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Dr. Yves Jean-Bart Q+A: How Haiti built its women’s program despite lacking resources

This month, Haiti finds itself at a Women’s World Cup for the first time at any level, and the hope is that it won’t be a one-time occasion. Haiti qualified for the U-20 World Cup, which will be played throughout August, by finishing third out of Concacaf earlier in 2018.

Remarkably, that qualification came at the expense of traditional power Canada, and it adds to a youth-level resume for Haiti that brings to question whether the small Caribbean nation could find its way into the mix at the senior level in the future. Haiti will not appear at the final stage of this fall’s senior World Cup qualifying event, thanks to an odd draw in Caribbean pre-qualifying, but it now finds itself a consistent player within Concacaf at the U-17 and U-20 levels, challenging the notion that incumbent ‘fourth-in-line’ Costa Rica will maintain its place going forward.

This Haitian U-20 team defeated Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago in the group stage of qualifying. A stoppage-time goal from Nérilia Mondésir, who plays in France for Montpellier, forced penalty kicks against the United States in the semifinal. Haiti avenged a 4-0 group-stage loss to Canada with a 1-0 victory in the third-place match to qualify. That marked a vast improvement from the 2015 Concacaf U-20 Championship, where Haiti was drawn into a group with both the U.S. and Mexico.

At the U-17 level in 2018, Haiti fell to Canada, 2-1 in the same scenario — a third-place match to decide the region’s final World Cup berth — in a repeat result of the 2016 qualification event. Mondésir was top scorer at that event.

How that all will translate at this U-20 World Cup is to be determined. Haiti is in Group D with Germany, China and Nigeria — making the Concacaf side a very clear fourth in the pecking order in its debut. This squad, if it can stay together, will ostensibly be near its prime when World Cup qualifying next rolls around in 2022. Perhaps the biggest need is for player resources and investment, the lack of which was covered extensively when Haiti appeared at World Cup qualifying in 2014.

This success comes in the backdrop of the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake which hit the country in 2010, killing an estimated 200,000-plus people and displacing some 1.5 million in the 10-million person nation. Eight years later, the country is still recovering.

I recently spoke with Dr. Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haiti Football Federation, about his country’s recent success in women’s soccer at the youth level despite these obstacles, and what it means for the future. [Editor’s note: Translated from French; lightly edited for clarity.]

This U-20 Women’s World Cup is Haiti’s first appearance in a Women’s World Cup at any level. What does this mean to the program and to the country?

This is a big satisfaction in general. A qualification for a World Cup is always an exceptional event that rewards the efforts of an entire organization; we started women’s football almost 50 years ago, but our elite program started just five to six years ago, so that means we do a good job. It is an encouragement to continue, to work even harder so that our country and especially our federation, which is over 100 years old, demonstrates despite the misfortunes of the country that we love a great country of football.

What do you feel has brought such relative recent success to Haiti’s women’s program? Haiti previously had not made it out of the group stage of the Concacaf U-20 Championships.

Due to the poverty of the country and lack of resources and adequate funds, the football family is very satisfied with these results and we hope this success will give us more notoriety and more credibility; more young people will join our women’s program and so either the state, individuals or even foreign sponsors will come to help us. In any case it is our hope; we have a lot of young people stuffed with talent; we have a young love of football and a very passionate population of the game, except we lack everything to integrate more young people in football.

Our ambition is to make Haiti a stronghold of women’s football; in our academy we receive young girls from the age of 11-12 and stay there until they are 20 years old. This year, we will open 20 academies for girls from 6 to 12 years old in several cities to strengthen the tradition and become even stronger. We are going to work to get to the roots of women’s football and also to be a big exporting country for women’s football. We believe we are offering our young people the opportunity to enjoy women’s football in order to develop socially and create an honest and decent future.

Is there any particular turning point you can identify regarding Haiti’s recent success? Something that changed with the program or the players? When I spoke to former Haiti coach Shek Borkowski, he credited your hard work. What have you been doing to invest in women’s soccer?

We have changed a lot since we started our project in 2010 after the terrible earthquake that destroyed several cities in the country. First of all, our long-standing project for boys, we decided to extend it to girls with the same treatment, namely to stay in a center all year round, tuition on site and training on a quasi-professional basis. We recruited coaches — the best in the country — and we were also lucky on many spontaneous good wishes. We also had the chance to benefit from the volunteer services of a great coach and also a passionate servant of football, in Shek Borkowski who, on a voluntary basis with the help of many of her friends who are very involved in women’s football, devoted herself for five years to guiding the steps of our girls, especially during the big international competitions of the region. He had done better by inviting the group of seniors to train for many months in a better environment and at his expense to work in the USA [in Indiana], which made a huge jump to our sport. So, we have almost won all titles at the Caribbean level in recent years.

What are realistic expectations for this U-20 World Cup? What would you like to see the team achieve? 

