Haitian spirit helps to revive national sport
Since being struck by a major earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti’s priorities have been diverted from sports. Now, the country has recovered sufficiently enough to begin preparations for World Cup qualifying.
Many difficulties remain, though, and among those facing the Fédération Haïtienne de Football is finding a place to play, since the national stadium, Stade Sylvio Cator, is being used to house refugees from the disaster.
But the team found a home away from home at Harvard Stadium Sunday. A crowd of 11,513 arrived for a benefit match between the Haitians and Harvard’s squad. And it wasn’t just the size of the crowd — 3,000-plus more than attended the Revolution-Real Salt Lake match Saturday — that was impressive, it was the spirit of the fans at the 0-0 draw.
Soccer is a unifying force for Haitians and it is an activity that has brought the country positive attention in the past. The national team made a strong impression in qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, then threatened to upset Italy as Manu Sanon gave the Haitians the lead in a first-round game in Munich.
But the success of the ‘74 team has also haunted Haiti. The national team has not matched that achievement, and the country’s sporting infrastructure has become outdated as political and socio-economic systems have faltered. The stadium, once a proud symbol, deteriorated to the point it could not be used for international competitions. A visit from Brazil’s national team helped revive hope in Stade Cator, named for one of the region’s most remarkable athletes — Sylvio Cator captained the national team and won a silver medal in the 1928 Olympics before being elected mayor of Port-au-Prince. After the earthquake, though, modernizing the stadium has been postponed.
So, Sunday’s match, a benefit for Haiti Leve and Partners in Health, helped focus attention on solutions for disaster recovery.
“As you know, Haitian people are crazy about soccer, it is the national sport in Haiti,’’ said Julio Midy of Radio Concorde, which broadcast the match on 1580-AM. “The main purpose of this is fund-raising, to help the building of a hospital in the central part of Haiti, in Mirebalais. So, the people see it as dual responsibilities — yes, they want to support the national team but at the same time they want to contribute to the building of the hospital.’’
There was a festive atmosphere outside Harvard Stadium before the game, much of the crowd surrounding food concessions, a stage for musicians, booths collecting donations. Once the match started, the fans got into the spirit. Actually, the spectators brought about the same involvement and sophistication as a Sunday crowd for matches at Almont Park in Mattapan, but on a much larger scale.
“We have to understand when we play outside of Haiti, like in Florida, the Federation makes more money,’’ Midy said. “Because in Florida you can charge $20 for a ticket. When you play in Haiti, even though the stadium is full, people are not going to pay as much.’’
But hosting matches at Stade Cator is crucial for the national team’s success. The final qualifying tournament for the ‘74 World Cup was staged in Port-au-Prince, providing an exceptional home-field advantage for Haiti. The Haitian team then proved it was worthy of advancing to the finals, several members performing for clubs in Europe and in the North American Soccer League.
The Haiti team traveling through the US — it defeated Dartmouth, 2-1, Friday night — is the Under-23 version, and it is filled with prospects. Jean Baptiste Fritzson, who played on the right wing, performed for the Revolution on a trial basis in an exhibition game against Benfica last year.
“We are working and working to go to the World Cup 2014,’’ said Fritzson, who plays for Aigle Noir in Haiti. “I’ll take this moment to tell the people to come and support us like this, because we are working. We have a lot of young guys on the team and we are working every day to get that ticket to the World Cup.’’
Haiti’s Brazilian coaching staff has been impressed by the island’s talent level.
“There are very good players, and they will get better,’’ said goalkeeper coach Felipe Bastos. “But they are missing a lot of the conditions you need outside the field. The federation is trying to get some things done but there are many problems, starting with the destruction of the country.
“It’s a poor country, it’s a country that has been destroyed. But the people have another motive to smile and that’s because of futebol, it makes people happy. There are a lot of fans and they are fanaticos. You go to the stadium for the league games and they are there, and this was a manifestation of that.’’
Haiti was the only Caribbean country to advance to the World Cup finals from 1938 through ‘98, when Jamaica qualified. And Haitian players are still expected to perform to high standards.
“Unfortunately, from 1974 to now we cannot say the game has been improving,’’ Midy said. “But in 1974, you have to take into consideration when we went to Germany there were only 16 countries. Today, the number has doubled. Of course, now, the game is very complicated, very sophisticated. In order for the soccer in your country [to progress] you need a lot of money. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, but, hey, you never know. Someday, we may have another 1974.’’
Answering the call Boston College midfielder Kristie Mewis and five Boston Breakers — defenders Rachel Buehler, Stephanie Cox, and Amy LePeilbet, midfielder Kelley O’Hara, and forward Lauren Cheney — were named to a 29-player US national team in preparation for the Women’s World Cup. Practice sessions will be held April 18-May 6 in West Palm Beach, Fla., with players to be released for WPS games. The Breakers, who defeated Atlanta, 4-1, in their season opener, will host Western New York at Harvard Sunday. The Western New York team includes Brazilian striker Marta, plus Canadian Christine Sinclair, and US forward Alex Morgan.
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.