France and Haiti could not have got off to a worse start to their respective FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 campaigns. While the Bleuets went down to Nigeria (1-2), the Haitians suffered a rather cruel defeat at the hands of Japan (1-3) despite making a positive impression. So, already, it is a case of backs to the wall for both teams as they go into their encounter at the Soccer Only Field in Gwangyang on Wednesday.
Beyond the three points at stake, this encounter between France and her far-flung Caribbean cousin is one that is guaranteed to stir the emotions, as it is full of historical resonance. Haiti, part of the Island of Hispaniola, is a former French colony, whose origins lie in a slave revolt at the end of the 18th century. Two centuries on, there is no question of animosity or revenge. Quite the contrary. The ancient colonial power is more considered as an old family member than an enemy.
With the wisdom and well chosen words that characterise him, Jean Yves Labaze, Haiti's coach, describes Wednesday's match as being like a joyful family reunion. "The match against France, given our common past, is a little bit like the relationship between a father and his son," Labaze tells FIFA.com. "There is occasionally rivalry, but always respect." His French counterpart, Francois Blaquart, struck a very similar note following his team's opening defeat against Nigeria. "Haiti is like a member of the family. We can only rejoice at the presence here and congratulate them for making it to this level."
Haitians look within their souls
However, in spite of the respect and affection between the two nations, this is a decisive match which could do a lot of damage to the hopes of the losers. Beaten in their opening games, the two sides both need a victory if they are to avoid an early flight home. "I am not saying that we can't afford to make any mistakes, but we can't afford to make big mistakes" says Blaquart. "This is a special match, that's for sure, but for us, first and foremost it is about taking three points."
While on paper, this encounter looks like a mismatch, the Haitians showed during their first game that they are good enough to cause problems for bigger teams. But even if their dream of qualification for the next round comes to an end on Wednesday, the CONCACAF representatives know that their journey to Korea has not been in vain. "We came here wanting to learn, because we are still very young," explains the Haitian coach. "When we play against bigger nations, it is like asking questions of our own souls. We asked those questions against Japan and we got our answers: a lack of attention and concentration cost us three goals. Now we have the first answers, But we are quick learners and we will not need to ask the same questions against France."
The Bleuets, for their part, will be trying to avoid asking the same questions of themselves, both when it comes to history and to qualification. Damien Le Tallec tells FIFA.com that in the French camp, the only thing that matters are the three points needed to keep their dream alive. "For us, the main thing is to go out and get a victory. Clearly this is a special match, but for them more than for us. They will be even more motivated against France than they are against other teams."
Lessons from history
Blaquart's proteges might do well to pay attention to more recent history, at least when it comes to football. Recent encounters between French sides and those of her former colonies have not produced many fond memories. Most recently, in their last group game at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, Zinedine Zidane and Co had to pull out all the stops to scrape past Togo and into the quarter-finals.
Having done so, the Bleus' World Cup adventure took them all the way to the Final in Berlin, where they eventually lost out to Italy. However, four years earlier, by the time the competition reached the knockout stages, the French team were already watching on TV. France went into the 2002 FIFA World Cup as reigning champions, and kicked off their defence of the trophy against yet another former colony, Senegal. Playing at the finals for the first time in their history the Teranga Lions played the match of their lives to score a famous victory over a French team containing the likes of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Fabien Barthez and Thierry Henry.
Ironically enough, that venue for that particular triumph for David over Goliath was, of course, the Korean Republic! Haiti might just start getting ideas...