Tom Degun, writing from Singapore for Inside the Game, looks at the Haitian team’s striking success at the Summer Youth Olympics.
Haiti’s footballers, who travelled here to the inaugural Summer Youth Olympics cloaked in tragedy and sadness, are riding a massive wave of sympathy to stand on the brink of winning the most unlikeliest gold medal of these Games.
The country’s boy’s footballers brought some much needed joy to their earthquake-stricken nation as they remarkably defied the odds to book their spot in the boy’s final with a 2-0 win over Singapore at the Jalan Besar Stadium last night.
The Caribbean country made global headlines at the start of the year after a devastating earthquake ripped it apart and left their sports system, along with everything else, in tatters.
The disaster, which occurred on January 12, killed an estimated 220,000 people and left over 180,000 homes and 5,000 schools either damaged or completely destroyed.
Around two million people were living in the area that was most affected by the earthquake and nearly all of them were made homeless as a result of it.
The repercussions of the disaster are far from over with 1.5 million people currently living in camps and 100,000 of them at critical risk from storms and flooding.
With such utter devastation hitting their homeland, Haiti were applauded for simply turning up at these Games.
Little was expected of them, especially after they lost their opening match 9-0 to Bolivia.
But the resilient team, formed only six weeks ago, staged an unbelievable comeback in the competition as they claimed a dramatic 2-1 victory over Vanuatu in their second group game at the end of last week to advance to the semi-finals against Singapore.
Haiti’s heroic young side went into the match as huge underdogs against the hosts and were outplayed for much of the first half before Jean Bonhomme’s header in the 38th minute gave them a surprise 1-0 lead at the break.
Singapore dominated the second half as they had the first but were unable to produce a goal and then in the final minute of minute of normal time, Haiti’s captain Daniel Gedeon’s scored a penalty to secure his side an astonishing 2-0 victory.
The win means that Singapore are relegated to the bronze medal match against Montenegro while Haiti go on to contest the gold medal on Wednesday (August 25) where they face a rematch against Bolivia.
Bolivia, will start the boy’s final as heavy favourites following their demolition of Haiti earlier in the competition.
But – win or lose in the final – Haiti done their country proud and earned the respect of the world by unexpectedly coming from a country in chaos and guaranteeing themselves a medal.
Haiti’s coach Pierre Sonche admitted that reaching the final is priceless for the team because of the joy the teams’ achievements will bring to the ravaged country, particularly as it again stands on the edge of crisis after pop star Wyclef Jean was controversially disqualified from running for President in the upcoming elections because he failed to fulfil residency rules, sparking fears that the decision would cause civil unrest.
Sonche said: “We can’t give money to our people back in Haiti, but at least I know they are very happy with this result and our campaign here in Singapore.
“The win is good for the people of Haiti, but the competition is not about winning.
“For the past four months, they [the players] have seen a lot of death.
“It’s just good to get out of Haiti.
“Coming out of the country is like a therapy for them.
“After the earthquake in Haiti on January 12, it doesn’t matter whether it is under-15 or under-20 soccer, being in the Youth Olympic Games and the finals means so much to our country.”
Even more remarkable is that since Haiti made its debut in the Olympics at Paris in 1924 it has only ever won two medals, the last of which was at Antwerp in 1928 when Silvio Cator won a silver in the long jump.
Cator forms a link with the team here.
He was formerly a top-class footballer who played for Racing Club Haitien, one of Haiti’s most successful teams, and when the country built a main stadium in the capital Port-au-Prince it was named after Cator.
The Stade Sylvio Cator was partly destroyed in the earthquake and afterwards a tent-city sprouted within its confines, acting as a home for some of the members of the team here.
Fritz Gerald Wong, head of the Haiti delegation, added: “It’s more than a victory.
“Any single thing that a Haitian accomplishes is amazing.”
The football coaching staff refused to let the Haitian players be interviewed about the earthquake that destroyed their nation because for many of the 22 athletes in the squad who made the trip to Singapore, memories of the horrifying episode are still fresh.
“We’re talking human beings, so you are going to have all sorts of reactions,” said Wong, a member of the country’s Olympic Committee who owns a gym in Haiti.
“You had some athletes completely discouraged.
“Some of them gave up.
“At the same time, that situation can help motivate some of them.
“Some of them will say if God could give me life, I should testify and fight to accomplish a lot of things.”
Girls’ middle-distance runner Beatrice Derose is one Haitian athlete who has spoken about how the earthquake has affected her state of mind.
The 16-year-old said: “I have to look up everywhere [in Singapore] to see if something is going to fall.”
Derose’s family remains in a camp after their home was destroyed and the athlete was recently forced to take her exams in a tent.
She may now end up homeless, after the camp’s owner threatened to evict the families staying there but Derose has not let the tragedy derail her dream of reaching the 2012 London Olympics.
Derose said: “My goal is the same.
“I pray to God that sports like running will help me have a new life.”
Surely no one would begrudge Derose success in the future nor Haiti what would be the most surprising yet heart-warming of victories in Wednesday’s final.
For the original report go to http://www.insidethegames.biz/the-big-read/10363-the-inspiring-tale-of-how-haiti-stand-on-the-brink-of-olympic-glory