For once, football is not at the front of Haitian minds. In the throes of rebuilding after January’s earthquake that killed nearly a quarter of a million people, left one million more without homes and destroyed the infrastructure of an already poverty-stricken nation, the beautiful game is a passing concern at best for wounded Haiti.
Stability is a long way off for, but a slight bump in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola world ranking represents a small victory for the colourful Caribbean islanders that famously qualified for a FIFA World Cup finals back in West Germany in 1974. There are few countries that can match Haiti’s passion for football under normal circumstances, despite her many troubles. The national team, currently in ninth place in the CONCACAF zone (North, Central America and the Caribbean) and 87th overall in the world, is amazingly starting to pick up the pieces and look ahead.
All senior national team players escaped the quake with their lives, a genuine mercy for a nation as football-mad as Haiti. “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,” said Haiti FA chief Yves Jean-Bart, who was injured in the quake which destroyed the country’s football headquarters and killed youth coach Jean-Yves Labaze, the national team’s masseuse, cameraman and executive director. In all, 32 bodies were pulled from the wreckage of the FA headquarters.
Football is an integral part of our society,” concluded Jean-Bart, “and that’s why it’s important that we get our football activities up and running – to bring a little serenity and joy.
The Haitian players, most of them homeless and unable to train in Port of Prince where the football facilities were reduced to rubble, made their first wobbly run-out after the disaster on 5 May, against no less an opponent than mighty Argentina. A predictably lopsided 4-0 loss followed, and it was no surprise for coach Jairo Rios’ Les Grenadiers, who have not played an international in over a year. Argentine legend and coach Diego Maradona posed for photos at the interval with some of the star-struck Haitian players and although the Albiceleste showed no mercy on the pitch, a generous spirit of brotherhood and solidarity suffused the day in Ipira.
The world, and the football world in particular, is rooting for Haiti. FIFA has donated over 3million USD to the country’s cause, an amount which should go a ways to helping in preparations for the 2010 Caribbean Cup in Martinique, a tournament they won as recently as 2007, qualifying for last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup (the region’s biennial Cup of Nations) in the bargain.
There are very few places left to play organised football in Haiti, but as rubble is cleared and children take to the streets, the game will live again. It will breathe new life into a poor, island Haiti and the sky will again be the limit. There is talk of an international friendly being scheduled this August in Port of Prince, and how better a way to welcome Haiti back from the abyss. “It’s incredible, but amid all the ruins young people wanted to play,” added the FA president, who handed out footballs in the refugee camps and tent cities that sprouted up after the quake.
And although Haiti will not be involved this June and July in the glitzy world finals in South Africa, they will be there in spirit, and all would do well to keep the striving nation in their hearts. “Football is an integral part of our society,” concluded Jean-Bart, “and that’s why it’s important that we get our football activities up and running – to bring a little serenity and joy.”