Haiti’s players hope to bring ‘joy and excitement’ back home at Women’s World Cup

Flying the flag for a crisis-stricken nation at the biggest event in your sport is no easy task, but it’s a responsibility that soccer player Danielle Etienne is embracing ahead of the Women’s World Cup.

This year marks the first time that Etienne and Haiti have appeared at the tournament – a watershed moment for a nation used to making global headlines for less favorable reasons.

“We know how much joy the game of football brings back to Haiti,” says Etienne, part of the 23-strong squad competing in Australia and New Zealand over the coming weeks.

“Being able to say we made history – it’s an amazing feeling. We’re just excited to continue to do that as well. We don’t want this to be the end of it.”

Today, Haiti is a country scarred by the effects of political unrest and natural disasters.

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010 devastated the Caribbean nation and left an estimated 220,000-300,000 people dead, while more than 1,200 were killed and a state of emergency declared during a 7.2-magnitude earthquake two years ago.

Even as recently as last month, thousands of Haitians were displaced as a result of heavy rainfall, causing flash floods, rockslides and landslides.

A month before the 2021 earthquake, Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in his bedroom, plunging the country into deeper political crisis and causing a surge in gang violence.

It’s against this backdrop of social turmoil and poverty back home that the women’s soccer team competes at the World Cup.

“Every time we step on the field, that’s why we take it as a responsibility to do so well and perform so well because we know there are millions of Haitians, not only in Haiti, but around the world who are watching and hoping that we’re doing well.”

The country’s football federation (FHF) has also been blighted by controversy. In 2020, the former president of the federation, Yves Jean-Bart, was banned from the sport for life after a FIFA ethics committee found that he had “abused his position and sexually harassed and abused various female players, including minors.”

Lawyers for Jean-Bart at the time called the ban a “travesty of justice” and said he expected to be “fully exonerated” and reinstated. This year, the former FHF president won an appeal against the ban and a subsequent counterappeal by FIFA was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on June 28.

As the controversy unfolded, Etienne says that she and her teammates have learned to process developments while still focusing on their on-field duties as players.

“I think over time, just in the history of Haiti, there’s always been something that kind of deters from any positivity,” says the midfielder.

“We just have a lot that goes on in Haiti … That’s why we take so much responsibility because we see what’s happening: ‘How do we reverse that and bring more joy again?’ We go back and take a pause away from that negative stuff and bring something that’s positive.

“We definitely have conversations about it, we don’t brush it over like it doesn’t happen. It’s just a matter of: ‘Alright guys, we know what’s going on. This is what it is.’ We can get out our feelings in a team meeting – whatever we’re feeling, whatever we’re thinking – and then we move on and do what we have to do on the field.”

And the next time Haiti takes to the field will mark the biggest occasion in the team’s history: a Women’s World Cup group-stage match against England.

Most expect Saturday’s game in Brisbane to be a one-sided contest with 49 places separating Haiti and the European champion in the women’s rankings.

But Etienne, part of the squad that earned qualification for the tournament with a surprise 2-1 victory against Chile in February, is entering the match with a positive mindset.

“I think for us, we’re going into the game just being fearless and hoping that we can give them the surprise that they’re not expecting.”

Haiti, nicknamed Les Grenadières and coached by Frenchman Nicolas Delépine, has a squad comprised largely of players representing clubs in France and the United States.

The rise of 19-year-old Melchie Dumornay, also known as Corventina, has been a particular boost to the team, and it was her goal against Chile that ultimately secured World Cup qualification for Haiti.

The 22-year-old Etienne, whose father Derrick represented the men’s national team, has been part of Haiti’s youth set-up since the age of 14. She also competed at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2018, the first time a Caribbean nation has appeared in the tournament.

“That was another moment where we were like: ‘We’re climbing the ladder, we’re almost there, we’re almost there,’” says Etienne. “To finally hit that point when we’re at the Women’s World Cup is amazing. It’s all come full circle for a lot of us.”

Etienne returned to the national team squad at the start of the year, just two months after the birth of her son. She was first cleared to resume training in January, then was on the bench for Haiti’s final World Cup qualification games in February.

The process, though quicker than many players returning to the sport after childbirth, was gradual. Having gone seven months without playing soccer, Etienne started with light fitness sessions – adjusting to how her body was moving – before increasing the intensity.

“It was hard physically, it was hard mentally,” she says. “There were a lot of times where I doubted myself and I cried about it. I was like: ‘I don’t know if I could do it, I’m struggling.’

“And then as weeks went by, I started to feel better … For me, I had just the determination that I’m going to live up to my dreams; I’m going to be a professional soccer player; I’m going to play in a World Cup. I was determined.”

Her son, Ezekiel, will be arriving in Australia on the morning of Haiti’s first game. His presence in the stands will be a reminder of everything Etienne has gone through in order to get to that point.

“I knew that I never wanted to look back and say: ‘I wish I would have done this, I wish I would have done that,’” she says.

“And I also never wanted to say [to him]: ‘Hey, you follow your dreams,’ knowing that I stopped following mine … I’m here and I’m so glad that I kept going.”

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