Monthly Archives: February 2011

Haitian Football Association Report on Incident in Jamaica

The recent expulsion of the U-17 Haitian football team from Jamaica has generated controversy and protest in Haiti. The Haitian Football Federation has released an official report about the incident. You can read the original French report here.

Myrtha Désulmé has produced an Engish translation of the report, and kindly allowed me to post it as well: you can download it here.

The details are significant and help explain the strong reaction within the Haitian footballing community and the broader population to the incident.

Valentina’s victory – Haitian women’s soccer

While unjust events dominate recent Haitian soccer news on an international scale, there are happier local stories too. Yesterday evening at Stade Sylvio Cator, I watched the final championship game of the two top women’s soccer teams, Valentina and the Tigresses.

My friend Hayana Jean-Francois, formerly the captain of the national U17 team that traveled to Costa Rica in March, is #9 for Valentina. I sat with her teammates from the national team, Madeline Delice (originally from Léogane, plays for Anacaona) and Gerthrude Saint-Jacques (from Cité Soleil, plays for Amazons). Also sitting with us was Hayana’s mother, about whom Hayana has written a little here. Obviously, we were cheering for Valentina. They were only seating people in a portion of the stadium, but that portion was packed, with people even sitting in the aisles. Vendors went up and down the stands, selling beer and cold sodas, plantain chips, peanuts, and conch in spicy vinegar sauce. Photographers crowded the field, taking pictures of the women as they did their warm-ups and stood with their hands over their hearts for the national anthem. Cheerleaders in Digicel red-and-white danced and did some impressive gymnastics while a perplexing Digicel mascot (an anthropomorphized red dot? An overheated person in a foam suit?) bounced around alongside them.

Here are some observations:

1. You do not mess with Haitian soccer fans. The ignorant and gender-biased American onlooker might be inclined to presume that this would be a low-intensity match, since most of the players are teenaged women. The players, in fact, did seem to be very civil with one another – helping one another up after a fall, congratulating one another with sincerity and friendship. The fans, however, were hardcore. Shouting matches ensued between Valentina and Tigresse fans when people said even the most minimally disparaging remark about the opposing team’s players. While in some cultural contexts (I’m talking to you, Eastern Europe), lamentation and deprecation of one’s own team are signs of tough-love fandom (e.g., “We are the worst team ever! The only reason we won is that the other team played so badly!”), this would not fly in Haiti. This might get the daylights kicked out of you in Haiti, actually.

2. You really do not mess with Haitian soccer moms. This is a corollary of Observation #1. When a (somewhat drunk) woman in the row in front of us shouted “Hayana doesn’t know how to play!” Hayana’s mother (who until this point had seemed like nothing more than a pleasant woman in her forties, proudly wearing the badge that gets her into all the Federation games for free) responded with an admirable and seething fury.

3. Last-minute miracles do happen. In the first half, the Tigresses got a goal. “Don’t worry,” Gerthrude assured me. “Valentina will score in the second half.” But as the second half went on, this seemed less and less likely. Valentina appeared to have gotten a goal early on, but it was declared not good. “It seems like Valentina is going to lose…” Gerthrude despaired. As the clock ticked down, Madeline and I sipped a shared beer, resigning ourselves to the inevitable loss. But then – in the last few seconds! – Valentina’s captain, Manoucheka Pierre-Louis, from midfield, scored a goal. The stadium erupted in cheers, for, with the tie, Valentina had clinched their place as the championship winners. “I told you Valentina would win!” shouted Gerthrude. The field became a flurry of pink and white as the players screamed and danced in delight and glory, and hoisted Manoucheka onto their shoulders. As the music blasted, I took Madeline’s hand and made her dance with me. Valentina received a trophy and $10,000 US from Digicel (the Tigresses and the third-place team got smaller trophies and smaller sums). Champagne bottles were shaken and popped as the women were drenched under the stadium lights in the place that once saw Haitian soccer greats like Manno Sanon and Joe Gaetjens play. But last night, the cheers were all for Valentina. It was a happy moment in Port-au-Prince – and it wasn’t about the earthquake, or cholera, or an election, or camps, or violence against women, or any of the other things that make the news and that make Haiti seem like the most impossible, unthinkable place in the world. If there were particularly Haitian aspects of the setting, the snacks, or the fandom, they were all superseded in this moment by what seems, even to this cynical and relativistic anthropologist, to be something that could take place anywhere in the world: the universal glow of suspense, pay-off, and triumph.

Football and Accusation

Last Tuesday Haiti’s Under-17 National Football team was sent home from Jamaica after two players and a coach were diagnosed with malaria. The decision was presented as a public health measure — the Jamaican public health ministry described the sickness as “imported” — and resulted in an effective forfeit for the team from the CONCACAF competition. There are still many questions about the decision, for it seems a little unlikely — given the relatively regular movement between Haiti and Jamaica of travelers, including aid workers — that the presence of the footballers really represented a public health menace. And it has incited strong and impassioned response among some Haitians, who have decried the fact that the young player’s crucial moment of competition was taken away from them as a result of the diagnosis.

Today, Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald reporting on a protest march to the CARICOM building in protest of the decision, including young players and supporters wearing team jerseys. A few thousand people attended the march. Protestors attacked the decision as discriminatory, and some have called for a boycott on Jamaican products — and even on reggae music on the radio.

