January 17, 2010
By Phil Stephens
FAR BEYOND MERE SOCCER
U.S. Women started winning legacy in Haiti
Dallas Soccer News Editor
Haiti has never left my heart, even 18 years after spending two weeks there with the U.S. Womenís National Team in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the first Womenís World Cup held in China late in 1991. The country and its needs were overwhelming, even during that festive event. And now, in the wake of the devastating and deadly earthquake this week, its pain is ripping a big hole in my heart.
|The U.S. Women's National Team qualified for the 1st FIFA Women's World Cup by winning the CONCACAF Tournament in Haiti in 1991.
Photo by Phil Stephens
There is no question in my mind that those young U.S. women who played their way to a berth in China are feeling pain, sorrow and severe angst. Haiti is a place they started building their legacy by winning the CONCACAF regional competition.
What a wonderful opportunity now for these women to step forward and make a difference. The Ď91ers, especially, the women on that qualifying team in Haiti, could band together with a fund-raising effort and sustain it in the months and years ahead it will take to put the country back on its feet. It could be coordinated through U.S. Soccer, or the WPS. Some of those women have gone on to highly successful careers, many of them soccer oriented. But all of that was ahead of them in the spring of í91. They had a job to do in Haiti, to qualify for the first womenís world cup, a tournament they believed they could win, if they could just get past the competing CONCACAF teams converging in this poor island nation.
Between game days, these women made a number of visits to some of the many missions and schools all across the crowded, jumbled and dirty streets of Port-au-Prince. They gave time and soccer clinics and free soccer balls to delighted youngsters. Those women were magnets for the kids who rarely received such adoring attention.
These were people who already had nothing. Many of those children depended on the free meal received at those missions and schools to survive. Just driving to the different schools across was a sobering slap of reality to the young ladies. Streets were never repaired, full of holes. Some streets were flooded by water main breaks that never seemed to be stopped. Many of the young women had made sacrifices in pioneering womenís soccer and working to sustain a womenís national team. But none of them were worried about day-to-day about basic meals, or medical care, of if they could get clean water or functioning sewer systems.
For a few weeks, these young Americans were exposed to a different reality than they had been living and a new appreciation for even the most basic things at home. They learned to expect the electricity to be cut off a few hours every day (you never knew when). That affected shower time because the water pumps were electric. You just hoped the electricity went off when you were just soaped up. The players learned to drink only bottled water because drinking city water meant you would be visiting the team trainers, begging for Imodium tablets a few days later.
Despite the day-to-day tribulations of being Haitian, there was a definite sparkle, an invigorating deep joy and pride among the people. You could see older children leaving colorful but very basic housing and walking down narrow, dusty streets. They didnít come from very much, but they were happy and smiling and obviously very proud to be wearing school uniforms that were clean and pressed. They walked down market streets where street vendors sold exposed clumps of raw food products or piled up T-shirts that were obviously used American clothes or unsold promotional items.
At the soccer tournament, the Haitians were so proud of their own womenís team and packed the stadium to overflowing, literally, to see them play. Fans crawled up by the dozens on the light towers at the stadium, to get a view of the action. At the foot of the stands, people pushed out the hurricane fence surrounding the stadium so the crowd of people at the bottom would not be crushed. Hours before the game, the fans surrounded the stadium and compound, making it difficult for the game officials and buses carrying the players to even reach the stadium.
These people many of them shirtless, but happy, filled up the stands and brought some simple musical instruments, horns and drums, which they played with enthusiasm. They left their cares on the street or at crumbling homes while they snared a few hours of joy.
Yet, when it was all over, the visiting athletes knew they were returning home (U.S. soil never looked sweeter from an airplane) and leaving behind a vigorous yet inspiring people that were going nowhere. The smiling kids hugging their new American friends---others on the street they would never meet---U.S. aid, mission or education workers that were so grateful for the teamís interest---and wildly intense and enthusiastic soccer fans---all from a different universe they would never forget.
Well now is the time to turn the nostalgia into action. In the midst of the current sorrow, there is a chance for Haiti they may never have again.
Iíve always felt there was no solution to Haiti. It was a nation so crippled by a corrupt government that has systematically robbed the countryís natural wealth and pulled from its resources to pad the personal pockets of its highest leaders.
The land has been denuded and ravaged at the expense of its peoples and just havenít had the resources or political system to see a future.
Now, there is a chance, with the focus of the world on this poor country as never before and with resources pouring into the country that have never been available. The U.S. has made a long term commitment to the rebuilding of this country and there just may be a chance for the survivors.
I just hope the U.S. women of soccer will become a recognized part of the future of Haiti, an unforgettable part of the womenís past.