Harvard beats Haiti in soccer match, but real goal is kicking cholera

Harvard wins charity game, but Haiti wins, too

By Nicholas Nehamas

Game action from Harvard and Haiti’s charity friendly aimed at fighting cholera in Haiti. (Nicholas Nehamas)

Harvard’s varsity soccer squad beat the Haitian national team 1-0 on Sunday in Cambridge. As rain poured down, the players slipped and slid through an exciting match while the crowd — dominated by members of Boston’s sizable Haitian community — huddled under concrete awnings for shelter. Only the most passionate braved the uncovered front row seats. The fans roared their approval every time a Haitian player beat his man or pulled off a clever dribble, and they heaped scorn on the referee when he refused to rein in Harvard’s enthusiastic tackling with his whistle.

The result was something of an upset for Harvard. For Haiti, which failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, this American tour was an opportunity to test out young players ahead of the Caribbean Cup in August—and to raise money for cholera vaccinations in their home country.

“For any player that’s the dream, getting to represent your country. That’s the highest you can go,” said Robeson Hilton, 22, an attacking midfielder making his debut with Haiti. “Or going to the World Cup. That would be an even bigger thing. But coming here, having the opportunity to raise money for our country . . . it’s an added motivation to contribute positively to society back at home, in addition to playing a normal football match.”

The exhibition match was held to raise money for the Haitian Football Federation and Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based charity. PIH has just begun an anti-cholera vaccination campaign in Haiti, which was devastated by the disease after a massive earthquake in January 2010. It expects to raise several thousand dollars from the game and will use the money to help teach Haitians how to diagnose and treat cholera.

A Haitian player poses for at a team dinner in Winthrop House, a Harvard dormitory, the night before the match. (Nicholas Nehamas)

Last year’s game attracted over 11,000 fans to Harvard Stadium.  It was arranged after Harvard’s coach, Carl Junot, cold-called the Haitian Football Federation. Many of the fans who showed up were Haitian and, to their delight, Les Grenadiers won on penalty kicks on a beautiful sunny day.

Rain can’t ruin beauty of the game

This year, thanks to that nasty rainstorm , only 1,209 people showed up — but the quality of soccer was high. The teams exhibited a clear contrast in style: Harvard used a typically direct American approach, inherited from the English: tough tackling, lots of running, and long balls over the top. The Haitians favored a more “Brazilian” manner of play, full of tricks, flicks and clever movement. Team manager Dominique Henry Robert described Haiti’s preferred style as “short passes, starting from the goalie, from the back four, distributing the ball on the wings. The same kind of soccer that everybody in the world loves. The dream soccer. Very fancy and very nice.”

Both teams had chances to score but neither could convert until the 86th minute when Harvard freshman Hiroki Kobayashi picked up the ball on the left wing, beat a defender, then cut back across the box before lashing a low shot into the bottom righthand corner of the net. Haiti poured it on, but came no closer than a thirty-yard free kick which bounced off the crossbar and out of play. “A soccer game is like a wave,” said Junot. “It goes up and down. There were a lot of momentum shifts in this one. Sometimes they were all over us, sometimes we were all over them.”

After the match, the mood in the Haitian locker room was somber. The rain and Harvard’s physical play, Robert explained, had made it tough for the players, who were used to playing on dry grass in 100-degree heat. But he congratulated Harvard on their win and invited the Americans to travel to Haiti for a rematch. “With a soccer ball,” he said, “we can change the world.”

You can watch the highlights here:

 Disaster in Haiti

The game was good fun, but it was raising money for a deadly serious cause. Haiti is still struggling to recover from the aftershocks of a catastrophic earthquake that killed tens of thousands in January 2010 and left countless more without a home. Few Haitians had access to clean water even before the quake, and as refugees crowded into unsanitary, flood-prone tent cities, they created the perfect conditions for a water-borne disease like cholera. Even worse, Haitians have very little natural resistance to cholera, which hasn’t been documented in the country for many decades. In total, 530,000 Haitians fell ill, around five percent of the population, and 7,000 died.

A man uses a canal as a toilet as he squats on a boat in the slum area of Cite de Dieu, which suffered greatly during the cholera epidemic, just outside Port-au-Prince. (Reuters/Swoan Parker)

“What kills you,” said Andrew Marx, a spokesman for PIH, “is you get diarrhea and you become so dehydrated you can die within a matter of hours sometimes. Once you get people to [medical] care and rehydrate them, either through drinking or rehydration salts or if necessary with an IV, then it becomes a very treatable disease.”

Haitian guinea pigs?

The epidemic also helped spread mistrust of the West, after an investigation revealed UN soldiers from Nepal had carried the disease with them into Haiti on a relief mission. When PIH, which has worked in Haiti for 25 years, tried to inoculate people with a vaccine called Shanchol in March, it met unexpected resistance. A Haitian radio station, apparently relaying concerns expressed on a website, falsely claimed that Shanchol was unsafe and that PIH was attempting to conduct an unethical trial on Haitian “guinea pigs.” After a frustrating delay, authorities approved Shanchol in April. Vaccinations have begun in Port-au-Prince and the coastal city St. Marc. PIH, working with local partner groups like GHESKIO, expects to vaccinate 100,000 Haitians this month, before beginning on a national campaign ahead of the rainy season next March. You can follow its work here.

The previous Friday, Harvard lost a charity match to the Cape Verde Select All-Stars on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. New England has a large Cape Verdean community, dating back to its days as a commercial whaling center. (Nicholas Nehamas)