Archive for June, 2013



This article, by Natalia Guerrero, originally appeared on the BBC Mundo (the Spanish-language BBC) site on 10 June 2013; all credit should be given to her. The original article can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2013/06/130609_cultura_haiti_espana_cronica_miami_ng.shtml.

24 hours before their game against Spain, Haiti’s national football team still doesn’t have a kit or anywhere to train. It’s raining non-stop in Miami and Haiti’s limited resources mean they’re unable to hire somewhere undercover to practice.

Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, had sent their team to this American city to face Spain – the world champions – for the first time in their history. The incentives for setting up the clash included the presence of the Spanish superstars, the agreement that, for every spectator attending the game, $1 would be donated to Haiti, and moreover, the chance to see a classic David versus Goliath encounter.

However, the feeling of jubilation enjoyed by almost all of the 37,000 fans at the Sun Life stadium when the Haitian forward Donald Guerrier scored his country’s only goal against Spain contrasted with the team’s reality for the rest of the week. BBC Mundo accompanied the lonely Haitian team on their journey to play the world’s favourite team.

Extra Shirt

It’s 3:30 on Friday evening – the day before the game –  and the kit is due to arrive at the hotel where the team are staying. The Colombian Miguel Trujillo, the Haiti Football Federation’s exclusive agent, is feeling stressed. He doesn’t want the players or the coaching staff to arrive at the press conference without a shirt to wear. “They have to be equal to Spain. Haiti is beginning a new era in which it won’t lack the basics. We’re not inferior to anyone,” affirms the agent.

Miguel Trujillo presents the new shirt to one of the Haitian players (Photo: BBC)

However, Trujillo has had to jump through all kinds of hoops to make sure the eleven boxes of kit arrive on time.  They come from Colombia because Saeta, a sports clothes manufacturer, agreed to sponsor Haiti with high-tech kit. Their contract with the Haitian Football Federation, according to Trujillo, will last 4 years, in which time the company will invest close to $1 million; their shirts will be sold online and through the Federation.

But according to defender Judelain Aveska, the most exciting part of the agreement is that the players are now able to exchange shirts with their opponents at the end of a game – something that was previously unthinkable: if they’d given their shirt away in the past, they wouldn’t have had a shirt to wear in the next game.

A Turbulent Week

That Friday, Haitian officials had managed to secure the use of a playing field on the outskirts of Miami. Training lasted less than ten minutes. The players began to form two circles, but while they filled the field with their singing and laughter, it began to hail, and they were forced to take shelter. After two hours of waiting hopelessly for the weather to clear up, Blake Cantero – the team’s technical director, of Cuban origin – was concerned; his team were unable to train, partly because of the rain and partly because they’d only arrived the day before.

“We are Cubans, they don’t give us the Visa easily,” he told us, to explain the delay, adding that the side’s fitness coach – also Cuban – hadn’t received his Visa in time for the match. Cantero asked the players to board the bus and assured us that he would get them to jog along the corridors of the hotel, because “they can’t arrive like this tomorrow.”

The two Cubans have been in charge of Haiti’s national team for little over a year; their presence in the team is based on an agreement between the football federations of the two countries which is understood as a Cuban mission in Haiti. Each one has been allocated a monthly salary of $1,000 – all the Haitian Federation can afford given it has just one sponsor. To put that in perspective, their wage is roughly 158 times less than what Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque earned in 2012.

Life After Death

The earthquake in 2010, which devastated the country and caused more than 200,000 deaths, instilled in the players a renewed sense  of responsibility for their country. This has resulted in an improvement in the FIFA World Rankings: Haiti has gone up 18 places in the last two years and are now ranked 63rd – above countries with economic conditions much more favourable for sport, and with more experience in international competition.

“After the earthquake, something very strong happened in the players – a positive reaction to the tragedy. We understood that we were playing not only for ourselves…now we have a concrete way of obtaining money for our country,” says midfielder Jean-Marc Alexandre.

The whole stadium celebrated Haiti’s goal against the world champions (Photo: BBC)

One of the first examples of that “concrete” method of helping their country occurred just a few days after the earthquake. The team travelled to Germany for a game; the money raised by the match was donated to the Haitian government. Almost half a million dollars were raised – money which was invested in the reconstruction of the Football Federation’s Headquarters (which had disappeared with the tragedy)  and in the building and improvement of football facilities.

The Federation now boasts its own bus and a school for children in which they’re given training, education, food and free accommodation as a way of escaping their difficult environments.

“The ball is a little round thing and it’s for everyone”

Before the game, Judelain Aveska, a defender for Independiente de Rivadavia in the Argentine second tier, forms an imaginary sphere with his hands. I ask him if he thinks Haiti can beat Spain, and he tells me – in Spanish, with an Argentine accent – “the ball’s a little round thing, and it’s for everyone”.

His team-mate Jean-Marc Alexandre, a player for American side Orlando City, agrees that the two teams have the same possibilities: “We respect them, but it doesn’t mean we can’t beat them. We’re ready and excited to play,” he told BBC Mundo. Both players are Christians, and revealed that they often pray before a match. “Before I go out on the pitch, I pray that my opponent doesn’t get injured, because an injury can end your life,” says Jean-Marc

“We’re not aliens”

Despite losing 2-1 to Spain, the Haitian players are content at the final whistle. Fans gather in front of the team bus at the stadium exit to greet the Haitians as if they’d won, asking for autographs and pictures. Minutes later, in the press conference inside the stadium, goalscorer Donald Guerrier is sat between coach Cantero and a translator. He looks happy; he says his goal was dedicated to his son, born the previous day.

