Turbulent times and Haiti have gone hand-in-hand over the years. From inclement weather to internal strife, it’s a way of life for the island nation, which just survived hurricane Irma.
Football then is a lifeline in these parts, giving Haitians a reason to celebrate each time the boys take to the field, whether in a local game or during competition. The distraction is both welcome and needed, bringing relief to a nation and its hopeful youngsters, who dream of alleviating their misery through the beautiful game. When it’s the World Cup, Haiti comes to a standstill.
Fabien Vorbe, 27, who signed for I-League club Neroca FC this season, is all too familiar with it, given that he was instrumental in helping Haiti qualify for the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in 2007. While growing up in the capital, Port-au-Prince, it didn’t take him long to catch the football bug that had long infected the Vorbe family.
“In Haiti, if you say my last name, the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is football. All my uncles and cousins play football, whether professionally or as a hobby. Even the women in our family are football addicts. My uncle (Philippe Vorbe) started it all when he played in Haiti’s only Fifa World Cup in 1974,” Vorbe says.
Haiti had stunned competition in the region by clinching the CONCACAF Championship, an association football tournament, in 1973. It helped them qualify for the World Cup in (West) Germany the following year.
Philippe, was an integral part of the squad, which was drawn in a tough group alongside Italy, Argentina and Poland. The Haitians lost all three matches, but the tournament produced an epic moment in World Cup history when Emmanuel Sanon scored against the Italians in the opener. The assist was a perfect through ball in space from Philippe, as Sanon outran his marker, cut past a diving Dino Zoff and slotted the ball in an empty net.
It wasn’t like Haiti registered an upset win through that goal; Italy were 3-1 winners eventually. However, the striker had wrecked an Italian defence, which had not conceded in 12 games that stretched back to September 1972. In goal was the legendary Zoff, who had also been a part of a stubborn Juventus side that had gone without conceding a goal in the league for an incredible 903 minutes.
The rest of the tournament was rather forgettable, but for Haiti and its people, just qualifying for a World Cup, clubbed with Sanon’s heroics, meant the world.
“It is obvious why from such a young age I started playing the sport. In fact, my mother and godmother founded the team FC Shana just for the purpose of pushing my cousin and me into football and trying to make our dream a reality. It is today the biggest youth football academy in Haiti,” says Vorbe.
Under the watchful eye of his mentors, Vorbe learnt the tricks of the trade. All that changed in 2004 when Haiti was rocked by a revolt that disrupted daily life in general, let alone football. One moment, 14-year-old Vorbe was at school studying, the next, they would hear of violence erupting in the streets and had to rush home as soon as possible.
Even as the political situation improved, Haiti was constantly rocked by torrential rains, hurricanes and heavy flooding that brought devastation time and again between 2004 and 2007. At a time the nation needed relief, yet again, it was football that was the saviour, this time through the exploits of the Under-17 team.
In Honduras in April 2007, Haiti got their qualifying campaign underway for the Under-17 World Cup that would be played in South Korea later that year. Haiti started with a draw against Honduras (1-1) and Mexico (0-0), followed by a win over El Salvador (3-0), with Vorbe scoring in both games. As Group A toppers, they booked their berth for the World Cup, sending Haiti, across the Caribbean Sea, into raptures.
“We stunned the world by finishing toppers, even eliminating mighty Mexico. They were favourites, having lifted the trophy two years earlier in Peru,” Vorbe says.
“We couldn’t really come to terms with what had happened until we landed in Haiti. There we realized the enormity of what we had just accomplished.”
It was yet another moment in Haiti’s history that had given people hope, similar to what the 1974 team had done. The airport was packed with well-wishers when the team arrived, as well as when they left for Korea.
But there was more drama on hand even before the team flew out. Haiti had been drawn in a group featuring Japan, Nigeria and France.
This was about an old grudge that dated back to the 17th century, when France colonized Haiti and started an era of slavery and oppression in the nation’s history. St Dominique, as Haiti was called back then, eventually became one of their most profitable colonies. The Haitian Revolution began in 1791, and lasted for another 13 years after which the colonial rulers were defeated. Haiti earned its independence in 1804 and became the first independent black republic in the process.
However, the French slave owners demanded compensation from independent Haiti. A huge sum was eventually paid, which remains a bone of contention to this day.
“Ever since we saw the draw, we knew that if there was one game we had to make sure we played well, it was against France. Everyone in Haiti felt the same and made sure we knew it too. You can only imagine what the game represented for us,” Vorbe says.
The 1-3 opening loss to Japan then didn’t matter, as all eyes were on the France fixture three days later. The French team comprised players such as Yann M’Vila and Mamadou Sakho, who went on to play for the senior team. As if to answer the prayers of an entire country, Haiti played a game to remember, holding the European giants to a 1-1 draw.
“We actually should have won the game, having scored a late goal which was pulled back by the referee for no reason. It prompted Fifa officials to formally apologize to us at our hotel, after having reviewed the footage. We did our job though and left it all behind on the field. Our countrymen applauded it, so we were all happy at the end of the day,” he says.
A 1-4 loss to Nigeria, who went on to win the tournament, brought an end to Haiti’s campaign.
“But at the end of the day, we left with our heads held up high. I can never forget the moment we stepped out on the pitch against France, and sang our national anthem, soaking it all in,” he says.
The 2007 edition is the only time Haiti has appeared at the Under-17 World Cup. It gave Vorbe the experience of playing at the top level and boosted his confidence in the years to come.
After the tournament, he joined the reserve squad of French club Bordeaux, then coached by World Cup and Euro winner Laurent Blanc. He went on to ply his trade in the US, Haiti and last played in Peru.
On the advice of old buddy, Sony Norde, a Haitian who turns out for Mohun Bagan, Vorbe made his way to India and will play for Neroca this season, who qualified for the I-League after winning the second division last year.
Back home, Vorbe supports FC Shana in every way that he can, as they continue to churn out more Vorbes, who give the nation of Haiti a reason to smile every once in a while.
By Bill Cooke |