Simon Guillaume grew up watching ragtag teams of kids in his native Haiti play soccer on grassless, dusty fields — wherever they could.
“Soccer is in your blood” in Haiti, he said. “The kids start playing as soon as they can walk.”
In Miami’s Little Haiti, that love for soccer lives on.
And for the longest time, Guillaume said that he and many others in Little Haiti have been waiting for Emmanuel “Manno” Sanon Soccer Park, known as Little Haiti Soccer Park, to live up to its promise for neighborhood kids.
Many believed that the park, built in 2008 and named after a renowned Haitian soccer player, would host a year-round youth soccer program. A newly formed youth soccer league is looking to fill that void.
To date, the only consistent youth sports program at the $36.9 million soccer park is a pee-wee American football team, Little Haiti Optimist.
“It was built for soccer,” said Marleine Bastien, a local activist who was part of the community advisory committee for the park. “We as a community insisted on that because we know our community is passionate about soccer. The park has not been meeting its purpose. … It’s been a real disappointment.”
Other uses of the park — between Northeast Second and Fourth avenues along 64th Terrace to the north and 59th Street to the south — include nonsports events: mural paintings, book-bag giveaways and police gun buy-back programs.
“This park right here, soccer was not, in a sense, allowed to be a part of it,” said Gomez Laleau, Miami Edison High soccer coach.
Laleau and David Villano, a soccer coach from Coconut Grove’s Ransom Everglades School, teamed up to form the Little Haiti Soccer Club. The two friends created a multidimensional athletic program that also addresses academic and social needs for the boys and their families. They had the full support and backing of their executive and advisory boards that include University of Miami professors, a local priest and Mayor Tomás Regalado’s spokesman, Pat Santangelo.
On a recent Saturday, Guillaume joined some 300 fans at the soccer park to watch an inaugural game between the neighborhood’s new soccer league and the Coconut Grove Soccer Club.
A breathless announcer screamed out the play-by-play in English and Creole.
And when the Little Haiti club scored the first and only goal of the game, the crowd erupted, shouting “ Yo sezi! Yo sezi!” — “They are shocked!”
In the bleachers, Rara Lakay, a traditional Haitian festival band, turned the game into a party, beating on red, yellow and green painted drums.
“This is what Little Haiti needs,” shouted Guillaume. “This is what the kids need. We feel happy to have this here.”
Little Haiti won the game 1-0.
In the six years since the soccer park was built, different groups stepped forward to float the idea of a competitive youth soccer league, but the idea couldn’t get off the ground.
Cost was the main barrier. Uniforms, equipment, insurance and registration fees are luxuries that most parents in the impoverished neighborhood cannot afford.
The Little Haiti Soccer Club is free to the 60 players on the team, nearly all of them from Little Haiti. Fundraising and private donors provide money to sustain the team.
The city provides the soccer field for free for practices but charges for games. The inaugural game cost the club $349.
“We need soccer in the inner cities,” said Villano. “It’s all in the suburban communities because it’s expensive.”
On a recent afternoon, conditioning coach Roberto Morisseau ran players through some rigorous kicking drills.
John Pamphile,17, kicked the ball hard toward the goal, receiving a rare “Good job” from Morisseau. Some of his teammates before him kicked long and high, flinging balls over the goal and into the nearby trees.
Pamphile, a Miami Edison High junior, said he works hard on the soccer field and on his school assignments. He arrived in the U.S. from Haiti last year and dreams of following in the footsteps of former Edison powerhouse soccer players who earned college scholarships.
“I don’t know if my mom can pay for college,” he said in Creole. “Coach says if we work hard, soccer can get us into college.”
As part of the club’s initiatives, academics are a major component.
The University of Miami’s School of Education has committed to providing the soccer club with tutors, Laleau said.
“Yes, they’re good in the field, but they also have to be good in the classroom,” said Laleau, who added that talented kids are left behind when it comes to college because their grade-point averages were too low.
Laleau said the team plans to implement a study hour before each practice. But first, they need approval from the park’s management to use a community room. So far, Laleau said, that has not happened.
“Our problem that we’re facing right now is there’s no facility,” he said. “There is a place here, but we are not allowed to use it.”
Parks director Stanley Motley said the team can use the community rooms if they are empty. However, on weekday afternoons, the city hosts after-school programs in the rooms until 6 p.m.
“Any time our facilities are not being used for our programming, which takes precedence, we’re open to helping in any way,” Motley said.
UM’s Center for Ethics and Public Service also is working with the team to provide workshops on many social issues affecting the players and their families, including immigration, tenant rights and college preparation.
“The way you establish relationships is you find gateways, or bridge points for civic engagement,” said Tony Alfieri, UM law professor and director of the Center . “In this case, the gateway in Little Haiti is soccer. It enables us to bring in resources and services.”
The soccer team will practice all summer long and play “friendly” matches until the start of the official season in August .
Some Optimist football supporters have raised concerns about how the new soccer league will affect their use of the Little Haiti park where their teams also practice and play home games.
The group’s football teams and cheerleaders will not be displaced, said Marie Louissaint, president of Little Haiti Optimist.
“I am sure there may still be some concerns on how both groups will co-exist, but our only focus is serving and making a difference in the lives of youth. We have been doing that and will continue to do so,” she said in an email.
For soccer player Jermain Mejia, 15, this is the beginning of his goal to play for soccer superstar David Beckham’s yet-to-be formed Miami Major League Soccer team.
Jermain, a Miami Jackson High sophomore, said he is happy the neighborhood has another sports option for kids not interested in American football.
“I can see myself making it all the way to the pros,” he said. “This is where I was born. This is my city. I want to play for Miami.”