Haitians rival Brazilians in love for the Selecao

Published June 22, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Screams of joy sweep through the broken Haitian capital and a few celebratory gunshots echo off the rubble. Is it a new president? A returning hero? No, Brazil just scored in the World Cup.

Haitians love Brazilian soccer like almost nothing else, a half-century-old histoire d'amour that even smoothed the way for Brazil-led U.N. peacekeepers to help quell political unrest in 2004. With Haitians badly needing a release from tension and misery of the post-quake year, the 2010 Cup and Selecao mean more than ever.

Some 2,500 fans streamed into the national Silvio Cator Stadium Sunday to watch them beat Ivory Coast on a giant, donated LED screen, the feed from South Africa pulled down by a 12-foot satellite dish at midfield.

Fans crowded around televisions and radios throughout Port-au-Prince, including projection screens U.N. peacekeepers set up in several camps.

"Brazil! It's always Brazil. We grew up with Pele. He was a black man like us and one of the greatest players in the world," said 46-year-old Jhon Daudin, who handed out a few hundred homemade noisemakers — cleaned-out bottles painted green and yellow and filled with a pittance of dry, U.N.-provided corn.

The streets were filled with Brazilian flags both official and handmade, draped over cars, flapping behind motorcycles and hung from collapsed buildings on Route de Delmas, where a crowd gathered after Brazil's 3-1 win. A first-time visitor would be forgiven thinking Haiti's national colors are green and yellow: fans covered their bodies, hung streamers and painted walls with the borrowed hues, only occasionally throwing in Haiti's own red and blue national colors for good measure.

"We don't have anything else to do these days. This is a great distraction," said 25-year-old Fritz Jean, whose home collapsed in the Jan. 12 quake. Like some 1.5 million others, his entire family in the district of Carrefour has been living under a plastic sheet for five months.

Haiti's weak national soccer team (it only qualified for the World Cub once, in 1974) and strong ties with Brazil make it easy to back the five-time cup winner.

When the magnitude-7 earthquake struck, Brazil suffered as well, losing top officials in the destroyed U.N. headquarters and 10 soldiers in the concrete outpost in Cite Soleil. As the world pledged its help in rebuilding, Brazil was the first and — until this week — the only nation to pay money into a reconstruction trust fund.

"Soccer diplomacy" goes back even further. Haiti's national stadium scoreboard still bears a faded sign from the 2004 "Game for Peace." The capital was tearing itself apart in gang wars after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; U.S. Marines were on their way out and a Brazil-led peacekeeping force on its way in. Ronaldo and spectator-in-chief President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won hearts by coming to the bleeding capital for a match against an overwhelmed Haitian national team.

When a Jordanian contingent couldn't pacify the dangerous Cite Soleil slum, Brazilians were sent in. Those who remember say their training from fighting in Brazil's favelas helped, but not as much as the immediate respect the flags on their arms drew. Slum residents joined them to defeat the gangs.

"The Haitians are as much Brazilian as the Brazilians themselves in the soccer field. So, Brazilian soccer diplomacy and in this case generosity has won our hearts," Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., said in a World Bank statement at the time.

But politics are a distant second to what it's really about: winning well-played soccer. Haitians' passion for soccer runs deep. Pickup games are played in the slums, streets and earthquake camps, anywhere there is space. The contrarians side with Argentina - and by extension whoever is playing Brazil on any given day.

There is no doubt who gets the most support.

Outside the soccer stadium, a giant morgue with thousands of bodies just after the quake, Brazilian soldiers on Sunday handed out jerseys from an armored personnel carrier. In a clever piece of marketing, the yellow, green-trimmed shirts bore a Haitian and Brazilian flag over each breast and the slogan "Ansanm Pou Lape" (together for peace) on the front, and the French initials of the 14,000-strong force, MINUSTAH, in green on the back.

Inside, soldiers provided low-key security, posing for pictures and strolling in baseball caps instead of their usual sky-blue helmets. When Brazil jumped out 2-0, most looked more impressed with the ecstasy in the stands than Luis Fabiano's two soaring shots to the back of the net.

"It's very beautiful, this love, this situation," said a beaming Lt. Richard Spindola, 26, a soldier from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Asked if Haitians were more passionate about Brazilian soccer than he and his friends, he smiled. "Oh yes, I think so. This is a big party."

When the game briefly turned sour — Kaka was ejected for a foul and Ivory Coast notched a lone goal — the stadium crew put on dance music to settle the crowd. Cheerleaders in tight white shorts and yellow jerseys danced through the stands.

A popular local DJ, Bem Constant, egged on the crowd, riffing on players names: "You want Kaka? Here is Kaka!" he shouted to applause and laughter. (The name of Brazil's star player is also a dirty word in Creole.)

In the end, Brazil secured the victory 3-1, qualifying for the second round, and the crowd poured with everyone else into the cracked and crumbling streets.

All the destruction, stalled rebuilding, hunger and loss melted away in a few happy minutes of dancing and horn-honking. The home team had won.

Written by JONATHAN M. KATZ, Associated Press Writer

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