Fernando Clavijo is a former American international and major league player
BBC correspondent in Miami
For most national football teams, it’s stressful enough just trying to qualify for the World Cup in 2006.
But Haiti’s players begin their drive for football’s ultimate challenge separated from their families and with their homeland engulfed in political violence.
Speaking in Florida, where Haiti’s players now train and play their home fixtures, midfielder Bruny Pierre-Richard says there are many challenges to overcome.
“It’s hard,” he says, “to concentrate on the game with so much to worry about.”
Defender Peter Germain knows that only too well.
Just before a friendly with Nicaragua last month, his house in Port Au Prince was burnt down by an angry mob.
“So we got the news about Peter’s house, and I had an impossible decision to make,” says Haiti’s coach, Fernando Clavijo. “Do I pull him from the starting line-up and add to his woes, or do I play him and endanger the game?”
Clavijo eventually decided to let Germain play and he didn’t regret it.
He started slowly, but once he’d run up and down the pitch a few times, he had the game of his life. He even scored. The match ended in a 1-1 draw.
Clavijo was born in Uruguay but has lived in the United States for 25 years.
He played for the USA in the 1994 World Cup and coached in Seattle, Boston and other cities.
“I didn’t know much about Haiti when I took this job a few months ago,” he says, “but I know it’s got some of the best soccer talent in this hemisphere.”
Haiti qualified for the 1974 World Cup, the country’s only appearance in the international classic.
In America, a Haitian player named Joe Gaetgens is revered for scoring in USA’s 1-0 victory over England in 1950, their only victory over the inventors of the game.
“We have a passion for soccer, and the whole country is behind us,” says forward Johnny Descollines.
“Everyone at home watched us play the USA and they were all disappointed by the result.”
Not that Haiti lost their international friendly against USA on 13 March 2004.
In front of ten thousand screaming Haitian American fans at Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium, Haiti played the game of their lives.
Alexander Boucicot scored a picture-perfect goal in the 69th minute, bringing the crowd to its feet for the remainder of the match.
But USA broke Haitian hearts in the fourth minute of injury time when Dan Califf chested a deflected corner kick past keeper Fenelon Gabard.
If we go to Germany in 2006, all of Haiti goes with us
Haiti international Peter Germain
“It was a draw but it felt like a defeat,” said coach Clavijo after the game. “I blame the referee.
“He called 32 fouls against us and only 15 against them, and who ever heard of four minutes of injury time?”
“And we shouldn’t have a referee from Jamaica when we have to play them to qualify for the semi-finals.”
Haiti and Jamaica play back-to-back matches in June with the winner going through on aggregate, probably to face the USA.
Observers of the game think Haiti have a good chance of making it through.
A goal against the USA is special for Haiti fans
“If they play as well as they did tonight against us,” said USA coach Bruce Arena after the 1-1 draw in Miami, “we’ll be facing them in August.
“And it won’t be easy to beat them then either.
“We were simply outclassed tonight.”
For millions of fans in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, qualifying for the World Cup might not be a substitute for prosperity or political stability, but it would be a big boost to national pride.
“If we go to Germany in 2006,” says Peter Germain, “all of Haiti goes with us.
“That’s why we’re in Florida and working so hard at this.”