Haitian soccer's future uncertain
With players scattered and stadiums housing tent cities, Haitian soccer is unsettled
Financial aid from FIFA, CONCACAF has poured in since the quake, raising hopes
The soccer federation hopes to start a new top-flight season early next month
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The Stade Sylvio Cator, Haiti's national soccer stadium, is a low concrete building with floodlights poking skyward on the Rue Oswald Durand, across the street from a cemetery. It comes out of nowhere, like a small college football stadium crammed into the capital's downtown. Tall archways with tight turnstiles lead inside, where the good seats are red-and-yellow plastic in the covered section by the midfield line. The rest are old-school standing-room terraces. They've been baking in the sun since 1960.
Seven weeks ago, after Haiti convulsed, it all turned into an improvised refugee camp.
Makeshift tents now overrun the artificial turf under the heavy stench of death and garbage. People bathe on the sidelines, they cook in the dugouts. Every square inch is precious. Yet, no one dared set up in the penalty area at the southwest end of the field.
By some tacit understanding, it isn't allowed.
From sunrise to sundown, that's were young men and boys play pickup soccer. With spectators for goalposts, they sprint and sweat and yell and forget that their homes lie in ruins. Those without shoes find one sock to slip on their kicking foot. Those without socks play barefoot. Because when Haiti lost everything, soccer remained.
But even though the fanatical devotion survived the earthquake, the Haitian game's future is in grave danger. The stadiums and practice fields all house tent cities. The players are scattered. The club season was cancelled. And the Haitian federation is now a pile of rubble.
Yves Jean-Bart, the federation's president, was one of only two survivors when its headquarters caved in. More than 30 other officials were not so lucky. The quake struck late in the afternoon as they met to discuss women's soccer, referees and a possible futsal tournament. Ten club officials from all over Haiti waited in the hallways to collect their affiliation certificates before the new season -- it was only a couple of weeks away. In the basement, directors and coaches lounged around watching an African Cup of Nations match.
Everything stopped when the ground shook. In a matter of minutes, the building's three stories came crashing down. Jean-Bart was knocked out. He came to moments later in a cloud of dust with his arm broken. He scrambled into the street.
"We'll never know exactly how many [we] lost," Jean-Bart said in French.
Now, his already difficult task of building up Haitian soccer is almost impossible. At the administrative level, the game had already been struggling long before the quake. The federation survived on a small annual stipend from FIFA and an endorsement deal with a telecommunications company. It received sporadic government funding -- a batch of plane tickets here, a small grant there -- to run its national teams and four club divisions.
Taking part in last July's Gold Cup, where Haiti shocked the United States by grinding out a 2-2 draw, was a costly investment. Playing through a group stage and the quarterfinals meant keeping the team on the road for nearly three weeks. It wiped out the federation's entire budget and the national team has not played an official game since.
But since the quake, financial support has poured in. Almost immediately, FIFA, the game's world governing body, stepped in with a $250,000 grant. According to the federation, FIFA is also setting up a $3 million fund, which it will manage, to help rebuild the sport's infrastructure. Jack Warner, the head of CONCACAF, pledged $100,000 of his personal fortune. Chung Mong-Joon, a FIFA vice president from South Korea, added $500,000.
Jean-Bart hardly knows where to begin. His only solace is the knowledge that nearly all the top-level professional players are safe and accounted for.
Frantz Gilles, a veteran left back for the national team and for A.S. Cavaly, is one of them. Though many of his teammates are living in a camp in Croix-des-Bouquets, five miles east of here, he is living with his mother and brother in a tent in a public park in Leogane, a pulverized city near the quake's epicenter. But he hasn't kicked a soccer ball in weeks. He spends most of his time caring for his 1-year-old daughter.
"I'm here," he said in Caribbean-accented French, "and I can only wait."
Still, just like everyone else with mouths to feed in Haiti, Gilles is desperate to get back to work. And, he believes, Haiti needs soccer now more than ever. The kids playing around him all day were living proof.
"People have to have something to distract themselves, to help them get through this time of distress," he said, worried that Haitians would not be able to watch the World Cup this summer. "Even international games are difficult to watch now, so I think if we get going again, it can provide at least some relief."
The federation hopes to at least begin a top-flight season on April 4, though logistics still remain a major hurdle. The tent cities that have set up in the stadiums are slowly turning into semi-permanent lodging. People are replacing improvised tents with wooden shelters and they're naming the alleys between them, like city streets.
"How are we going to get them off?" Gilles said. "And where are we going to put them?"
The first step toward a return to normalcy is coming from an unlikely source. Haiti is managing to field a side in CONCACAF's women's under-17 championship. The team evacuated to the Dominican Republic, where it is preparing for its game with the United States next Wednesday in Costa Rica.
Still, Jean-Bart is worried that if Haitian teams start traveling abroad again, the risk that players refuse to come back is higher than ever. "We have to think a lot about it," he said. "Do we take them and let them go, even if it means they'll run off? Or do we try to save the future of the national team?"
In the tent cities, they weren't thinking about that. They realized soccer wasn't their ticket out of Haiti. To Robert-Israel Antonio, a lanky teenager with tight calves, it was the last link to the life he knew before the afternoon of Jan. 12.
Both his parents, two sisters and his girlfriend died in the earthquake. Now he was living in a Coleman tent, handed out by one of the aid agencies. Eleven friends from his high school's soccer team huddled in there with him, taking turns looking after one boy's infant brother.
His teammates and the game he shared with them, he said in broken English, were all he had left.