After overcoming every obstacle in his path to date, Haiti left-back Lesley Fellinga has an amazing story to tell - the kind that football has a habit of throwing up every so often. The Haitian is hungry for yet more challenges, however, and having completed a move to Dutch side Heerenveen, he is preparing to help his national side negotiate Round Three of the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Modest, easy-going and excited at what the future might bring, Fellinga spoke to FIFA.com about his remarkable journey to the Netherlands, life in his adopted country, his surprise call-up for Haiti and the prospect of giving his compatriots something to celebrate.
As Fellinga acknowledges, good fortune has played a big part in his life. "I came to Holland when I was five months old and I was very lucky because I was adopted by some wonderful foster parents who are very kind-hearted. It's an honour for me to live in this country because a lot of Haitians don't get opportunities like this and their lives are totally different."
Making the most of his surroundings as he grew up, Lesley nurtured his talent as a footballer, turning out for Groningen and Veendam before moving to current club Heerenveen. Having made a name for himself, the defender was then given the chance to represent his native Haiti. As a smiling Fellinga recalls, though, the invitation came in fairly unusual circumstances.
"It was funny. One day I was sitting at college with another player I'd played against a few times. I didn't know he was originally from Haiti too but we got chatting and he told me the Haitian FA had been in touch with him. He put me in touch with them and after having a trial I made my debut with the national side. I've been with them ever since."
And as the 22-year-old explains, he is entirely at ease with his dual allegiance to the countries closest to his heart. "I'd lived in Holland for a long time before visiting Haiti, but when I finally set foot in my native country I felt right at home. The people there are so warm and friendly that I feel privileged every time I go back."
The moment of truth
Fully committed to the Haitian cause, Lesley is now preparing for the assault on the third phase of the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, with Group 3 opponents Suriname providing the first hurdle for Wagneau Eloi's side next week.
"These are the biggest matches of my life from this point on," he says. "Getting to the World Cup finals is very important to us because they're being held in Africa and all the players in the team are of African descent. It's a bit like going home for us really."
Although Eloi's squad features players from many different backgrounds, Fellinga and his team-mates go to every length to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers.
"The spirit in the team is excellent. What's more, I learned French at school as well as Creole (the most widely spoken language in Haiti). I've got books in the two languages and whenever I come across a word I don't know, I just look it up in the dictionary."
While Haiti seem ready for the challenge ahead, what kind of football can we expect from Eloi's charges? Who better to ask than our man on the inside?
"The coach is from Europe and we've got a few players who play there too so we'll be using a 4-3-3 formation. It's very hot in the Caribbean and we know we won't be able to keep the same pace up for 90 minutes. We'll be taking our time and attacking when we have to. That doesn't mean to say we won't be going in for every ball, though."
Accustomed to everyday struggles in one of the world's poorest countries, the people of Haiti are intensely passionate about their football team and take great pride in it.
"We have to put Haiti on the map," affirms Fellinga, conscious of his obligations to the fans. "
Not only will victory against Suriname please the fans, it will also give Haiti the confidence they need for future showdowns with group favourites Costa Rica and El Salvador. Given such pressing professional engagements, Haiti's Dutch recruit is content to put his personal life on hold...for the time being, that is.
"I don't have a girlfriend or any children," says the happy-go-lucky defender. "I really don't have any time for that right now. But as soon as things settle down a bit I'm going to find myself a beautiful woman to share my life with. You can be sure of that."