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All to play for: can the World Cup save Haiti?

Ramon Espinosa/AP/Press Association Images

It was inevitable that the heavens would open and rain on Haiti’s parade. Dark clouds had swirled, rumbled and flashed portentously around Port-au-Prince, its shattered capital, for three days without delivering the promised rain to take the sting out of the brutal summer heat. But it arrives, two hours before kick-off, as 10,000 Haitians try to crush through the one door into the Sylvio Cator stadium.

A police blockade had been thrown around the stadium, such was the fear that Haiti’s fragile civil truce would be blown apart by the Haitian national team’s first qualifying match for the 2014 World Cup against the minnows from the US Virgin Islands.


Haiti’s Sylvio Cator stadium became a refugee camp in the aftermath of the earthquake. Photo: Fred Chartrand/AP/Press Association Images

The stadium itself had become a slum for hundreds of families, just one of the hellish tented cities built on any scrap of open space left by the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince in January 2010. The families had now been moved on, their presence erased with a lick of paint and a new artificial pitch laid a few days before, with a rumoured pay-off from the government as compensation. They joined the swollen numbers in the torn ribbon of blue tents that surround the stadium on all sides.

Inside the stadium, Creole rap music is being played at ear-splitting level. The smell is of fresh paint, burning refuse and excrement from the open sewers nearby. The crowd pushes forward in the hope of getting in; the police use shields and clubs to beat them back. It’s chaos, but such is the passion for football in Haiti, that a match pitting Les Grenadiers against a tiny team like the US Virgin Islands brings the country to a standstill.

“I am very happy, we will have our victory. This will be a victory for all of Haiti,” says Johnny, a 28-year-old engineer and translator from the suburb of Pétionville waiting in line behind the crowd, which is by now threatening to spiral out of control. Children perched on their fathers’ shoulders cry as those at the front are pressed up against the blue metal gate. And then the rain comes, slowly at first, growing into a torrential downpour just in time to dampen the anger as the fans run to take cover.

“Life is very hard here,” Johnny adds. “With God everything is possible. But this is the reason why football can change something. I hope Haiti scores ten goals.”

Rewind to 24 hours before kick-off. In a rare break from the clouds, the sun beats down mercilessly on the workers trying to scrub off the scars of destitution left on the terraces of the Sylvio Cator stadium. Men with pots of blue, red and yellow paint, the colour of the Haitian flag, furiously coat and re-coat the steps. The families that lived here are gone, and their traces will remain for only a few hours more. A guard wearing a Haitian Football Federation T-shirt paces nervously in front of the heavy, blue steel door that separates the workers from the chaos outside in downtown Port-au-Prince, his pump-action shotgun held tightly in his right hand. His finger grips the trigger when anyone bangs loudly on the metal to enter the stadium. He pulls the door slowly open and gingerly pokes his head out to see who it is. Usually they are met with a firm volley of abuse in Creole, but this time it is the guests he has been expecting.

The Haitian national team’s bus has arrived for training in advance of one of the most important matches in their history. This isn’t just a World Cup qualifier. It is also the country’s first home game since as many as 300,000 people were killed when a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake reduced much of the city to rubble.

“It’s 46 degrees C on the pitch. We just measured it,” laments the team’s Brazilian coach, Edson Tavares. It is 3pm. The match is due to be played in 24 hours. “It’s crazy. Fifa agreed to move the match time.

“This is the country’s first home game since as many as 300,000 people were killed by a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake”

The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football said no. What do they know? They work out of New York and know nothing about the heat in the Caribbean.”

But the change in time, from an evening kick-off to mid-afternoon, was a necessity as much for the Haitians as anyone else. Electricity is scarce in the city, too scarce for the expensive-but-impotent flood lights that have been installed. The team don’t complain and start to run through their drills as Tavares takes shelter in the shade.

Haitian football, like virtually every aspect of Haitian society, was almost terminally injured when the earthquake hit. The Haitian Football Federation’s headquarters were levelled, killing more than 30 of the organisation’s staff. Its president, Yves Jean-Bart, somehow survived with a broken arm and joined the effort to pull survivors from the rubble with his other, functioning, one. Only one further survivor was found.


An aerial view of the damage caused by the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, January 2010. MSgt. Photo: Jeremy Lock/AP/Press Association Images

Faced with such devastation, many might consider football in Haiti to be of minor importance. But Jean-Bart, knowing that the game has such an entrenched place in Haiti’s heart, went on to rebuild the federation and hired a Brazilian coach to achieve the dream of emulating Haiti’s golden generation who qualified for the 1974 World Cup. They shocked the world back then, taking the lead against mighty Italy before succumbing in all three first-round matches.

