Impoverished and overrun with social strife, violence and political disorganisation, Haiti, which occupies one third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and is considered the least developed nation in the Western Hemisphere, is nevertheless one of the most passionate footballing outposts in the CONCACAF region. With little positive to shout about since their solitary FIFA World Cup™ qualification back in 1974, 2007 is proving another watershed year in what is looking like a cheerful revival in Haiti's fortunes.
Late in the night on 10 April, hundreds of well-wishers turned up to greet a plane at the Port Au Prince airport. It was carrying the group-winning U-17 national team back from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they shocked the pundits by helping orchestrate the elimination of world champions Mexico and qualify for a first world finals since jet-heeled 'Manno' Sanon, Arsene Auguste and Philippe Vorbe popped up on German soil in the mid-70s. Maybe there were a few less folks on the tarmac than in those heady days back in '74, but their passion - as they chased the coach through the streets - was just as intense.
While almost everyone following Group A of CONCACAF U-17 qualifying was shocked by underdogs Haiti's impressive five-point haul from three matches en route to a spot at Korea 2007, head coach Jean-Yves Labaze saw it as the culmination of years of increased organisation and hard work.
"We have benefited from being together for a long time at the national academy," said the coach who, despite only having access to the academy grounds proper for two years, says the vast majority of the team has been playing together since the ages of ten and 11. "From the time we started to work together we had our ambitions set on doing well."
Crowned U-16 Caribbean champions for 2006, the achievement was an indication to those watching closely that these were not the Haitian strugglers of old. And the consistently impressive play of striker Jean Francis Fabien Vorbe, who finished as top scorer in the quadrangular series down in Honduras looks like troubling any defence he comes up against. He is also part of a famous footballing family in Haiti, one that produced Charles, Sebastian and Germany '74 participant Phillipe Vorbe.
A new sense of cohesion and team ethic is obvious throughout the side - a stark contrast to the talented, if wildly disorganised, Haitian outfits of years previous. And with these new impulses allied to native ability on the ball and an intimidating physical determination, the Haitians are hoping for more of the same progress in the Far East this summer.
But current success aside, things are not easy in poor Haiti - the first-ever black Republic, born of a slave rebellion in 1804. "We worked for a long while before political events caused us to break up for a month in 2004, but we came back together and we kept on working," Labaze was quick to point out. "What we do is use the talent and the hunger for football to help overcome the hard way of life in Haiti. This is what the young players use as a way of making something better for themselves."
Despite its troubles, Haiti - where well over 75 percent of the population lives in abject poverty - is undoubtedly going through the best moment in its footballing history. In addition to unprecedented success at U-17 level, Haiti are currently U-20 and senior Caribbean champions - an unlikely triple success story for the country. Also, the seniors are undergoing a remarkable climb up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking , helped by recent friendly wins on the road against Honduras and El Salvador. Things are looking bright for the hopeful island ahead of this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup.
"It is their victory and they deserve it. I couldn't be more proud," the coach added about his U-17 team who, he hopes, will form the backbone of a great generation of Haitian senior players. "Hopefully we can keep the progress going."
Honduras, who finished second on home soil in the Group A qualifiers, will join the ever-improving Haiti as debutants in Korea this summer. The top three finishers in Group B qualifying in Jamaica from 28 April to 6 May will round out the five-team field from North, Central America and the Caribbean at the world finals. Hosts Jamaica, USA, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago and Canada will all battle it out in Kingston.