They don’t have any sponsors, their training center closed because of gang violence, and some of their biggest fans can’t afford a TV. Haiti’s soccer team earned a place at the Women’s World Cup despite all those obstacles and remains undeterred.
Haiti will make its debut at the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next month following a historic win over Chile that gave a boost to a country reeling amid deepening poverty, violence, and political instability.
France-based midfielder Melchie “Corventina” Dumornay scored twice in that 2-1 win over Chile in New Zealand in a qualifying tournament that decided the last three of 32 spots at the tournament.
“The Haitian team will give its all,” said Emmanuel Jean, who coached players including team captain Nérilia Mondésir and Dumornay when they were younger. “I will watch as Dumornay shows the world what she’s made of.”
It’s been almost half a century since Haiti made a World Cup appearance at the senior level, with the men playing in 1974.
Jean was a coach at the professional soccer training center in Croix-des-Bouquets, a once peaceful community east of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince that is now controlled by a powerful gang. A surge in killings and kidnappings in the area forced officials to close the center several years ago, forcing the women to play home games in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Players at the center were previously able to practice twice daily and play matches on Sunday, Jean recalled. Now, some young players train only once a week on a small field loaned by Haiti’s top private school.
“As you can see, we don’t have a lot, but we do what we can,” Jean said as he signaled at the limited equipment and uniforms donated by supporters.
The school also provides snacks and sandwiches after training.
The program aims to keep kids off the street and prevent them from joining gangs, as well as potentially recruit the next big stars. It is run by James Louis-Charles, athletic director at Union School, which opens its soccer field to players on Saturdays. The plan was to enroll about 25 children, but about 50 children have since joined, many from the sprawling slums nestled in the mountains above the school.
The majority of participants are boys, including 13-year-old Noah Yann Hilarie, who said he will be watching Haiti’s women’s soccer team play next month.
“Maybe they’ll reach the quarterfinals. That would be huge, amazing,” he said. “I hope that happens.”
Haiti, 53rd of 188 countries in FIFA’s latest women’s rankings, faces three soccer powerhouses in Group D at the World Cup: European champion England on July 22, China on July 28 and Denmark on Aug. 1.
Haiti coach Nicolas Delépine called it “the toughest group” in an interview with So Foot, a Paris-based magazine. But he noted the team has a lot of support in Haiti.
“(Soccer) is like a religion there. The country has been doing very badly since the earthquake and the succession of hurricanes, so the population is clinging to that,” he told the magazine.
It’s common to see boys playing soccer in neighborhoods across Haiti, although the number of street matches have dwindled because of the gang-related turf wars that have killed hundreds of innocent people in the capital and beyond.
It’s rare, however, to see girls playing, and that’s something Louis-Charles wants to change.
“It’s really a question of giving them the opportunity and letting the parents also understand that, hey, the girls should have the same opportunity as the boys to play soccer,” he said. “The boys are out in the streets doing whatever they want, and the girls are at home doing the household chores.”
Alanda Dorval is one of the few exceptions. The 15-year-old attacker plays up to two hours on the street when she’s not training at the school on Saturdays.
“I like to make goals,” she said, adding that Dumornay is her favorite player and that she hopes to watch all the Haiti team’s matches on TV.
During a recent practice at the school, Dorval scored five goals in less than 30 minutes, a wide smile on her face.
Watching from the sidelines was Jean, the coach.
“At 14, she exploded,” he recalled of Dorval’s skills. “She was playing like she already had won an international match.”
Dorval and her teammate, 13-year-old Dor Neika, follow Haiti’s women’s soccer team and want to play professionally.
“I want to become a star like Vinícius,” Neika said, referring to Vinícius Júnior, a Brazilian who plays for Real Madrid and has been the target of vicious and high-profile racist attacks in Spain.
As the Women’s World Cup approaches, Haitian fans like Sheila Privert, who runs a local organization for handicapped children, will be watching, albeit on her phone, because she rarely has electricity at her home.
“That’s what I want to see, for the women to make strides in this sport,” she said as she watched her 7-year-old son play on a recent weekday. “I have a lot of confidence in the team.”
As does the team itself, having beaten Moldova 3-1 in its last warm-up game before the tournament.
Mondésir, who became the first Haitian woman to play professionally in France, told FIFA that the team is confident in its abilities, especially its cohesiveness.
“We do everything together. Even when we lose, we fight for every blade of grass,” she was quoted as saying. “We’re battlers. That’s probably our best quality.”