“I arrived in September 2010, five months after the earthquake. My first thought was to take my flight back to Brazil,” says Tavares. His previous job was coach of Al Wasl FC in Dubai, but he gave up the calm of the UAE for the challenge of Haiti.

“You don’t realise how tough the situation was here. The country was completely devastated. Today is a paradise compared to that. You can see the miserable people, but if you compare with last year… you could be walking the street and find the [severed] legs of people, the arms of people.”

Tavares took a proactive approach to building the team. He paid for his own flight to Europe, hired a car and visited the 60 professional players of Haitian descent who play in France, England, Spain and beyond.

“I rented a car to travel to five countries to persuade the players to play for his original country. Only one refused. We contacted 20 players. And they are here. Most of them don’t speak Creole. One only speaks Italian. One only German.”

Children sit on the pitch and talk in the Sylvio Cator stadium which was used as a temporary home for many displaced people after the earthquake. Julie Jacobson/AP/Press Association Images

Children sit on the pitch and talk in the Sylvio Cator stadium, which was used as a temporary home for many displaced people after the earthquake. Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP/Press Association Images

The squad for the US Virgin Islands game was full of talented new professional players, many of whom had never been to Haiti before in their lives: players like Jean-Eudes Maurice, who is on Paris Saint-Germain’s books, and Kevin Lafrance, who plays in the Czech Republic. There’s also goalkeeper Steward Ceus, New York born and raised, who plays for Colorado Rapids.

“I was in college when I heard a buzz about Haiti being interested in seeing me,” Ceus explains.

“When I was drafted in to the MLS [America’s Major League Soccer] we had our first official communication. It took a bit of time to get ready [for] playing internationally. But coming here left me speechless. The fans come after training, before training, crowding around the bus. My passion for soccer has always been there and I always wished that the people around me shared that passion. For the first time I found the passion I’ve been looking for.”

Tavares hopes that the professionalism of his new team members will rub off on the local players, whom the Brazilian believes are some of the best in the world.  “I am telling you. In my 40 years of experience I have never seen a country with so many talents as here,” he says.“If you put these guys in Manchester United and Barcelona, they would be great players. The problem is to be a great player you need good food and a good environment. Here there is nothing.”

The Haiti football team train a day before their match against the US Virgin Islands. Photo: James Montague

The Haiti football team trains a day before its match against the US Virgin Islands. Photo: James Montague

His team of local players and foreign-born imports has given the Haiti national team a new lease of life. Their first challenge is to overcome the US Virgin Islands. Although “overcome” is a strong word. The USVI are one of the tiniest minnows in world football. Until May this year they were ranked 200th in the world by Fifa. Out of 203. The tiny triumvirate of Caribbean islands isn’t even a country, but a territory of the United States.

“We’re all amateurs, based between the three islands,” explains Reid Klopp, the team’s 27-year-old captain, who plays in central midfield. Klopp is a Christian who works for an NGO called Free Will Baptist, an evangelical outreach programme designed to persuade the islands’ youth to find God.

“We’re all American citizens, we all have US passports… Some guys are in college in the States and coming back for the team, some of them work in construction. We are one of the only teams left that don’t have pro players.”

They had qualified by beating their colonial rivals the British Virgin Islands in a two-leg playoff. It was the furthest they had ever come. In fact, they had only played 28 matches in their history, 20 of them defeats.

“This is the first time we have ever made it past the preliminary round. So we made some history in that game against the BVI [British Virgin Islands],” says Klopp.

“We are the extreme underdogs. That is one advantage we have. No one expects us to even come close to getting a result. And so we don’t have to play with that pressure.”

I watch the USVI team training as they run up and down the pitch and take shots at goal. No one manages to hit the target. The stadium maintenance men go about their work, only stopping to kick back the balls that land nearby.

On the morning of the match, the Haiti national team receive a surprise guest. The country’s president, Michel Martelly, a former singer known as “Sweet Mickey”, arrives to meet the players. Martelly hasn’t had a good few months. Since his election in April, an election that had descended into partial farce when Fugees singer Wyclef Jean almost ran before being banned by a local court, Martelly has been unable to form a government. His presidential palace remains broken-backed and uninhabitable. And the portents of Haitian political history are impossible to ignore. Haiti may well have been the first black republic to gain independence, but it has suffered coups and assassinations ever since. Behind him stands a rogues’ gallery of failure, including Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier, the brutal dictators who spent much of the 20th century seemingly intent on forcing Haiti back into the Dark Ages.

Martelly became notorious for exposing himself on stage and farting down the microphone during his glory days, but is now more restrained. He shakes each team member by the hand, presents them with a flag and joins them in singing the national anthem.