It’s true that we are a bit new to the international hierarchy … but at the women’s level, Concacaf has the best world level so very strong teams; we therefore have a certain amount of knowledge, especially since for three editions of U-20 championship, we have been damaging them; it’s Canada, though, that we eliminated and we stood up to the USA; so we say we have a certain acquired [knowledge]. It is with this confidence that we are told that we can worry the regulars of this level. Thanks to the government note, we made the effort to make a solid preparation; we arrived first in Brittany to acclimate ourselves and also to work to strengthen our achievements and progress in other areas where we had many gaps; we had a strong and experienced staff knowing the environment of the championship.

It will be very, very difficult to qualify in 2023; talent alone will not suffice.

It is true thanks to the funds FIFA forward, which have increased in recent years, we have worked with less anxiety and this should be felt during this World Cup. We arrive humbly therefore but we do not come [just] to make up the numbers; we will honor the Caribbean, Concacaf and also FIFA. We will not be ridiculous because we come to show our know-how, to defend the honor of our country and to please our people.

Where do most of Haiti’s best young players play – from U-20 and U-17 to younger? Nérilia Mondésir being at Montpellier in France has been noted in the media, but I wonder where most are playing. What is the landscape for girls’ youth soccer in Haiti?

Most young players play in Haiti in Haitian clubs; Nerilia left two years ago for Montpellier; we have three who played at ISSY the Moulineaux [in France]:  Batcheba Louis, Kethna Louis and Sherly Jeudy, but have some problems with the contract. It is hoped that as time goes by others may find openings outside Haiti. We have some that interest colleges in the U.S, which would be fantastic. They have a very good level and can contribute a lot to any training; they would be willing to leave to continue to progress.

Our ambition is to make Haiti a stronghold of women’s football; in our academy we receive young girls from the age of 11-12 and stay there until they are 20 years old. This year, we will open 20 academies for girls from 6 to 12 years old in several cities to strengthen the tradition and become even stronger. We are going to work to get to the roots of women’s football and also to be a big exporting country for women’s football. We believe we are offering our young people the opportunity to enjoy women’s football in order to develop socially and create an honest and decent future.

Is there a lot of support for girls’ and women’s soccer in Haiti, or is it still mostly viewed as a men’s sport?

Part of the FIFA funds and a bit [from] Concacaf are rather sporadic, and rarely the Haitian state. Women’s football has little support in Haiti; no sponsor, no exemption and nothing at all. Clubs do not have as many fans attending matches; club leaders must go out of their own funds to run their clubs. In our leagues and thanks to the FIFA funds, our federation contributes a big subsidy to clubs transport costs, equipment and football equipment, arbitration fees, training fees for executives. … This is the problem of Haiti’s total lack of resources; we do not have sponsors, we do not sell TV rights. The majority of the population is unemployed and cannot afford to pay for the matches; finally the state often has the will but its resources are insignificant compared to the immense needs of the country.

A lot was made of Haiti playing without may resources at the last World Cup qualifying event in 2014. Have things improved at all sense? What kind of resources does the team and program need?

Not these girls — they were very young at the time and had hardly heard of the earthquake. It is true that a good part of them are from the west the region most affected by the earthquake, but others are from Artibonite and have not really experienced the earthquake; in Haiti life is so difficult that many people live from day to day, so much they are affected in their daily lives.

Haiti has been challenging Canada, Mexico and USA at the U-17 level now. How do you view Haiti within the hierarchy of Concacaf? Do you think Haiti is the fourth-best team in Concacaf now? The best team in the Caribbean?

It will be difficult at the senior level to confirm because it requires very large means; men, they flourish through clubs because there is a way to go learn through professional clubs that have more and more resources on all continents. This is not the case for girls where there are very few clubs that can provide girls with good living and playing conditions. Women’s football is especially good for national teams, if not for a moment when they give up playing. We will try to set up a permanent senior national women’s team by soliciting several donors and goodwill from the country to fund the program to continue working with the girls and we count on forward to run this program. We will have to narrow the gap with other nations that have large budgets and can afford to play matches and tournaments around the world. On the young level we [closed ground] on our neighbors; in senior level it will take a little more time. The first generation of elite is still in their twenties and needs to work a lot to shine on the upper level. I hope that sponsors, government, donors, benefactors, organizations that work for the development of women will accompany us in this second phase of the project.

Haiti missed out on advancing in World Cup qualifying this cycle due to goal difference. Do you think this young group of players could allow Haiti to qualify for the 2023 World Cup?

It will be very, very difficult to qualify in 2023; talent alone will not suffice. It is a project that requires a lot of investment, but at least we have the most important resource — well-trained and, above all, determined children.

Has Haiti received any support from Concacaf or FIFA to develop its women’s program? What do you think is needed for Haiti and other smaller nations to better compete? 

The assured resources available to us come mainly from FIFA and also from the brand new ONE CONCACAF program. We have to use every dollar by making it realize 10 times what it can do; in certain punctual circumstances the state or even of benefactors support us. Everything is FIFA and a little Concacaf: our academies, the school of the academy, the running of the school, the life of the 400 girls and boys, all the costs of organizing the championships, the modest salary of our technical and pedagogical staff, the trips of our national teams abroad, the training of managers.

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