Copa America: After a difficult tournament, Haiti look to home, and the future, for optimism

Copa America: After a difficult tournament, Haiti look to home, and the future, for optimism

The Haitian players came from all over. From as far afield as India and Vietnam, and as close as North Carolina, they made their way to represent a country with little chance of making it far in the 2016 Copa América Centenario.

Haiti’s future in the tournament was already sealed by the time they took to the field in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday. Two defeats, against Peru and Brazil, had ended any chance of a Cinderella story emerging from Group B. However, to watch Haiti is to see a nation slowly making progress at the international level.

Unable to muster the same number of fans as their Ecuadorian counterparts, the difference was evident from the moment you entered the parking lot at MetLife Stadium. By the time kick off arrived, the Haitian players were surrounded by an almost unbroken yellow wall; the odd dash of blue reminding them that they too had supporters in attendance.

Ecuador started the game brightly. The Haiti players were forced to deal with an early flurry of pressure, but in among it were moments in which the gap between the two teams felt that bit smaller. A clever flick, a smart pass, it was a sign of quality, albeit fleeting. In the 15th minute, the Haitians strung five or six passes together across the field, and for a moment they looked like a team with some danger to them.

For the watching Patrice Neveu, it was progress. “When you look at the results, we are behind all these teams [in Group B],” Neveu said in his press conference afterwards. “We still have to work. It takes time for teams to become better.”

When Haiti scored against Brazil last Wednesday, there were celebrations. The fact the team had already conceded seven unanswered goals mattered not, they had scored on Brazil, and that was something to be celebrated within itself.

That same moment of joy would not arrive against Ecuador. Their opponents pressed Haiti aggressively from the first whistle. Ecuador knew their route out of Group B. Earn a win against Haiti, by two clear goals, and qualification was assured, "I am happy and satisfied with what has been done by Ecuador,” head coach Gustavo Quinteros said afterwards. “I am proud to have passed to the next phase.”

Exploiting Haiti’s frighteningly high defensive line, the eventual breakthrough arrived in just the 10th minute. Enner Valencia was played through down the left by Christian Noboa, and after he collected the ball he calmly slotted it home. Just 10 minutes later, they had a second. Involving smart combination play between Jaime Ayoví and Valencia, the latter raced through once more before squaring it back to Ayoví for a tap in.

A beautifully constructed goal, it served as a harsh reminder of the gap in quality between the two nations.

Haiti did have chances, however. In the 24th minute, a free-kick on the right hand side brought about a dangerous cross, and a thunderous header that crashed off the Ecuadorian cross bar. Gasps from both sets of fans littered the air, before the rebound was headed onto the roof of the goal. They were still in the fight, just.

Minutes into the second half, Frickson Erazo’s decision to dawdle on the ball at the back handed Duckens Nazon a chance, while Sony Norde was also granted a good chance midway through the second half after good play down the left hand side. But for some better finishing, Haiti would have had their moment of celebration, a moment in which they were the ones cheering.

Christian Noboa and Antonio Valencia would add further goals for Ecuador as the game became more open, finishing Haiti’s tournament with a total of 0 wins, 12 conceded and 1 scored. Far from ideal, Haiti’s players leave the Copa América with not just an eye-opening experience of high level tournament football, but also knowing their country is proud of them.

For many Haitians, the catastrophic earthquake of 6 years ago is still fresh in the mind. A disaster that killed upwards of 150,000 people, it also stopped the national team playing for 6 months, as well as hosting games at home for 2 years. During this tournament their players have spoken openly, and honestly about the impact it had on their lives.

Those ramifications are still being felt in what is a chronically poor country. The rebuild is ongoing, and shows no signs of being near complete, if ever. Yet for 3 nights in June, Haitians could gather around a television, and take pride in seeing their team share the field with the elite, “For the people in Haiti, they are watching the games and us, and for them its like the World Cup,” James Marcelin told Yahoo Sport UK. “Coming here it’s a great opportunity, for me especially, I feel blessed.”

For those who have left the country for a career in football, the struggles of home are never forgotten. Those challenges are far harder than chasing Philippe Coutinho or Enner Valencia for 90 minutes. Yet no one in this Haiti team saw their participation as just making up the numbers, “The little things that cost us the goals, these are the things we have to work on,” Marcelin said. “I thought about swapping shirts after the Brazil game, but I was too upset with the result.”

Speaking to the players afterwards was to see a conflicted set of emotions. There was pride at appearing at the competition, but also disappointment at how their results had gone. There was a touch of hope and a sense of optimism about the future of the country’s football, which seems to be improving. Passion for football is ubiquitous in Haiti, “That’s our first game, our first sport in Haiti,” said Marcelin “We play soccer like Brazil, in the street, in school, after school. It is everywhere.”

Now facing an important cross roads, the Haitian players know they will have soothed the pain of a nation, even if only briefly. To hold such power is a great responsibility, and while they trudged onto the waiting coach with a look of disappointment, they should be incredibly proud of the foundations they are laying for future generations, “We have to think about what is coming next,” Marcelin said. “We have to think about the future and the youngest guys, the little kids, and how we will help them.”