Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ ‘Fafa’ Picault back home after chasing dream in Italy

Fabrice "Fafa'' Picault, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ leading scorer, at practice on Sept. 24, 2014.
Fabrice "Fafa'' Picault, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ leading scorer, at practice on Sept. 24, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Fabrice “Fafa’’ Picault is back home, living with his parents in Cutler Bay, and leading the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in scoring after a four-year Italian journey that sharpened his game and thickened his skin.

When the phone call came seven years ago, inviting then-16-year-old Picault to move to the Italian island of Sardinia to play soccer for Cagliari Calcio’s reserve team, the teenager was elated. Picault’s maternal grandfather, Max Antoine, played for the Haitian national team. His father, Leslie, played professionally in the Major Indoor Soccer League. He was proud to carry on the family tradition.

Picault was a junior at Miami Killian High at the time. He thought he was ready for the overseas challenge.

He had devoted most of his childhood to soccer, bouncing between youth clubs in West Kendall, Coral Springs and Weston, and finally with an academy team that was jointly run by Cagliari and local club, Strike Force. His practice schedule was so demanding that Picault, an honor student, dropped out of the International Baccalaureate program at Coral Reef High and transferred to Killian, where he maintained a heavy but more manageable workload.

“My family was very academically-oriented, both parents are teachers, and I was always a good student, in the gifted program at Coral Reef Elementary and Southwood Middle, took honors classes in high school, even got some recruiting letters from Ivy League schools, but there came a point where I had to decide between soccer and school,” Picault said.

“My brain will never fatigue, so I can go to college later, but my body will only be young once. If I was going to pursue soccer, it had to be in my youth.”

His father wholeheartedly supported his decision. His mother, Lucerne, took some convincing but eventually came around. Picault vowed to finish high school online, which he did, and he marched in the Killian 2009 graduation ceremony.

“Education is the sure way to go, but we took a chance because Fafa was very mature for his age, had a very special talent, and if he didn’t do soccer now, when would he do it?’’ said Leslie Picault, a teacher at Richmond Heights Middle School.

Picault, a forward and midfielder, packed up after his junior year, and moved to Sardinia, where he lived with other young prospects. He learned very quickly that despite his slick soccer moves, he wasn’t fully accepted.

Spending the first eight years of his life in New York, and the next eight in Miami, he was unprepared for the racism he encountered.

“Being the only black player there, I faced a lot of problems,” Picault said. “I could probably write a book. My second week, a teammate spat in my face. Other guys called me a black piece of this or that. There were lots of racial slurs. Even one of my coaches voiced his opinion of blacks openly, saying stuff to me like, ‘This is not the jungle of Africa.’ It was rough because I was trying to break in, and those guys made it harder for me.”

Picault admits he got into “quite a few” fights, and shed some tears. He leaned on his parents during the tough times, often spending four hours a day talking with them on Skype. After nearly four years, he had had enough, and decided to come back to the United States.

“It was very hard on our family, having to parent him from so far away,” said Picault’s father. “We told him to try his best, and prove he belongs. But it got really, really rough on him, so we said, ‘Son, we have soccer in the States. Come back home.’ ”

Picault, who had been selected for some Under-20 U.S. national team camps, thought he would land with Major League Soccer. It didn’t happen. So he attended the NASL Combine, where he shined. Although he is small — 5-9 and barely 150 pounds — he impressed with his speed, elusiveness and knack for scoring. He signed with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and this year joined the Strikers.

He is tied for second in the league with nine goals, and last Saturday scored in the 28th second, the fastest goal in recent Strikers history.

Among those watching Picault’s success with interest is Thomas Rongen, who coached the young player on the U.S. under-20 team.

“Fafa always had a unique ability to put the ball in the net, and he can accelerate with the ball to get away from defenders,” Rongen said. “His first few steps are quite remarkable. He didn’t make our final roster because we were loaded at his position, but I always knew he had tremendous upside. He’s very mature, has a great sense of humor, is a gentleman and consummate pro.

“He also had the courage to hone his skills overseas at a young age. Not too many American players do that.”

Despite the hardships, Picault doesn’t regret his decision to play in Italy.

“I got more mentally tough over there, learned to play well under tough circumstances, and I grew thicker skin,” he said. “Tactically, I learned so much, especially on defense. I stepped out of my comfort zone, and I’m a better player and person from it. I hope the Strikers is a steppingstone to going back to Europe and trying again.”

He also picked up a fifth language, Italian, to go along with English, Creole, French and Spanish.

His long-term dream is to play for the U.S. national team. If that doesn’t work out, the Haitian federation has shown interest, inviting him to camp prior to the recent Haiti vs. Chile match at Lockhart Stadium. Fafa was expecting to play, but injured his abs and had to sit out.

“I’d like to catch the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann,” Picault said of the U.S. World Cup coach. “I once was a U.S. prospect. I was on their radar. I want to get back there.”