It has been a long while since folks in Haiti have had something to be joyful about. Facing a make-or-break final group game with Nigeria on 25 August at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, the country's junior side has given ample cause for smiles and good cheer back home on the Caribbean island.
There have been 33 years of turbulent and continual political strife since striker Manno Sanon sent the small Caribbean island nation wild with excitement when he scored the opening goal against Italy in the 1974 FIFA World Cup in West Germany. Haitian supporters enjoyed just six minutes of delirium before the Italians equalised and won out 3-1. But football remains a passion in Haiti.
This year in Korea, fans of football are witnessing their beloved Haitian teenagers playing for a world title once again. This time it is the FIFA U-17 World Cup and Haiti are on the brink of a spot in the knockout stages provided they can find a way to beat group leaders Nigeria in their final Group D contest on Saturday.
Then and now
Dominic Vorbe, brother of the 1974 captain, Philipe, has been a witness to both tournaments (West Germany '74 and Korea '07). "There was great madness when the 74' team qualified," he says. "The whole country was behind the team and we were so proud. It's the same thing like right now with the U-17's...there is something brewing. Football is not a sport in Haiti, it is a religion. Even in times of great hardship, you will always find a soccer game going on."
For U-17 coach, Jean Yves Labaze, the country's debut in the U-17 showpiece is a source of huge pride and excitement and he has no intention of letting the first two results (a 3-1 loss to Japan and a 1-1 draw with former colonial masters France) deter them in a hunt for a spot in the second round.
"The World Cup - that is the peak whatever the age level", he says. "Everyone would love to be in a World Cup, any player and any trainer. For us, it is a great step for the future of this country."
It was a long road against almost impossible odds, but football is thriving again in Haiti after years of war and political repression. The country shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with its neighbour the Dominican Republic and is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and 154th of 177 countries in the UN's Human Development Index (2006). Eighty percent of the country's people live in abject poverty. Despite this, football's pulse continues to beat strongly.
Seeds sown slowly
The flight and exile of former-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, international intervention and the stabilising presence of the UN are just beginning to show signs of a brighter future. The painfully slow recovery of this nation at political, social and economic levels is being mirrored by results on the field. And this squad of young talent is fostering hope across the nation.
Fabien Vorbe, a forward in the U-17 camp and another member of the Vorbe football dynasty, echoes these sentiments: "People always talk about Haiti's misfortunes but, by reaching the World Cup, it means that the country is getting better."
The facilities and infrastructure that the team has at its disposal now are basic at best. In the wake of Aristide's departure, the Haitian 'Ranch' football training centre was entirely destroyed in the orgy of destruction that swept through the country.
"It hurt to see the population go into a church of football and destroy it. Right down to the level of stealing the toilets and burning the physio bench," says Dominic Vorbe.
It has been a case of building from rock bottom, with funding from FIFA Goal programme and facilities are improving.
For anyone who witnesses the extreme poverty in Haiti, it is impossible to not be affected by it. Scars of the post-Aristide turmoil still lie openly on the landscape. They are clearly visible on the headquarters of the federation and the ranch, which has only been half rebuilt.
Antoine Dorair, head of the ranch training facility says: "The state suddenly collapsed and wasn't capable of supporting the federation. Football was suffering greatly and had to be resuscitated." However, he sees a positive future, with investment going into both the infrastructure and crucially the coaching.
"With the new buildings, we can concentrate the whole squad there. Haitian Football will step up a gear, at both a national and international level," he claims.
U-17 forward Charles Herold Junior, who starred in the opening-day loss to Japan states that the team has a "determination and anger to succeed" and will not buckle on the bigger stage. "We played in front of 40,000 people in Honduras who were cheering us or hissing us - it was not a problem."
Vorbe agrees: "We don't accept that any team is better than us. Even faced with the Brazilians, or the English, we say that the Haitians are better."
With powerful Nigeria standing between them and a place in the knockout rounds, the Haitians will need to summon every ounce of resistance and power to book their dream passage and give the folks back home something to really scream about.
The 'Football's Hidden Story' project was set up by FIFA to communicate the significance of football in society and as an instrument of hope and force for beneficial changein the world. It reflects FIFA's assumption of its wider role, which goes beyond football development to add social and human development through football. Infront and Can Communicate have been chosen to realize the project on behalf of FIFA.