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.”
Instead, the game is taking place 700 miles away in South Florida, where organizers plan to donate $1 per ticket toward Duval’s stadium dream. The stadium has been designed by architect Carlos Zapata, who co-designed a renovation ofChicago’s Soldier Field. It has the backing of several other prominent individuals, all of whom came together to stage the friendly match.
“We really believed in what they were doing,” said Evan Brady of INSIGNIA Sports & Entertainment, which installed the billboards.
Brady said the idea to bring Spain and Haiti together was that of the Dolphins.
The other key figure is Morad Fareed, a New York real estate developer and former Palestinian national team soccer player. Fareed met Duval two years ago in Haiti through former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative. Almost immediately, Fareed said, he was impressed with Duval’s vision to expand his athletic program to include a 12,000-seat stadium in Cité Soleil, a youth academy and another professional soccer league.
Currently, Duval serves 2,000 youngsters, ages 6 to 24, at six different sites in the capital. Youngsters are fed daily and trained in several sports. But outside of the soccer competitions in and out of Haiti, opportunities are limited. Few are lucky enough to make it onto Haiti’s national soccer team.
“As we went through it and talked about the mechanics and how it would work, it seemed like a bold and smart idea,” Fareed said. “It just made a lot of sense.”
The project would be located on 12 acres and generate up to 500 jobs, Duval said. Soon after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, homeless quake residents temporarily took over the site. Duval said he got them to leave by offering them a choice: a place to put their tent or a stadium for their children to play. They chose the latter. He has since filled in the site with about 10,000 truckloads of rubble to even it up with the road and mitigate flooding.
“That stadium will generate revenues for the kids who will come and play in it; it will act as a collective organizer for the community,” Duval said. “It’s a relatively low investment in relation to the benefit that is going to come out of it, and the population sees it. They are waiting for it.”
The initial price tag was $5 million, but Fareed concedes that the finished product could be anywhere between $10 million and $15 million. And though they initially considered calling the stadium Phoenix, to symbolize a community rising from the ashes, there is talk of selling the naming rights to generate additional funds. Duval’s brother, famed Haitian painter and sculptor Edouard Duval Carrié, also is helping with a fundraiser before Saturday’s soccer game.
Bony Pierre, a member of Haiti’s national soccer team who spent 14 years as part of Duval’s athletic club, said the stadium has the “potential to transform Cité Soleil” in much the way soccer is transforming his own life.
“It has given me the opportunity to help my mother and sisters, and taken me to places I otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to visit,” said Pierre, 22.
He said that while recognizing Haiti’s limited resources, giving Haiti’s youth a safe place to play and learn the importance of discipline, teamwork and responsibilities is a priority.
“We can give the youth a new vision,’’ he said. “We can get them out of the streets.”