Haiti’s The Underdog With The Biggest Dog
3:27 PM EDT on July 4, 2023
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Amidst the corruption, venality, amorality, and downright evil that often breeds wherever FIFA and its constituent regional and national institutions lay their slimy hands, it's easy to forget the real, transformative effect that investment in the sport of soccer can have in places desperately in need of it. In an ideal world, the women's World Cup would be the game's shining testament to this. As practiced in most of the world, the women's game is so underfunded and under-estimated that the margins and timeframes for colossal improvement are much smaller than on the men's side. With comparatively tiny amounts of money, and with dedication, hard work, care, and passion, women's soccer in a given country can go from nowhere to the very top of the sport in no time at all.
Haiti's women's national team is a fantastic example of this. In the greater firmament of the international game, Haitian soccer in general has barely produced a flicker. The men's team has qualified for the World Cup only once, back in 1974. The women's team has been even more anonymous, failing to qualify for all of the eight World Cups prior to this summer's, missing out on all seven Olympics in which women's soccer has been a sport, and only qualifying for six of the 11 CONCACAF Women's Championships ever held.
What was already an almost wholly disregarded soccer environment experienced tragedy during the 2010 earthquake that caused mass destruction across Haiti, cratering the country's already fragile social and political infrastructure. The Haitian soccer federation (FHF) said some 30 of its members died when the federation's headquarters collapsed in the quake. In the aftermath, FIFA pledged to send millions of dollars to rebuild the country's soccer organization. The outcome of that investment has completely transformed the women's game in Haiti.
Two years after the earthquake, the FHF opened the Académie Camp Nous, a new youth training and development center paid for largely with FIFA's money. That same year the federation hired Shek Borkowski, an experienced women's soccer manager then coming off a successful stint coaching FC Indiana in the Women's Premier Soccer League, to oversee its senior and youth teams. With just enough money to get by (Borkowski went unpaid during his five-year stint as manager, but he's said in general the federation supported him and the team admirably with what little money they had), Haiti attempted to build itself a real international soccer program.
The results have been huge and almost immediate. After never qualifying for any major tournament even at youth level, Haiti's youth team earned a spot in the U-20 Women's World Cup in 2018—an enormous accomplishment in its own right. After going decades without producing much talent, Haiti, thanks in no small part to the scouting and development practices implemented by the Camp Nous, is now producing loads of promising young women who've signed with and thrived in top European leagues. And to cap it all off, the Haiti senior women's national team has now qualified for its first ever World Cup.
About half of the roster Haiti will take down under this summer currently ply their trade in France, in one of the strongest women's leagues in the world. The majority of those already triumphant Grenadières were spotted by and had their talents honed at the Camp Nous. The core of this team is comprised of players who powered Haiti to that U-20 World Cup, led by 19-year-old sensation Melchie Dumournay, who will likely go down as the greatest Haitian soccer player—man or woman—ever.
It's doubtful that this legitimate revolution of women's soccer's place in Haiti and Haiti's place in women's soccer would've been possible without FIFA's funding post-earthquake. Of course, FIFA being FIFA, the story is hardly free of grossness. Even while providing the funding it took to get Haitian soccer from there to here, it's widely speculated that the FHF squandered and embezzled tons of that money in the kinds of shady schemes soccer's governing bodies are famous for. In addition, Yves Jean-Bart, the former head of the FHF and the alleged mastermind of the aforementioned squandering and embezzling, was given a lifetime ban by FIFA after a series of articles in the Guardian detailed accusations of rampant sexual abuse of girls and young women soccer players, most of it occurring at the same Camp Nous that produced much of the talent that brought Haiti to this World Cup, most of it directly involving Jean-Bart himself.
