Thursday, March 11, 2010

Soccer Helps Overcome Adversity

After the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in early January, no one thought Haiti’s U-17 Women’s National Team would be able to compete at the CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championships in mid-March in Costa Rica. But despite all odds, they are here, and the players from their first opponent – the United States -- are filled with both empathy and admiration.

Before Jan. 12, the opening match for the USA at the CONCACAF Under-17 Women’s Championship was just a game. A vitally important game for sure, but it was just another step in a quest for a berth to the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

That all changed when the ground started shaking in Port-au-Prince.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti produced tragic images streamed across TV sets in America and the world. Even before the quake, Haiti was one of poorest countries in Western Hemisphere, but the pictures were almost unimaginable. An estimated three million people were affected, at least 230,000 people were killed (although the figure continues to grow), 300,000 more were injured and more than 1,000,000 were left homeless. An estimated 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses collapsed or were severely damaged, among them the headquarters of the Haiti Soccer Federation.

The head coach for Haiti’s U-17 Women’s National Team died when that building fell, along with more than 30 officials of Haiti’s soccer federation.

Amazingly, Haiti was able to gather their U-17s and travel together to the neighboring Dominican Republic to train and prepare for the tournament. The match against the United States on March 10 at Alejandro Morera Soto Stadium in Alajuela, Costa Rica, will be the first international sporting event for Haiti since the disaster.

“Sports have the power to unite people and the fact that Haiti was still able to assemble their team and come to the CONCACAF championships is a testament to the great spirit of their players and administrators,” said U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team head coach Kazbek Tambi. “So many people lost their lives and it’s likely that every player on their team had relatives or friends that passed away. It’s a traumatic situation and the fact that they have mustered the character to come here is pretty amazing.”

The tragedy produced an outpouring of support and aid from around the world. The U.S. U-17s will also do their small part to try to brighten the spirits of the Haitian players. Each U.S. player brought to Costa Rica a small bag or backpack filled with things they thought another 16 or 17-year-old might enjoy as well as some basic items that often might be taken for granted. The U.S. Women’s National Team also donated a few large duffel bags full of used cleats and new Nike casual gear for the U-17s to give to the Haiti players while Nike sent a bushel of new soccer shoes to be passed on to the USA’s Haitian counterparts. Each U.S. player wrote a note of support for the Haitian players and put it inside the bag she brought.

The U.S. is making arrangements to give the gifts to Haiti following the completion of the first round. First, though, there is a soccer game to be played. And while the U.S. players will have the plight of the Haitians on their minds before and after the match, they know that during the 90 minutes on the field, they must focus the task at hand, for their team, for their country and for themselves.

“For them to be here, I think just shows a lot of perseverance, their drive to succeed and their desire to do something positive for their country,” said U.S. captain Morgan Brian. “We have a lot of respect for them and I know I speak for our entire team when I say that I don’t know if we, as individuals, would be able to play if we had to face the tragic circumstances they have in their lives right now.”

For the most part, all of the U.S. players come from comfortable homes in quiet neighborhoods not far from great soccer fields in beautiful sports complexes. For them, it is difficult to imagine what the Haitian players must be going through. But as part of the process of growing into positive young women with an awareness of the world and empathy for those less fortunate, they are trying to.

“I think it’s incredible that they’ve come to play this tournament,” said U.S. midfielder Alex Doll.
“They’ve lost their homes, family members and their friends. It’s just really cool that these girls are able to represent their country and hopefully they can inspire the people of Haiti just a little bit. I know we are inspired by them.”

“We know they will be fighters on the field and that will be a challenge in itself,” added Brian. “After what they’ve been through, a ninety-minute soccer game might not be that tough.”

Haiti’s participation in the tournament is an example of how sports can help overcome adversity. No matter what the result of the USA-Haiti game, it is clear that just by being at the qualifying tournament, Haiti has already won.

“We just think it’s cool that it’s not the full men’s national team that is representing Haiti for the first time since the earthquake, it’s a group of 17-year-old girls,” said Doll. “They are playing for something bigger. We have to believe that when you’ve had so much taken away, to still have one thing you love, and that’s soccer, well, that’s a great thing.”

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