Haiti's World Cup dream littered with obstacles

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

MIAMI Haiti's national soccer team knows plenty about overcoming obstacles.

There are the daily issues, which on Thursday included being sent to the wrong hotel, having no one from Haiti's national federation organize meals or make payment arrangements, and having coaches scurry about at the last minute to find practice equipment.

Those hardly seem troubling compared to the real problems. Each player is owed months of back pay, their families and friends back home are reeling from the bloody rebellion earlier this year, and often there seems to be no end in sight to the despair.

So they focus on an improbable World Cup dream, hoping success will unite their country. Haiti opens a qualifying series purportedly one of the home-and-home variety against Jamaica on Saturday.

''The game is the only thing we have,'' said coach Fernando Clavijo, a former player for the United States' men's national team. ''Their determination to do well, to really bring some happiness to a country which probably will not see any happiness for many more years to come is overwhelming.''

Haiti's designated ''home'' field, Miami's Orange Bowl, is 700 miles from Port-Au-Prince, its war-torn capital city, which doesn't have a field for the team to play on. It has a fan base in Miami, home to a large Haitian community 150,000 by official estimates.

The series shifts to Kingston, Jamaica, on June 20, with the winner of the two-game matchup advancing to a four-nation semifinal group likely to include the United States.

''In our country, the people are suffering,'' forward Marc Herold Gracien said. ''When we think about it, that makes us more strong. We want to win for the Haitian people.''

Haiti has reached the final Cup field only once (1974) and is 88th in the world rankings, 37 spots below the Reggae Boyz. Yet the Uruguayan-born Clavijo, who became Haiti's coach Oct. 15, sees constant improvement.

''At the beginning, it was a challenge. After looking at the players, it became a challenge with a purpose,'' said Clavijo, who earned 61 caps with the U.S. ''I thought we had the material on the field to do things. Then it became an incredible challenge because of the state of the country.''

He's spent thousands of dollars of his own money to cover bills the Haitian federation hasn't paid, including the lunch tab and equipment bill Thursday.

It would be easy justifiable, perhaps for him to cut his losses and quit.

''I didn't want to be one more of those who let these players down,'' Clavijo said. ''I know they've been let down so many times by people walking away or lying to them. I didn't want to be one of those guys.''

Playing an abundance of road matches isn't exactly a foreign concept to Haiti. Since last Aug. 31, Haiti has played nine matches six in South Florida, one in Nicaragua, one in Guatemala and another in Houston.

Of the national team's 28 matches since April 2001, only two were played in Haiti. And it's probably no coincidence that in those 26 road matchups, the Haitians have posted a mediocre 9-10-7 record. But since 1985, when afforded the rare chance to play on home soil, Haiti has gone 16-2-6.

''We would like to play at home. Everybody would like that,'' said Nono Jean-Baptiste, Haiti's Miami-based federation representative. ''We did not have the power to change the official consensus. Our country is being rebuilt. We do not have any place to play the game. But we have a big community in Miami. We're lucky.''

During a recent training camp in Cocoa Beach, Fla., the Haitians often slept four to a room and on bunk beds, sometimes not knowing where the money for the next meal would come from.

Somehow, they've persevered. They routed Turks and Caicos in the opening round of Cup qualifying in February, and are confident heading into this round.

''People say we have to beat Jamaica, but we're already winners,'' Clavijo said. ''There's two kinds of people, winners and losers. No in-betweens. If we're losers, we can make a million excuses, and we have real, valid issues. But if we're winners, we're going to have to deal with them.''

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