Haiti serve up a victory for the people
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 arrived, two hours before kick off as 10,000 Haitians, maybe more, tried and failed to crush through the one open 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 football match since the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake reduced most of the city to rubble, for a 2014 World Cup qualifier against the minnows from the US Virgin Islands.
The stadium itself had become a slum for hundreds of families, just one of the ubiquitous, hellish tented cities built on any scrap of open space, football pitches included.
They had now been moved on, their presence erased with a lick of paint and a brand new artificial pitch laid a few days before, with a rumoured US$2,000 (Dh7,340) payment from the government as compensation. They simply joined the swollen numbers in the torn ribbon of blue tents that surround the stadium on all sides.
Creole rap music is played at ear splitting level. The smell is of fresh paint, burning refuse and excrement from the open sewers nearby.
The crowd push forward in the hope of getting in, the police using shields and clubs to beat them back.
It is chaos, but such is the passion for football in Haiti, that a match against a tiny team such as 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 Petionville waiting in line behind the crowd, which had by now threatened to get 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 says. "With God everything is possible. But this is the reason why football can change something. I hope Haiti scores 10 goals."
Haitian football, like virtually every aspect of Haitian society, was almost terminally injured when the earthquake hit in January 2010.
The Haitian Football Federation's headquarters were levelled, killing more than 30 of its staff.
Yves Jean Bart, its president, somehow survived with a broken arm and joined the effort to pull survivors from the rubble with his other working limb. Only one other survivor was found.
Faced with such devastation, many might consider football in Haiti to be of minor importance. But Jean Bart, knowing that the game has such a 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 the mighty Italy before succumbing in all three matches.
"I arrived in September  five months after the earthquake. My first impression was to take my flight back to Brazil," said the coach Edson Tavares in the team hotel the day before the match.Tavares's previous job was a coach at Al Wasl in Dubai, but he gave up the calm of the UAE for the challenge of Haiti instead.
"You don't realise how strong the situation was here. The country was completely devastated. Today is a paradise compared. You can see the miserable people, but if you compare with last year ... you could be walking the street and find the [amputated] legs of people, the arms of people."
Tavares took a proactive approach to building the team. He paid for his own flight to get 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."
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 such as Jean Eude Maurice, who is on Paris Saint-Germain's books; Kevin Lefrance, who plays for the Czech champions Viktoria Zizkov and who will be playing Champions League football this season. And the goalkeeper Steward Ceus, a New Yorker born and raised who plays for the Colorado Rapids.
"I was in college when I heard a buzz about Haiti being interested in seeing me," said Ceus.
"When I was drafted in to the MLS [Major League Soccer] we had our first official communication. It took a bit of time to get ready 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 will rub off on the local players, players who the Brazilian believes are some of the best in the world.
"I am telling you. My 40 years experience, I have never seen a country with so many talents as here," he said.
"If you put these guys in Manchester United and Barcelona, they would be a great player. The problem is to be a great player you need good food and a good environment. Here is nothing."
His team of local players and foreign born imports has given the Haiti national team a new lease of life, something noticed by those in the corridors of power.
On the morning of the match the country's president, Michel Martelly, a former singer known as "Sweet Mickey", arrives to meet the players. He shakes each by the hand, presents them with a flag and they sing the national anthem together.
"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 on the side of the stage, his nervous-looking security guards resting their hands on their guns.
"Haiti is ready to show that new face. In the past we talk about our problems and issues. But today is a chance to prove that, today, 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 ..."
"When, not if, we qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil."
In the end, it was no contest. As a band plays incessantly in front of a capacity crowd Johnny's wish for 10 goals is almost granted.
Haiti tear the US Virgin Islands apart, their newly-minted imports striding around the pitch with impunity.
Six goals are scored, 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 is a virtual spectator until the final whistle.
"I did touch the ball once," he says with a wink as he comes off the pitch. "But not with my hands."
There is a long way to go, of course. Tomorrow, Haiti play another minnow, Curacao, a team they drew with only a few years ago.
Tougher tests lie ahead. Perhaps Jamaica or Mexico or the dream ticket: the United States.
But, for now, Les Grenadiers brought something to Haiti that has been in short supply for so long: hope.
The team line up and walk 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 wouldn'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 exploded with joy, running down the street and waiving 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.
Published: September 5, 2011 04:00 AM