Logo for Haiti football
Wikimedia Commons/ Juanchocarbonero

World Cup respite for a Haiti on the brink

The power of sport to unify and inspire is unmistakable. But what about for a country in the depths of despair, a nation that even the UN concludes is on the ‘verge of an abyss’?

It is the contradiction that Haiti’s qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup presents. At once, a moment for celebration, it could not come at a worse time for a country experiencing a spiral of crises.

The assassination of its President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, followed by a second catastrophic earthquake in just over a decade in the August of that year, have triggered an ever-worsening political and economic crisis, yet to relent.

In addition to a state of lawlessness and widespread violence, the country is enduring a major public health crisis. 4.7 million people are facing acute hunger and there is an uncontrolled cholera outbreak, as a result of woeful sanitation. A humanitarian crisis of epic proportions is underway, which if it was not drowned by other headlines may be making far bigger reverberations.

A World Cup and the celebration that comes with it, can surely thus only fall on deaf ears: a pleasant but perfunctory distraction, a sideshow of a nation teetering on the edge.

Haiti’s women have to hope not. A David and Goliath battle awaits for the Caribbean nation, who will open their World Cup tilt to recently crowned European champions, England on 22 July.

But they have already done the hard part. Spearheaded by their leading light, soon-to-be Lyon’s Melchie Dumornay, they defeated Senegal and Chile to qualify through the inter-confederation play-offs. They will be one of a handful of debuting nations, also including Morocco and Panama, represented at this World Cup, a sign of women’s football’s ever-global reach.

Haiti needs help. Football cannot solve everything. But it can change lives, make people smile and others look. Haiti’s footballers can do just that

“This qualification means a lot to Haiti and the Haitian people,” Haitian Times journalist Jukahenson Blaise explained. “The team is making history for Haitian women’s football. It is historic and gives hope to the game in this country, because almost all of the players were trained in Haiti.”

Their achievement is, by any measure, staggering. The last and only time, Haiti’s blue-and-red flag featured in a World Cup was in 1974. Things were different yet all too familiar then. The nation’s President, Jean-Claude Duvalier, commonly known as ‘Baby Doc’, was three years into a fifteen-year tenure. The nation had been ruled by the Duvalier family since 1956, with Jean-Claude’s father François, or ‘Papa Doc’, in charge before him. State terror was commonplace and the nation experienced a mass exodus of citizens fleeing for better prospects.

The odds were stacked against the Haitians that summer. Their group was packed with tournament contenders in Italy, Argentina and Poland. Three defeats and a goal record of 2-11 quickly followed.

It was a unique opportunity for the island nation however, a chance to speak to the whole world. That they did. The attractive orange of their strips and tenacity of their play endeared many. In their opening game to then-two time champions Italy, they even took the lead, ending Dino Zoff’s run of 1,142 minutes in goal without conceding.

All of it masked a deeper, darker narrative at play. ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, not the first authoritarian leader to identify sport’s political potential, had syphoned off US humanitarian aid to fund the development of sport in his country. A mid-tournament positive drug test for defender Ernst Jean-Joseph was met with force from the Haitian administration. He was held hostage, beaten and returned to Haiti in a saga masked in subterfuge, the details still murky. The light and hope of that summer was snuffed out.

In a world of even greater noise this time around, Haiti’s women have a difficult job of cutting through. But journalist Blaise is confident.

“The qualification has somehow given a smile to the people terrorised by gang violence. We have reason to rejoice. This can encourage the Haitians who have been on the point of losing hope.”

His dream for what this campaign will say to the world about Haiti? “That it will show how badass we Haitians are who will not give up and that, despite the bad circumstances, we will continue to smile. A message that will make it clear that Haitians want to live and are ready to fight for their wellbeing.”

A reason to smile, a breath of fresh air.

Haiti is a proud nation. Its people were the first to bravely overthrow slavery in 1794. They have stood against the transatlantic slave trade, autocracy and foreign intervention. But now Haiti needs help. Football cannot solve everything. But it can change lives, make people smile and others look. Haiti’s footballers can do just that.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.