Grenadières

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

SAINT MALO, France – The young Haitian team fought valiantly in all of its three group matches, but lost all of them – against China, Nigeria and Germany – by a 1 goal differential. This team of overachievers was defeated by clearly superior teams with resources and systems that ultimately found a way to frustrate the Haitians despite their tenacity.

The Grenadieres as Haiti’s team is known, bowed out of the first round of the U20 World Cup tournament in Brittany France, a quaint region whose topography is reminiscent of New England’s Cape Cod and is famous for its sumptuous oysters and muscles. The tournament began Aug. 5 and will last through Aug. 24

I’ve seldom seen such pride in losing, but Haitians found some optimism by the team’s performance and grit. All of Haiti’s matches felt like a home game with more than 1,000 Haitian fans from the Paris area driving four hours to support their team. A local Rara band provided the music as fans sang along.

This comes at a time when the fractured and deeply divided nation of more than 10 million people need a common bond and a glue to unite it. Perhaps it found solace on this team of young ladies’s strong showing in France.

Even prior to the tournament, underway in this sublime province in northwest France, Haitians were giddy with excitement at the fact that Haiti became the first Caribbean nation to qualify for this tournament. There was talk that these young ladies will be rewarded handsomely for their achievements.

There are plans to provide each player with a house, free food for a year and other perks aim at changing their lives forever. While I cheer these entreaties, it must not be done to feed an emotional need of the givers or to assuage some kind of guilt.

These young ladies have given us a chance to see what can be achieved if we put our heads together as a nation and community. It is time to consider what heights could this team have reached had they been able to train on quality pitches throughout the nation. What if they had had a better diet and physical conditioning to make the team compete to the level of its opponents?

The lack of size and physicality was glaring, despite the team’s skills. The Haitian Soccer Federation has a negligible budget and had to resort to a crowd funding campaign to help  pay the team’s expenses to attend the tournament. Unlike others, I will not cast any aspersions on the government for not allocating a bigger budget to the federation. The government simply doesn’t have adequate funds for that, considering it struggles to pay its civil service and police force.

This is a moment for the private sector to invest into soccer and sports in general to rally Haitians dwellers from the slums to those living in villas in the mountaintops. Many of those pledging to take care of these young ladies and their families have the capacity to make significant financial commitment to sports in Haiti. It is a great return on investment. Sports is big business the world over. It is time Haiti recognizes that fact.

To be sure, investing in sports is not philanthropic but economic. Right now, the Haitian soccer league is a shell of itself. The stadium that exist are inferior to many high school football stadium in the United States. The leading entrepreneurs in Haiti could take over the league and structure using like the English Premier League or any other leagues around the world as a model.

The idea is that teams will be owned by rich individuals or partnership who will build stadium. In return they will make money by charging for gate tickets, parking lot, concessionary, jersey sales and television rights.

Each team can have a farm team, recruiting players, girls and boys at the tender age of 7. The academy, as these programs are called, will ensure the youngsters education and well being while they learn the game. This model is being used in Europe with great success – particularly for at risk youth –  who are channeling their isolation into something positive.

This is how a country like Belgium with half the population of Haiti fields one of the best teams in the world. It has worked in small and big countries alike. Closer to home Uruguay leads the way.

Haiti needs to wake up and see sports as an economic engine. Tourism, despite its allure doesn’t help solve our structural problems.

Imagine the kind of economic stimulus you can create if you’re building 10 to 20 stadiums with seating capacity ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 people. I guarantee you there will be less social unrest in the streets with so many people honorably making a living.

We have the skills necessary for that. In the run up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil, thousands of Haitian laborers went to the Amazon country to work in its construction industry. I’m sure they would return home to work instead of living in the margins in countries in South America like Chile and Brazil.

Of course, there are problems with sports as a development tool. There are exploitation of athletes, greed and corruption. But its upside could provide not only economic but social harmony to Haiti. I believe that the finals of the Haitian league can be made into a major event, attracting Haitians outside of Haiti and be a catalyst to develop a tourism industry.

A nationwide league would unite the country in more ways than one. It will create the necessity to build roads to access matches, which in turn provides businesses with quick access to market and reduce cost.

We must use the success, if you want to call it that, of the young Grenadieres at the U20 World Cup as a stepping stone to think big and find ways to redress the country. There are too many idle minds roaming the streets of this country. There are few opportunities for high school and university graduates. I truly believe that sports hold much promise to kick start the economy.

It is time for the private and public sector to seriously explore this option. Done well, sports as developmental engine can be a boon for all involved and pave the way for a more prosperous and united Haiti.

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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