‘Football is the joy’ for embattled Haiti as women impress in World Cup debut

The Grenadières have written a bright new chapter in the history of Haitian football by qualifying for their first Women’s World Cup, bringing joy to the impoverished Caribbean nation pummelled by a perfect storm of crises.

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The tournament’s surprise package, Haiti shocked Chile in a playoff in February to qualify for their very first World Cup, which kicked off in Australia and New Zealand last week.

Coached by Frenchman Nicolas Delépine, the Haitians were hugely impressive on their World Cup debut against England on Saturday, dangerous on the counter-attack while restricting the European champions to a narrow 1-0 victory.

Praise rolled in afterwards for a team ranked 53rd in the world, who went close to an equaliser, with England coach Sarina Wiegman calling them “unpredictable”.

Delépine said the praise and performance were both heartening – but would mean little unless the Grenadières, as the team are known, can perform to the same level when they take on China on Friday.

“We were very happy after the England game because we received a lot of compliments from other countries,” said the experienced Frenchman, whose players now need a result against China to keep their hopes of progressing to the knockout phase alive.

“But the message I want to say is that it will only count if we face China in the same way,” he added. “We have to be credible and show the world the work we have put in and perform at the best level possible.”

Battling adversity

While many teams in women’s football fight for recognition and resources, the Haitians have had to overcome the additional challenges that have afflicted the Caribbean nation.

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country and for years has been mired in a vicious cycle of political, humanitarian, economic and health crises, exacerbated by natural disasters.

Add in brutal gang violence, and the United Nations’ top human rights official earlier this year described Haiti‘s multiple problems as a “living nightmare”.

The chaos at home meant the Grenadières were forced to hold their training camps and home games in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

“We just put our head down and worked and tried not to worry about all the outside factors,” said midfielder Milan Pierre-Jérôme in an interview with the Miami Herald.

“Yes it’s been more difficult for us compared to teams in other countries,” she added. “But knowing that no matter the circumstances, no matter what challenges we face, we still have 11 players on the field, one soccer ball and we all play with cleats – that’s what held us together.”

Roselord Borgella of Haiti celebrates a goal by teammate Melchie Dumonay during the World Cup qualifier against Chile in Auckland on February 22, 2023. © Andrew Cornaga, AP

The nucleus of the team emerged in 2018, when Haiti qualified for the Under-20 Women’s World Cup, their first global FIFA tournament of any kind.

Nine of that youth team were part of the squad that beat Chile, including midfielder Danielle Étienne, who is well aware of the positive impact that the team has had on her country.

“There’s a lot of unhappiness in the country – and football is the joy,” Étienne told ESPN ahead of the critical tie against Chile, capturing the spirit that has carried Haiti to this momentous achievement.

‘Make history again’

The squad that secured qualification included seven players under the age of 20, including star player Melchie Dumornay, also known as Corventina.

A rising star of the women’s game, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder scored both goals in the win against Chile, including a 98th-minute winner that sealed the tie.

After impressing with Reims in the past two seasons, she signed for Lyon, the 16-times French champions and record eight-times Champions League winners.

Dumornay was in glittering form against England on Saturday, mesmerising the Brisbane crowd with her touch and ingenuity.

“You can’t compare Melchie with any other player. She’s special,” said centre-half Jennyfer Limage, who will miss out on the rest of the tournament after suffering a serious knee injury against the European champions.

Haiti are not expected to get out of a group that also includes Denmark alongside heavyweights China and England. But they are not ready to settle for just being at the World Cup.

“We’re not the same Haiti we used to be years ago, where teams were not fearing us. Now we’re stepping on the field and people are giving us more respect because they see how far we’ve come,” said Etienne.

“We were able to make history one time and make history again,” she added. “I just hope that we continue to do that and become genuine World Cup competitors.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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