It's unclear what the longterm future holds for women's soccer in Haiti. Socially and economically, the country is still dealing with the fallout of the earthquake. Politically, Haiti is still reeling from the assassination of the nation's president in 2021. In terms of soccer, the FHF is still trying to put itself back together after the sexual abuse scandal and the surrounding political and economic crises, the Camp Nous is now largely defunct, and Jean-Bart, who had his FIFA ban overturned due to lack of consistent evidence (a decision the Human Rights Watch has criticized after it found evidence that witnesses to Jean-Bart's behavior were threatened into silence), has promised to retake his position as head of the FHF at the next chance.
But if Haiti's soccer future is written by those who have already written its present, the players who've been preyed upon and faced with overwhelming odds, and have still delivered the country a sporting success of seismic proportions just by making the World Cup, then maybe the next chapters can be more joyful and victorious than the ones before. If so, it'll be both due to and very much in spite of FIFA's contributions.
Who Is Their Star?
Haiti will go into each match at the World Cup as big underdogs. This is a reflection of the difficulty of their group—England, China, and Denmark make up the rest of Group D, all of whom sit in the top 15 of FIFA's rankings, compared to Haiti's lowly spot at 53. But even though Haiti will likely sit deep and concede most of the possession to their opponents, Les Grenadières are primarily an attack-minded team. All their best players are forwards, and if they are to have a successful tournament, it will be because of their scoring punch.
Nérilia Mondésir is probably Haiti's biggest hitter in front of goal. After all, you don't get a nickname like Nérigol without a knack for knocking the ball in the net. Mondésir is an all-around striker who can play through the middle or on either wing, though out wide is where she usually does her damage with the national team. She is fast as hell and has a great sensibility for when and where to make penetrating runs behind the defense, and the two skills combine to grant her multiple one-on-ones with the goalkeeper most every match. When the "FINISH HER!!" message pops up and it's time to apply the lethal blow, she has the calmness and the technical proficiency to choose and execute the precise kind of shot the moment requires. This goals compilation highlights some of this, and I am especially a fan of the very first clip, featuring a brilliant chip with her right knee:
Mondésir initiated the Haitians-to-France pipeline when she moved to Montpellier in 2017, and she's coming off her best season there after scoring nine goals in 21 matches. The 24-year-old captains this Haitian team, and boasts an impressive international record of 18 goals scored in 16 games. Mondésir is Haiti's leader in more ways than one.
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
OK, so I kinda lied above. Nérilia Mondésir, though a good player and crucial cog in this team, is not Haiti's star. That title is solely and unquestionably reserved for Melchie Dumornay, who, as I mentioned earlier, might already be the best Haitian soccer player of all time.
Need proof? Well, the best player on that youth team that qualified for the 2018 U-20 World Cup was Dumornay, who drove the team to such unprecedented heights at 15 years old. Her star turn at that Cup, which was held in France, caught the attention of several of that country's top clubs, and after courting her for years Reims eventually won her signature once she turned 18 in 2021. In her first appearance with her new club, coming off the bench as a second-half sub, she played two assists to give the team a 3–1 victory. In her first start with the club a week later, she scored two goals and added another assist in a 5–2 win. Exploits like that led to Goal.com naming Dumornay the best teenaged talent in the world in 2022, and her sensational form in France's top division last season—18 games, 11 goals, six assists—made her one of the most coveted players in women's soccer this past winter, when she agreed to join French giant Olympique Lyon ahead of next season.
To see more proof of her skill yourself, here's a reel from a match against the USWNT from last year, when Dumornay ran the Americans ragged despite Haiti losing 3–0:
Dumornay is in that delightful Atomic Ant mold of tiny but stunningly powerful and wickedly fast attackers. A natural no. 10, her speed and tenacity is a constant shock to opponents, who often find themselves calmly lazing over to a ball that appears to be entirely within their control only for Dumornay to come flying over out of nowhere to steal the ball away and race off toward goal. She is fearless in the challenge, uncontainable in open space, and ruthless inside the penalty box. Of her more subtle gifts, her oriented controls are drool-worthy; when receiving a pass, rather than taking a safe and composing first touch before mapping her assault, she uses her very first contact with the ball to flip it at some absurd angle and run onto it, utterly hoodwinking defenders who find themselves beaten before they've even lifted their shield. Haiti's counterattack-heavy playing style is tailor-made for Dumornay to feast in space, where her speed, patience, and dribbling deceitfulness make her almost impossible to deal with.
