VANCOUVER, British Columbia – When the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, it was the culmination of a five-year turnaround that saw the one-time NFL laughingstock become the face of a region devastated by the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. In Haiti, where they are still recovering from the devastating earthquake that literally flattened the island nation, any signs of hope come from a different kind of football.
Haiti’s women’s soccer team defeated Cuba 3-0 on Monday night in their final game at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. The victory was the first ever for the Haitians in the final round of qualifying but due to their two losses in the previous games of the tournament to Costa Rica and host Canada, the team failed to qualified for the Olympics.
“They’ve changed my life in more ways than I could ever explain,” said defender Kimberly Boulos, who scored a goal in Monday’s win. Boulos, whose Haitian-born grandfather John “Frenchy” Boulos is in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame, is from Crofton, N.Y. and played her college soccer at the University of South Carolina.
“Amidst everything they were the most spirited people I’d met in my entire life. They were living in tents and had lost family members. The vibe that was around was just incredible.”
Boulos joined the team in 2010 after hearing about the country’s soccer plight after the quake and wanted to help. She was asked by coach Roland Luxieux to join the team.
The quake, a 7.0 monster that struck on Jan. 12, 2010, wreaked havoc that dwarfed Hurricane Katrina and surpassed the death toll of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunamis. It destroyed most of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, killed an estimated 300,000 people, injured another 300,000, and left over one million people homeless.
One of the buildings destroyed by the quake was the home office of the Haitian Football Federation, or Fédération Haïtienne de Football. The entire building was flattened during the disaster and it killed 32 of the Federation’s employees, including women’s coach Jean-Yves Labaze.
One of the survivors was the Federation’s president was Dr. Yves Jean-Bart who now oversees the rebuilding of the game in Haiti. The country had to start from square one in terms of its favorite sport.
“Our national headquarters collapsed in just a few seconds,” Jean-Bart told CNN. “Of the 50 people present at the time of the earthquake, one dozen were injured and 32 found dead. We also lost inventories of national equipment; the federation’s archives were not recovered.
“Our trophies, the awards we have received throughout the history of the federation, pictures of witnesses of our glorious years were not found in the rubble. It was a complete disaster.”
FIFA, the worldwide governing body of soccer, donated $3.2 million to the Haitian relief efforts and helped rebuild the infrastructure of Haitian soccer. Haiti’s home stadium — Stade Sylvio Cator — was damaged during the quake and had become the site of a tent city that housed thousands of Haitians for over a year following the earthquake.
“I’d say football must be their second religion,” said Florent Malouda, a midfielder with Chelsea of the English Premier League who visited Haiti in support of Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti foundation. “They know everything about football. It’s all about joy and passion, and it lets them forget their problems.”
The men and women’s teams had to be rebuilt in time for World Cup and Olympic qualifying and enlisted the help of foreign players with Haitian roots. Along with Boulos, Americans Samantha Brand, Tatiana Mathelier, and Canadian goalkeeper Ednie Limage also joined the team.
“The people understood they had to do something about football,” Luxieux said. “Now, the football is working. We realized that was something that could lift spirits.”
The recovery of the country’s soccer program, in spite of the results, is apart of an arduous rebuilding process in the struggling country. Most of the country is still in ruins and has recently fallen victim to a cholera epidemic that killed 7,000 more people.
The men’s team is currently ranked No. 117 in the world and is currently attempting to qualify for the 2014 World Cup for the second in history. On Feb. 9, 2011, the Haitian men’s team faced the U.S. Virgin Islands in a World Cup qualifier.
It was the first game played in Port-au-Prince since the earthquake, and repairs to the stadium and the FHF offices are ongoing. Haiti won the game 6-0.
“Since 2003, we’ve been going from one catastrophe to the next,” Jean-Bart said. “Personally, I never imagined that there was so much solidarity in our family, such a passion to get back on track, everyday I see that the courage and the willpower is getting stronger and stronger.”
For the women, a good showing in the Olympic trials in Canada is all they hoped for. After two shutout losses, to get their first ever win was as good as a qualifying for a team that is rebuilding from next to nothing.
“We keep going,” said Limage, who was injured during the loss to Costa Rica. “We want to show there’s hope. That’s why we came to help them, to give them hope, that something big can happen to Haiti.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith