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#2323: For troubled Haiti, soccer is more than a sport ... (fwd)


Published Saturday, February 12, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 `Sometimes it's all we have'
 For troubled Haiti, soccer is more than a sport -- it's a source of
national pride_____ BY PEDRO F. FONTEBOA 

 The Haitian national soccer team is playing with much more at stake
than the other 11 teams in the 2000 Gold Cup that begins today in the
Orange Bowl. At least, that's how coach Emmanuel Sanon and assistant
Zenono Jean-Baptiste see it. ``Our nation is full of pride watching us
closely,'' said Sanon, a former player for the Miami Americans of the
American Soccer League. ``This is not any other tournament for us; we
have to play well. A lot depends on it back home.'' Tonight's game
against the United States, scheduled to begin at 7 and to be followed by
Colombia vs. Jamaica, is so important, even Haitian President Rene
 Preval will be in attendance. ``Soccer is our passion, and sometimes
it's all we have,'' said Jean-Baptiste, a longtime Miami resident and
coach of the Haitian national and World Cup squads from 1991 to '94.
``Haiti has been a struggling country, and sometimes all you
 hear about in Miami and other parts of the United States is negative.

 ``Haiti is a wonderful country, and its people are very proud. It
bothers us when people talk about Haitians, usually all they can talk
about is the boat people and the tragedies of those who die or are
abused trying to come to this country to find freedom like many others
from other nations have done before them. ``One way we have of putting
ourselves in a positive light is through soccer. On a soccer field we
are equal with the opponent. Each victory sends waves of pride
 across the Atlantic Ocean to our homeland. Haiti, this is for you.''
 Leading Haiti tonight are top midfielders Michel Gabriel and Carlo
Marcelin, defender Chrismonor Thelusma, forward Sebastien Vorbe and
goalkeeper Didier Menard. Jean-Baptiste is a hero not only to the
Haitian community in South Florida, but also in his homeland. He has had
a strong following in South Florida since he played at Miami-Dade
Kendall and led that team to the national junior-college championship in
1978. He went on to coach Miami-Dade Wolfson and guided his
 team to the national finals three consecutive years (1985, '86 and
'87). He also has coached Seleccion Haiti to the championship of the
prestigious El Nuevo Herald Copa Latina on four occasions. He hopes
later this month to make it five.
 But his focus today is on the national team and a possible upset
victory over the United States. It would be an emotional triumph.
 ``We have buses full of Haitians traveling here for the opener of the
Gold Cup from as far away as Montreal, New York and Boston, not to
mention Tampa and Orlando. Wherever there is a large concentration of
Haitians, you can bet a bus is coming,'' Jean-Baptiste said. ``That,
plus all the Haitians who call South Florida home, and the United States
may not be the home team in the Orange Bowl. ``We expect more than
30,000 Haitians to be there. It will be a great night for soccer and a
proud night for Haiti either way. Imagine, though, the party in the
 streets afterward in Little Haiti, in Miami and back in Port-au-Prince
when we win?''