Although Guerrier has been patient with the journalists’ repetitive questions, this time he decides to answer more bluntly: asked how he feels, having scored against the best team in the world, he retorts: “I’m not an alien, I’m a human and my job is to score goals if the ball comes to me. On the pitch, we’re all equal.”

With that attitude, the Haitian team left later that day for Brazil, with another friendly lined up against Italy on Tuesday.

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In this age of world football television coverage and instant internet connection, it’s unusual to have a team of unknown quantity at a major competition, but that’s exactly how Tahiti appear to many football fans looking forward to this month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.

In fairness, it’s hardly surprising that few are familiar with either Tahiti or their players – this is the first time Toa Aito have qualified for a major tournament; they have never reached the World Cup finals, and last year’s Oceania Nations Cup victory – which earned Tahiti a place at the Confederations Cup – was the first time the country has come out on top in their region.

The turnaround in fortunes has been incredibly quick: historically an also-ran in the Oceania Confederation, as recently as 2007 Tahiti failed to even qualify for the Nations Cup, faring only marginally better than minnows Tuvalu and the Cook Islands in the qualification process. The team’s future looked bleak, and even the most optimistic of Tahitians would have ruled out any major success in the foreseeable future. Credit must be given to the Fédération Tahitienne de Football, who recognised the need for change and have managed an impressively rapid rate of improvement.

Tahiti celebrate an unlikely triumph at the 2012 Nations Cup

Their efforts culminated in the hiring of Eddy Etaeta, an ex-Tahiti international as a player, as the country’s new manager in 2010. Etaeta, only 43 himself, has successfully blooded a new generation of youngsters – over half of the squad for the Confederations Cup are aged 24 and under. Many of these fresh faces came from the national under-20 team, which had reached the U-20 World Cup for the first time in Tahiti’s history in 2009.

Inevitably, for a nation of around 250,000, Etaeta’s squad is bereft of the kind of big names that Tahiti’s Group B rivals Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria possess, but the coach has been able to make one quality addition to his almost exclusively locally-based group. AS Nancy striker Marama Vahirua, born in the Tahitian capital Papeete, has finally linked up with his compatriots, having spent most of his career in France. Vahirua is set to make his international debut at the unusually ripe age of 33, but his vast experience at Ligue 1 level should prove beneficial for a Tahiti squad lacking in knowledge of European playing styles.

His playing CV may be significantly more impressive than his team-mates’, but Etaeta insists there will be no favourable treatment in the dressing room: “We don’t have any key players. We have always put the spotlight on the bigger picture: the state of mind and being a group. For me, the star is the whole team.” Nevertheless, Vahirua looks like the side’s best bet for a goal at the finals.

A cursory glance at the remainder of Etaeta’s squad list returns the oddity of no fewer than four players with the same surname: brothers Alvin, Lorenzo  and Jonathan Tehau will all be competing for midfield places, while their cousin Teaonui has recently made the breakthrough to the senior side as a promising forward. Says Alvin, “I’m very proud to play in the national team with my family. We are a unit…I think it helps the team as a whole.”

Captain Nicholas Vallar also boasts professional experience, having spent three years at Montpellier; after spells at lower-league clubs in France and Portugal, the 29-year-old returned home in 2009 to play for AS Dragon, Tahiti’s current league champions. Striker Steevy Chong-Hue, of mixed Chinese-Tahitian heritage, similarly made the jump to Europe – joining Belgium’s BX Brussels, recently taken over by Vincent Kompany – before re-signing for AS Dragon.

Tahiti will play Spain at the Maracanã on 20 June – slightly more luxurious surroundings than their 10,000 capacity Stade Hamuta

With the 2012 Nations Cup final Tahiti’s last competitive fixture, Etaeta set up a game  in February of this year against Australian outfit Sydney FC, which the A-League franchise comfortably won 4-0. A more recent tour of Chile yielded wins over Universidad de Chile’s under-20 team and second tier Deportes Magallanes, but in their last warm-up game Tahiti were thrashed 7-0 by Chile’s under-20 side.

Results haven’t exactly been reassuring ahead of the country’s biggest test yet, then, and even the two victories are of doubtful use: the gulf in class between the Chilean second division and world champions Spain is wider than Etaeta’s grin will be if Tahiti pull off an upset or two later this month. However, the Fédération Tahitienne de Football have defended the decision to play low-key opposition, citing the need to “build confidence for the future”. Etaeta concurs: “We’re not in denial – we know 8-10 weeks of professional training isn’t going to make up for the 10 years of professionalism that separates us from Spain or Uruguay.”

However, the mild confidence-building of those wins will surely have been ruined by the 7-0 hammering which followed. Etaeta will have a huge job on his hands if he is to convince his players they are capable of taking on Xavi, Iniesta and co, and the flight to Brazil the day after the under-20 defeat was no doubt in more sombre spirits than is healthy given the size of the task ahead.

And the team’s spirit will have been further damaged by Tahiti’s disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign which ended in elimination in March – with Toa Aito having just one win and two goals to their name after six games. Upsets in Brazil, then, are unlikely, but at least Etaeta is realistic in his targets for the upcoming tournament: “to not concede any goals in a half would be impressive in itself. But above all, to score a goal would be a huge achievement.” That seems reasonable, and you have to hope the minnows have a Hollywood ending to a story no-one could have dreamt up a year ago.