’t just restricted to Port-au-Prince and that’s a good thing, because the provinces were relatively spared, which should allow us to get started again on the right foot.”
There is an immense amount of work to be done, of course, but Haiti can count on the solidarity of the entire football family. “Aside from FIFA, who made an unprecedented contribution with the $3m USD fund, lots of clubs, federations and football organisations have helped out and benefit matches have been, or are going to be, held,” concluded the FHF President. “The idea of a ‘football family’ really comes into focus at moments like these.”