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Love-Haiti dynamic

Soccer is a religion, and a rare unifying force, for strife-torn nation

June 06, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — It's late on a Sunday afternoon, the skies are slate gray with the threat of another violent South Florida rainstorm and the field is more gravel than grass. Yet the aluminum grandstands at Florida International University will soon be packed with more than 10,000 soccer fans wearing T-shirts, jackets and bandanas in the familiar blue and red of the Haitian flag.

The match is just a "friendly" between teams from neighboring churches in Miami's burgeoning Haitian community. And the level of play is spotty at best. But none of that seems to matter.

"For the Haitian people, soccer is a religion by itself," says a fan who identifies himself as Pastor Boul, the Creole word for ball. "It's the only thing that gathers everyone together."

And few people are more in need of unity than Haiti's. Wracked by decades of poverty, crushing unemployment and bloody street violence, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere -- one termed "a failed state" by the United Nations -- is long overdue for a little good news. Which is where Haiti's national soccer program comes in.

In January, Haiti stunned Trinidad and Tobago to win the Caribbean Cup for the first time in its history. That also qualified Haiti's team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where it begins play today against Guadeloupe in Miami's Orange Bowl before what organizers expect will be a large and raucous pro-Haitian crowd.

The United States and Mexico are overwhelming favorites in the Gold Cup, although Haiti is seen as having a chance to reach the quarterfinals. Within the Caribbean soccer community, Haiti has long been ranked behind Trinidad and Tobago -- which played in the 2006 World Cup -- and Jamaica, which last appeared in the World Cup in 1998.

Still, if Haiti advanced to the Gold Cup's quarterfinals, it would mark a successful showing for a country that made its only appearance in the World Cup in 1974.

"In every country you have to have something that can bring people joy," says Jamil Jean Jacques, a midfielder on the Haitian national team. "If we win the Gold Cup, I think a lot of things are going to change. People are going to enjoy it.

"The president couldn't bring the Haitian people joy. Soccer. That's the only [thing] that can bring the Haitian people satisfaction."

Jacques knows firsthand about the transformative powers of soccer. Three years ago his father was killed in a street clash in Haiti.

"It was because of the violence," he says, using the catch-all phrase many Haitians employ to describe the years of terror inspired by street thugs and kidnappers, whose grip on the country is only now beginning to loosen. Instead Jacques and his brother, Bitielo, have taken their silent anger out on the soccer field with Jamil carrying the national team into the Gold Cup and Bitielo helping the junior team earn its first-ever qualifying to the FIFA U-17 World Cup this summer.

"The violence in Haiti is really bad right now," Jacques said. "But we players, we know the need to let the Haitian people forget about violence for a moment. Right now the violence has slowed down because they know Haiti is going to play [for] the Gold Cup."

Stephane Guillaume, a national team defender, agrees. "In Haiti, there's a lot of problems that only soccer can solve ... because they love that," he says. "When soccer's being played, the Haitian people forget about everything."

Even the kidnappers take a break.

"Kidnapping has become an industry where those guys are making money off of that," says Jacques Fitzgerald Lemoine, who fled Haiti as a teenager but returns frequently to visit family. "But when Haiti is playing soccer, those guys are Haitian too. During the games they are at home watching. There's no crime when there's a soccer game."

The sport's importance in Haitian society dates to pre-Columbian times when the Taino Indians, who then inhabited the island, celebrated important festivals with a game that closely resembled modern-day soccer. Despite the country's limited international success in soccer, the sport maintains an emotional hold on Haiti. Virtually every street and vacant plot of land there has been pressed into service as a soccer pitch at one time or another. "Soccer is everywhere in Haiti. That's how I started playing: in the streets, playing with kids," Jacques says.

Haitian soccer got its next big push from Pele and the Brazilian national team, which together won three World Cups from 1958 to 1970. Ninety-five percent of the Haitian population is black, so the success of Brazil's largely black team was inspiring.

"Brazil was the first team to win the World Cup with blacks. And the greatest player in soccer was a black guy," says Lemoine, a mortgage broker in Florida, home to more than 40% of the half-million Haitians living in the U.S. "So Haiti embraced soccer like Canada embraced hockey."

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