Haiti will never go into a match at this World Cup as favorites. They will also never step onto a pitch thinking any individual player is more talented or more capable of single-handedly winning a match than their 19-year-old superstar. The combination makes them one of the most intriguing teams to watch in the tournament.
Who Is Their Enemy?
Surprise, surprise: another national team whose biggest enemy is their own federation. Specifically, it's Yves Jean-Bart. Check out the Guardian's reporting on him for the full details of the disgusting behaviors he's accused of. A short summary: he allegedly coerced underaged girls at the Camp Nous into having sex with him, forced victims he impregnated to get abortions, and threatened violence against those he learned were considering speaking out against him.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
Dutty Boukman was a real person who is credited for being one of the fathers of the Haitian Revolution. Boukman was born in Senegambia—the former name for the African region that today consists of Senegal and Gambia—where he was eventually enslaved, shipped to Jamaica, and later sent to Haiti. A Muslim cleric in Africa (the thinking is that the last name "Boukman" came from the phrase "man of the book," which in those times was what Muslims were sometimes called), Boukman became a vodou priest in Haiti.
Slave owners in Haiti did not generally allow slaves to congregate, though they did make an exception for vodou rituals, believing that permitting these religious ceremonies helped pacify the slaves. But in a time of growing anger and rebellious spirit of the slaves, this belief proved erroneous. During one such vodou ceremony, at Bois Caïman on the night of August 14, 1791, Boukman and Cécile Fatiman, a vodou priestess, led a ritual that doubled as an opportunity for the hundreds of slaves in attendance to voice their discontentment and plot their freedom. Boukman is said to have given a rousing speech to inspire an uprising, which is said to have gone something like this:
This God who made the sun, who brings us light from above, who raises the sea, and who makes the storm rumble. That God is there, do you understand? Hiding in a cloud, He watches us, he sees all that the whites do! The God of the whites pushes them to crime, but he wants us to do good deeds. But the God who is so good orders us to vengeance. He will direct our hands, and give us help. Throw away the image of the God of the whites who thirsts for our tears. Listen to the liberty that speaks in all our hearts.
Starting that night, the revolt began. The uprising was wildly successful, and within 10 days the slaves in the area had taken control of Haiti's entire Northern Province. Boukman himself was killed during battle on November 7, but he and the Bois Caïman ceremony he helped lead are considered the keys that sparked Haiti's successful revolution. It's hard to be cooler than a killer of slavers.
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
Wikipedia says that griot, a dish consisting of fried pork shoulder, is Haiti's national dish. Here's how they say it is usually made and served:
Griot is usually made from pork shoulder. The meat is first washed then put in a mixture of citrus juices to add flavor. After being soaked in the citrus juices, the meat is marinated in epis, which is a mixture of Haitian herbs, vegetables, and spices. Next, the meat is either braised or roasted until tender. The cooking liquid produced is used in the preparation of an accompanying sauce, known as sòs ti-malis. Finally, the meat is deep-fried until golden-brown and crispy. Griot is almost always served with pikliz as well as rice or bannann peze.
That looks scran as hell.
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
It's a little hard to say. On one hand, all three of Haiti's Group D opponents are stronger and have much more experience at this level. The Grenadières are hardly favorites to make it out of the group. On the other hand, the Haitian team is much better than its 53rd ranking would imply, and their legitimately impressive attack could see them put multiple goals past literally any opposition. Mostly, then, I think the Haitians would be content with acquitting themselves admirably. Avoid a big loss, compete hard in every game, score some goals, and Haiti should be considered a success. Now, doing so could leave them without a win and with a quick flight back home, but it could just as well result in a surprising run to the knockouts. As long as they perform so as to come away with their heads held high, I think everyone in Haiti will be happy.