The best proof of that is the confidence displayed by coach Jean-Yves Labaze, the man who steered the former French colony to their first ever FIFA World Cup at this level. "Our goal is clear: we want to get past the first round," he told after a sun-drenched training session in Gwangyang. "We know we're small, but that doesn't mean we've lost before we even start. As in every tournament, we're here to try and put in good performances in each match and secure an honourable finishing place."

"Of course we haven't come here to be world champions," he continued. "We hope to give a good account of ourselves and learn a lot. We're still a small team and taking part in a competition like this is our chance to ask questions of the big sides. At the end, we hope to leave a little bit bigger ourselves!"

Should his charges fall at the group stage, however, Labaze would not automatically regard that as a failure: "We know we're in a difficult group as we're up against two-time world champions Nigeria, former world champions France and Asian champions Japan. If we don't qualify but manage to do great things in each match, we can be proud of that and leave with our heads held high."

Giving hope to the Haitian people
Drawn in one of the tournament's most daunting groups, the diminutive Caribbean nation see themselves as anything but lambs to the slaughter, despite the obvious talent and sparkling history of their opponents. "Everyone sees us as the outsiders of the group, and even of the whole competition, but that doesn't frighten us," explained Labaze. "In the qualifiers, we were in the same situation and look what happened. We played without fear against Mexico and that served us well (1-1). Now Haiti are here in Korea and the reigning world champions are at home."

In a country where economic, social and political problems have led to poverty and instability, qualification gave Haiti's eight million inhabitants something to smile about, and the country is rightly proud of its young representatives. "We were welcomed like heroes at the airport and we ended up having to walk," remembers Labaze with fondness. "We didn't just give the Haitian people joy, we gave them hope. We stirred enthusiasm and showed that with a little seriousness and application, you can achieve great things."

Fully conscious of the important social role football can play in a crisis-torn nation, the coach lobbied for the establishment of a training centre in Port au Prince. "Haiti has political and social problems and football can act as an ambassador, giving a different image of the country," he said. "Seeing the Haitian flag alongside the Nigerian, French and Japanese flags today fills me with pride. I wouldn't have wanted to be a political ambassador and, to be honest, I don't even know how to spell 'political' (laughs). But in spite of everything I became an ambassador for my nation."

Unity is strength
He clearly takes the responsibility seriously top, and the principle he is most determined to instil in his players is 'Unity is strength', the national motto that adorns the Haitian flag: "I recall President Aristide (Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former President of Haiti) saying, 'When you are alone, you are weak.' Unity is strength in the way we play the game too. We've made a huge point of insisting on solidarity between our lines. Everyone needs to lend a helping hand to their team-mates."

A wily tactician and capable leader of men, Jean-Yves Labaze has also been stressing the mental side of the sport as he prepares his troops to take their bow in the tournament. "The psychological side of things is very important in a World Cup," he remarked. "We need to make the players understand that the fate of a game can change in a second due to a moment of weakness, a lack of concentration or failure to pay attention."

"In contrast with the other teams, we don't know about our opponents. Everyone knows everyone in modern football, but we just don't have the same resources. We can't afford to send someone to study our rivals, so we prefer to concentrate on our own play."

That clearly does not worry the Haitian trainer unduly, and he is confident his players have other strengths to rely on. "We don't know anyone, but we're not afraid of anyone either," he promised. "Several teams have players who are already professionals, so a match against Haiti is like a match between professional and amateur football. The pros play to earn their living, while the amateurs play for honour." With honour being anything but an empty word in Haiti, their opponents can consider themselves warned.