‘An All-Heart Effort’: Haiti’s Copa America Berth Inspires a Nation On the Mend

Haiti’s national team begin their Copa America quest on Sunday in Seattle. Photograph: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Haiti’s national team begin their Copa America quest on Sunday in Seattle. Photograph: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Six years after a catastrophic earthquake, Haiti take aim at Copa America in the island nation’s biggest soccer moment since qualifying for the 1974 World Cup

When the Haitian national anthem permeates the Seattle air on Sunday night, raw emotion will fill a proud nation’s heart.

On hearing the poetic La Dessalinienne, minds will flash back to Port au Prince, the country’s brilliantly chaotic capital – a battered, beautiful, historic part of the world which has been ravaged with unimaginable hardships no one should ever experience.

There will be one hell of a party on the heaving streets where, just six years ago, a devastating earthquake struck, killing over 150,000 people and leaving a rebuilding job which, for one of the world’s poorest countries, will take years to complete. That’s if it’s ever finished at all.

Crowds will swarm around solitary TV sets to watch Haiti’s biggest moment in soccer since their qualification for the World Cup in 1974. The opening match against Peru will be followed by a meeting with Brazil in Orlando and a final clash with Ecuador in New York.

Naturally, Haitian hopes of reaching the latter stages in their first ever Copa are faint. This is a team, currently ranked an admirable 71st in the world, who following the nightmare of 2010 didn’t play for six months and were unable to stage matches in their own country for two years.

The national stadium was used as a refugee camp for the thousands who had been displaced.

Coaches and players were killed. Any footballing infrastructure was destroyed. The road to the Copa America Centenario has been long and arduous.

Yet out of the darkness shines light.

This proud country is in the process of rebuilding itself and, though heartbreaking problems remain, sport will offer temporary respite from the repercussions of Mother Nature’s cruelest twist of fate.

“When the national team is playing there is peace in the country for 90 minutes,” midfielder Jean-Marc Alexandre told the Guardian. “People aren’t thinking about being hungry. They aren’t thinking about poverty. They are just enjoying the game.

“Before the earthquake, we had been going well. We were going up in the rankings, but that whole period hurt us. We had some coaches, one guy who was very instrumental in youth football, who passed away. Some players died. It was such a tragedy.

“We recovered and are still recovering from it. Most of our games were in the US or other places. The first time we played in Haiti after the earthquake, the stadium was packed. It was one of the best atmospheres I have experienced. As players, whether we like it or not, we play a huge role in the country.

“Because when the national team does well, there is peace in the country and there is happiness. We are excited and proud to represent Haiti in the tournament.

“We’ve thought about our feelings when the national anthem will play. When the national team comes together, everyone – from the players to all the coaching staff – its an all-heart effort. We give 100% because we know the reality in Haiti. We know what we stand for. We may not have the money to fix all the problems there, but with the talent God has given us, we can suppress it for a few hours.”

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SOURCE: The Guardian – Steve Brenner