PORT-AU-PRINCE -- It wasn’t until ex-Haitian soccer star Robert “Boby” Duval saw the large billboards straddling Interstate 95 in South Florida that it struck him that the upcoming match between his country’s struggling soccer team and the world’s top-ranked players is a really big deal.
It was also at that very moment Duval’s dream of building a multimillion-dollar professional soccer stadium in one of Haiti’s most notorious slums inched closer to reality.
“I said, ‘My God!’ ” said Duval, 59, a former Haitian political prisoner who has devoted the past 20 years to teaching young kids in Cité Soleil and neighboring communities how to properly kick a ball. “It takes a billboard. They are all over the place.”
For weeks, South Florida has been blanketed with billboards advertising the June 8 friendly at Sun Life Stadium between Haiti and Spain, the reigning European and World Cup champions.
And while ticket sales are sluggish, here in Haiti, where soccer has religion-like status, the game is enjoying enormous enthusiasm as sports radio journalists talk it up.
But the match-up — or mismatch — is about more than just a game. It’s about the marketing gurus at the Miami Dolphins home turf seeking to make Miami the home of international soccer; an earthquake-recovering nation struggling to make sports development a priority; and one man’s vision to give poor, talented youths a future.
“Soccer is a crusher of men and women in Haiti,” Duval said. “They spend 12 to 15 years playing, but a lot of good talent don’t have the chance to go and express themselves, make money with it. This is unacceptable. If the U.S. didn’t have organized sports to serve inner-city kids, you would have a revolution. Look at how many people are in sports and make a living out of it. Why can’t we?”
Haiti’s government seems to be asking the same question. The country is renovating several youth sports centers and athletic fields while foreign donors fly young Haitian soccer players to their countries for training. Brazil, for example, has committed more than $7 million to identify and prepare talented Haitian youngsters to enter competitive soccer.
Late last month, President Michel Martelly touted the merits of sports development, telling thousands of schoolchildren inside a newly government-renovated sports center in the city of Carrefour on the outskirts of the capital, “We want to accompany you with sports.”
Martelly was joined by Spain’s ambassador to Haiti and the head of the Inter-American Development Bank. Together with Atletico de Madrid, they announced the launch of a $3 million pilot sports development program for Haiti’s youth. The effort comes as construction begins on a new $21 million stadium donated by the International Olympic Committee.
“Haitians clearly love futbol,” said Manuel Hernández Ruigómez, Spain’s ambassador to Haiti, joining Martelly and IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno on the rocky field of the Carrefour center, all mulling how to attract private investors.
“For them to have a match with Spain’s national team is a big deal. It’s only a pity that it couldn’t take place here.”