When Haiti play England in Brisbane on their Women’s World Cup debut this month it will mark the culmination of a long and arduous journey against adversity.
While many teams in women’s football fight for recognition and resources, the Haitians have had to overcome the additional challenges that have afflicted the Caribbean nation.
Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country and for years been mired in a vicious cycle of chronic political, humanitarian, economic and health crises.
Add in brutal gang violence, and the United Nations’ top human rights official earlier this year described Haiti’s multiple problems as a “living nightmare”.
Against such a backdrop, the team were forced to hold their training camps and home games in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.
And yet, amidst all this, Haiti beat Chile in a playoff in New Zealand in February to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
“We just put our head down and worked and tried not to worry about all the outside factors,” midfielder Milan Pierre-Jerome told the Miami Herald.
“Yes it’s been more difficult for us compared to teams in other countries, but knowing that no matter the circumstances, no matter what challenges we face, we still have 11 players on the field, one soccer ball and we all play with cleats.
“That’s what held us together.”
Haiti are in Group D at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand alongside China, Denmark and European champions England.
They face England in their opener on July 22.
The nucleus of the team emerged in 2018, when Haiti qualified for the Under-20 Women’s World Cup, their first global FIFA tournament of any kind.
Nine of that youth team were part of the squad which beat Chile, including midfielder Danielle Etienne, who is well aware of the positive impact that the team has had on her country.
“It just shows how far we’ve come as a nation and as a team. It means so much to us. This is a breath of fresh air to brighten the country,” she said.
“It’s more than just football — it’s making strides in football, but also helping lift our country during such a hard time,” she added.
The squad that secured qualification included seven players under the age of 20, including the fulcrum of the team, Melchie Dumornay.
The 19-year-old attacking midfielder scored both goals in the win against Chile and is a rising star of women’s football.
After impressing with Reims in the past two seasons, she signed for Lyon, the 16-times French champions and record eight-times Champions League winners.
Haiti are ranked 53rd in the world and will not be expected to get out of the group, but they are not ready to settle for just being at the World Cup.
“We’re not the same Haiti we used to be years ago, where teams were not fearing us. Now we’re stepping on the field and people are giving us more respect because they see how far we’ve come,” said Etienne.
“We were able to make history one time and make history again, and I just hope that we continue to do that and become genuine World Cup competitors,” she added.
If Haiti are to provide an upset it is likely to be Dumornay who provides the spark.
“Melchie is the star,” said centre-half Jennyfer Limage.
“You can’t compare Melchie with any other player. She’s special”.