(You can read her full story at the Miami Herald here)

Although Haiti’s national teams have had difficulty in international competitions during the past decades, their is tremendous pride in the players and coaches who go overseas for such competitions. Last Fall, Laura Wagner described her discussions with members of Haiti’s under-17 women’s team, who suffered a humiliating loss at the hands of the U.S. — after having lost players and coaches in the earthquake — but remain committed to training and competing overseas. The international appearances of Haiti’s football teams are a rare chance for the country to represent itself overseas in a way that challenges stereotypes, and places them — at least in principle — on an equal footing with other richer and more powerful nations. So the incident in Jamaica is hurtful, particularly because it was directed at young players who have overcome tremendous odds to be on the team and compete internationally. And for many Haitians it obviously calls up many other previous cases in which they were discriminated against overseas based on accusations that they were carrying disease to other countries. (The most of famous of these, of course, was the period in the 1980s when Haitians were accused of bring AIDS to the United States, analyzed in Paul Farmer’s book AIDS and Accusation). Especially given that the country is suffering under the burdens of a cholera outbreak — it has afflicted at least 200,000, and left many thousands dead — that was most likely brought to the country from outside, this accusation about the danger of the spread of malaria hits particularly hard.

Jamaican and CONCACAF authorities presumably didn’t imagine their decision would ignite such controversy. But, given the history of discrimination against Haitians — and the intense passion with which many fans follow the sport — they easily could have predicted that they would be pricking the pride of Haitians and approached the whole matter more carefully and diplomatically. It’s hard to say whether today’s protests will continue or peter out. But part of the ethic of international competition must be respect for the dignity of the countries and players who participate in them. In this case, it wouldn’t have taken too much to understand that the actions would be taken by some as a deep insult, and a significant theft of hope, in a context where hope is in short supply.

The French Curse

It’s one of the oddities of international football: the French team, which often struggles against not-so-great opponents and has had tremendous ups and downs in the last decade, nevertheless seems to have one superpower: they consistently defeat Brazil. If I’m not mistaken, Brazil went undefeated in World Cup play between their loss in the 1998 Final of the World Cup and their less to France in 2006. Today, the two teams faced off in the Stade de France in Paris for the first time since 1998, and the result — a little startlingly — was once again a French victory. Brazil opened well, and seemed like the might well control the game, until a red card for a cleat to the chest of  Benzema reshaped the game, ultimately irreparably. The French team played well, certainly, and probably deserved the win — though I’m not sure they would have come out ahead against eleven players rather than ten. Both teams are certainly in a “re-building” phase, but a few months ago most would have predicted that France would probably take much longer to build themselves out of the Domenech-dug hole. Yet today the seemed like a very different team, and with defeats of England and Brazil in their wake one can imagine (though this is always hazardous) that they are on their way to make a significant showing in the upcoming European Cup, and the 2014 World Cup. Brazil, of course — as everyone keeps repeating — pretty much has to win that competition. If they want to make sure they do, though, the ideal would be for some far less threatening team to defeat France so that the two don’t have to meet up — just in case there really is a cosmic rule that says that about the only team that you should actually expect to beat Brazil is France.

From the Stadium to the Streets in Egypt

There were several interesting reports this week about the fact that some of the best organized and most effective groups involved in the protests in Egypt came from what some saw as a surprising place: football fan groups. As a report on Gawker noted: “When asked about the role of political groups in organizing protests, prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa abd El-Fatah told Al Jazeera . . . : “The ultras – the football fan associations – have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment.” The article particularly highlights the supporters of the Al Ahly (“The National”), which was founded in 1907 and served as a site for resistance to British colonial rule.

The Football Scholars Forum has links to several good articles and a radio piece by David Goldblatt.

And David Zirin penned a very good comment about this at Sports Illustrated.

In fact for those who know the history of the region, the connection should come as no surprise: football has long sustained political resistance in the region: not only in Egypt but in Algeria, where it played a vital role in the nationalist movements that led to independence. What perhaps makes this connection somewhat invisible, or illegible, is the broader notion — one sustained both by many forms of sport media as well as by those who critique sport — that fandom is somehow apolitical, or even the antithesis of politics. These reports, however, should be a reminder that football associations have long been, and continue to be, significant civic institutions with the capacity, on occasion, to participate in political change.

The official institutions governing football, meanwhile, now face the question of whether the U.S.-Egypt match scheduled for February 9th should in fact be played. So far it has not been cancelled, and one blogger has argued that the failure to cancel the match is a reflection of the broader “muddled” U.S. policy. This too, raises an interesting question: who do these teams represent? Does the Egyptian team stand for the crumbling Egyptian government, or for those in the streets demanding the departure of Mubarak? And who does the U.S. team stand for, in the midst of our (remarkably limp) engagement with one of the most dramatic democratic movements in recent years? 

This all is a reminder of the central role that football can play in constituting the political imagination, as well as shaping political action. Dictatorships succeed by investing an entire national space with their power and their symbols. They insist that they constitute the nation, standing as it’s only true representative. They seek to eliminate any alternative to their regime by rendering such alternatives unimaginable. But football also channels hopes and ideas of particular communities and nations, one that because of it’s theatrical and symbolic power — as well as the fact that it can seem to be simply apolitical, an escape rather than a challenge — is remarkably resilient in such contexts. The Egyptian football team stands for the nation just as Mubarak does, but without the police state. It’s heroes seem like they might be you and me. And when a crowd forms around them, it becomes a kind of alternative national community that, at least during some fleeting moments, can imagine something new into existence.