A child plays soccer in front of a damaged government building in Haiti.
An UMCOR photo by Mike Dubose/UMNS
As we drove through town from the airport, it was impossible to ignore the ever-present Brazilian flags –flying from cars, hanging outside homes and businesses, being sold by street vendors, young men wearing the team jerseys of their heroes Kaká, Robinho, Maicon, fruit carts adorned with the same names – even an entire city block painted green and yellow!
For a moment I wondered – was I in Rio? Did I somehow board the wrong flight and end up in South America?
Nope. I had just arrived in Port-au-Prince. Haiti. As it turns out, Haitians are huge fans of Brazilian football. A right many like Argentina, too. And the World Cup is going on. So the Haitians are paying very close attention to their teams. Then they’re watching all the other matches when their favorite teams aren’t playing. This is important stuff.
Have I mentioned that I also love football? Not the quarterback-linebacker-touchdown-homecoming kind of football. Although don’t get me wrong, I like that, too. But I mean Football. Le Foot. Fuβball. Fútbol. As in “GOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL!” Soccer, if you will… But since the rest of the world calls it football, I will too. And that’s exactly why I love it. Football is a genuinely international sport. It permeates every culture, society, political party, race, religion and socio-economic community across the globe. It is something we can all agree on, all understand, all root for. It is the great equalizer. And that makes it a very beautiful thing.
Like many American youth, I played soccer football when I was a kid. Yet the most lasting memories I have of playing the sport entail searching for four-leaf clovers while “playing goalie” when the rest of the players were on the other end of the field. That or eating orange quarters at half time.
But once I started traveling internationally, I really started noticing – and following – this great sport. I can trace the moment when I became a true fan, while living in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer. After countless afternoons of letting my students out of English class early to watch or play matches (if I hadn’t their attention would have waned and nothing would have been accomplished anyway), witnessing the zeal with which children in my neighborhood would kick around anything resembling a ball, and organizing a summer football tournament for youth in my village, I realized that football means a lot more than orange slices or clover. It gives people joy, takes their minds off problems they may have, gives them something to look forward to. Perhaps most importantly, it gives people hope.
Children who are talented in the game actually had a chance of qualifying for their local, regional or national teams. In fact, few stars of the game come from privilege – the vast majority rise up from more humble beginnings. Football is a real chance to make a better life for yourself and those around you—to be a part of something that gives others joy and hope; to continue the inspiring cycle. In America, we talk about the “American Dream” where anything is possible. In most other countries, football is the path towards that dream.
So after 2 years of living in my village alongside my Cameroonian friends and colleagues, the national team won the African Cup of Nations. When the final whistle blew, the victory secured, there was nothing to distinguish me from my compatriots, although the paths that led us to that place could not have been more divergent. In that moment, we were equal in our happiness and celebration that OUR team had prevailed. We were hugging each other, crying, laughing, singing together. For the first time in two years, I really felt like I belonged. Despite our obvious differences, this shared celebration brought us together as equals. I was hooked. Football was my new, favorite thing.
Since that time, I have traveled across the world and witnessed firsthand the phenomenon that is the global adoration of the sport. No matter where I go, if ever at a loss for a way to connect with my hosts in Côte d’Ivoire, Bolivia, Chile, France, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, or South Africa – football is the key. There is always something to talk about, an instant common ground.
Yet seeing the way the Haitians embrace the sport, especially in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of January 12, has done more to affirm my own appreciation of football than anything else. Within days of the quake, children playing football in the streets amidst the rubble was among the first signs of hope that life was going to carry on, that the Haitian resilience and refusal to despair was on display for all to see.
I have to think that the timing of this year’s FIFA World Cup is also good for Haiti. The happiness and inspiration they feel in following the competition and rooting for their favorite teams is palpable. Flags hanging from damaged and destroyed buildings, or perched atop tents in the transitional settlements across the city are symbols of enthusiasm and optimism. Normally impassable traffic literally disappears when Brazil or Argentina are playing. Also, the undeniable awareness that when the local radio stations weren’t broadcasting live matches, they were playing Shakira’s World Cup song over and over and over. And over. And over. Again. And…. Again.
Everyone in Haiti can forget for 90 minutes at a time the destruction and devastation that they still face daily, and focus instead on the excitement, fervor, joy and HOPE that watching or playing football brings.
I’ve appreciated football for its global appeal for some time. But witnessing the inspiration and healing power that it brings to Haiti on its long road to recovery should be enough to make anyone a fan for life.
By Melissa Crutchfield, Assistant General Secretary, International Disaster Response, UMCOR