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.
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.
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.
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.