The crush to get into the stadium on match day. Photo: James Montague

The crush to get into the stadium on match day. Photo: James Montague

“I believe there’s a new movement. There’s a new will to show a new face of Haiti. We have natural talents here coming from all around the world,” he says as his nervous-looking security guards rest their hands on their guns.

“Haiti is ready to show that new face. In the past we talked about our problems and issues. But today is a chance to prove that Haiti can be a great nation and can be victorious.”

His armed guards escort him back to his car, just as he reveals his own World Cup dream.

“I couldn’t express in words what Haiti would be like if…”

He pauses.

“When, not if, we qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.”

The rain stops moments before President Martelly takes to the pitch. He has changed out of his formal suit and into a blue national team jersey and is received rapturously. He smiles and runs around the pitch with a ball at his feet, spinning and performing tricks to the delight of the crowd. The pack of journalists behind puff hard as they try to keep up with him. Eventually he tees up the ball and blasts it into the mass of spectators.

As Martelly warms up the crowd, the Haiti national team wait for their cue. They stand in the white tunnel, the smell of fresh paint so strong it stings the eyes. “Aiyti! Aiyti!” they shout together in Creole, and walk out on to the pitch to sing their national anthem for the second time that day.

As a band plays incessantly in front of a capacity crowd, that wish for ten goals made by the fan outside the ground, is almost granted. Haiti tear the US Virgin Islands apart, their newly minted foreign imports striding around the pitch with impunity. Six goals are scored and the post is hit three times, sending the crowd delirious. The next day Haiti’s main newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, puts the result on the front page: “Haiti stomps on the Virgin Islands  6-0”. Steward Ceus, Haiti’s American goalkeeper, is a virtual spectator until the final whistle.


Haiti’s players celebrate a goal against the US Virgin Islands. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP/Press Association Images

“I did touch the ball once,” he says with a wink as he comes off the pitch. “But not with my hands.”

The team lines up and walks up the steps to where the president is standing, beaming with happiness. He greets each and every player, knowing that in a country faced with almost insurmountable problems, this is a rare good day. It won’t have hurt him electorally either. The president leaves in his motorcade as the thousands of people who had earlier threatened to riot before the rains came now explode with joy, running down the street and waving Haitian flags as they mob his car. Several of his aides stand on the sidelines making the most of the situation, handing out campaign stickers that are gleefully peeled and stuck to foreheads, arms, posts and walls. They read: “Prezidan Martelly: Viktwa pou pep la.” President Martelly: Victory for the people.

The Stadion Ergillo Hato is calm and peaceful. It’s five days after the heat and the privations of Port-au-Prince, and Haiti is playing its second World Cup qualifier, against Curaçao, a remnant of the Dutch empire just 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast. A few dozen local fans slowly mooch to their seats, drinking $1 cups of Venezuelan Polar lager as the sun sets in a magnificent magenta and orange slash in the sky. Curaçao is only a 90-minute flight from Haiti, but it might as well be on the moon. The sound of Haiti slowly fills the stadium. A large expat community lives here, doing the jobs that others don’t want to do: the security guards, the chefs, the chambermaids, the bus drivers, the waiters. Anyone who can get a day off arrives, outnumbering the home crowd eight to one, expecting to see another victory. Expecting to see Haiti take another step closer to the World Cup finals.

But President Martelly’s confidence in Haiti’s World Cup qualification looks like it might be tested. The first time Steward Ceus touches the ball with his own hands during World Cup qualification is to pick it out of the back of his net. Curaçao takes a shock lead. Half time comes with Haiti 2-1 down, facing a fatal blow to its World Cup chances. The 4,000 previously boisterous Haitian expats are silent. But Tavares switches to a 3-5-2 formation for the second half and watches Jean-Eudes Maurice and Portland Timbers’ James Marcelin dominate the midfield. Haiti scores three unanswered goals and spares its blushes.

We are the extreme underdogs. That is one advantage we have. No one expects us to even come close to getting a result”

In the distance are potential matches against Mexico or – the dream ticket – USA. But the crunch game will not be in Mexico City or New York. It will be on the 11th and 15th November against Antigua and Barbuda at the Antigua Recreation ground, where Viv Richards smashed the fastest ever test century. Now the islands’ national football team is being led by English coach Tom Curtis, a former Chesterfield player during their famous cup runs of the 1990s, and has been one of the surprise teams of this World Cup’s qualification rounds.

But, for now at least, Les Grenadiers have brought something to Haiti that has been in short supply for so long: hope. The coach returns the players to their hotel as those Haitians, the working poor who couldn’t make the match, desert their posts and gather to greet their heroes. The players disembark into the arms of chefs still wearing their whites, waiters still wearing their ties, warehouse workers still wearing their boiler suits and waitresses still wearing their aprons.

A victory. For the people.

James Montague is the author of Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders

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