Ligue Haitienne club, Violette AC’s, 22-year-old attacking midfielder, Yvener Guerrier, paced down the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, toward his house in an immense panic. He had tried calling his family but there wasn’t any service. Around him, some of the buildings or houses he was so familiar with were now piles of debris. There were people covered in blood on the ground in intense agony, with severe head injuries or damaged limbs. Some of the bloodied bodies weren’t in pain and shock but laid down lifeless, dead.
Everything was hectic as Guerrier’s compatriots were rushed to the hospital or getting dug out of the debris. What about his house and his family? Ten minutes away from home, the striker saw a friend who lived in his neighbourhood. Guerrier held his breath as he asked him about the condition of his house.
There was an infinite amount of relief when his friend told him that his house was still standing. When Guerrier did get to his family, he was filled with joy.
The 30-second earthquake of 7.0 magnitude that hit Haiti on 12 January 2010 was one of the worst natural disasters in the modern age. It killed between 220,000 and 300,00 people, as per CNN. It left just about everything the country had to enjoy in complete turmoil, including the peoples’ second religion, football.
Just before the natural disaster, Ligue Haitienne was at its peak; talents were blossoming out of it. After Port-au-Prince was left in ruin, the league stopped running for three months. Even after resuming, it took years for Haitian football to get back to its previous level, which is devastating for a country with a love for the sport.
Many players’ careers were cut short because of injuries caused by the earthquake. Others ran from the country. Some trials in Europe were cancelled, leaving players heartbroken. For numerous young footballers who had just started to enjoy playing at the professional level, their future in the game was left in jeopardy.
As for some of the older players who started to make a name for themselves, they were never able to continue the glamorous career they started. Guerrier comes to mind.
Guerrier was one of the most promising young footballers in Haiti. The Violette star’s name was often on a list of the three top scorers in Ligue Haitienne. He was a member of the national team, as well. Guerrier had even earned himself a trial in France, which he was really looking forward to.
When the earthquake struck, he was at training with Violette. As the field started to shake, some of his teammates fell. Not knowing the gravity of what was happening, the Violette players laughed. But as soon as they left the stadium, they saw collapsed buildings, survivors covered in blood and dust, and dead bodies on the ground.
“A lot of my teammates started crying because they had wives, kids, brothers, sisters back home,” Guerrier said. “They couldn’t communicate with them. Me too, I thought about my family at home. I was panicking, I didn’t know how they were, my phone wasn’t working.”
Thankfully there were only minor damages. Indeed, when Guerrier made it home, his loved ones were all alive. They had been worrying about him. “It was a joy to see them. I was really happy,” the Violette striker said. “But at the same time, I was sad because, outside, there were people on the ground, some dead, some with serious injuries. There were walls on the ground, people were stuck in the debris. It was terrible.”
Although his house wasn’t seriously damaged, Guerrier didn’t sleep there because of fear of an aftershock. He hopped from tent to tent. One of the places where they erected tents was actually in Haiti’s national stadium, the Stade Sylvio Cator. It rained some nights as the forward and his fellow Haitians slept outside. Other nights were long as he tried to comfort his grief-stricken friends who’d lost their loved ones.
Football wasn’t available to appease the pain. Ligue Haitienne wasn’t in action and his trial in France was cancelled. Guerrier decided to move overseas for a better life and to continue his professional career. “Things changed,” he said. “Because of the earthquake, I had to leave the country. Soccer took too long to get back up. I was sad. I missed the Haitian league.”
He first moved to the Dominican Republic for a month, where he played for Bauger FC. The level of La Liga Dominicana de Fútbol is much lower than that in Haiti. Consequently, the 22-year-old relocated to Martinique for eight months and played for Golden Star. When he returned to Haiti, he started training with Violette again but chose not to play for them because he wanted to migrate to the United States.
Unfortunately, he never made it professional in the US, coming close with the New York Cosmos, turning out for semi-pro clubs Brooklyn Italians and NYC Haiti. As for the national team, sadly, they were no longer calling him because he wasn’t registered within a professional team.
Guerrier wrestled with the thought of moving back to Haiti to play but it was too late. He was in college and founded a youth program, City Soccer Pro, who often organise trips to Haiti for its youth athletes.
Nowadays when Guerrier, who’s 32 now, watches Haiti play, or when he visits the country and attends a Ligue Haitienne game, he can’t help but endure a deep feeling of regret, when 30 seconds ruined one of the most promising careers in the domestic game.
“I could’ve still been in Ligue Haitienne or playing somewhere else. Even with the national team, I could’ve had played more games. The future was bright. I think I would’ve gone further in my career. But I had to leave the country after the earthquake. That’s life, there are some things you can’t change, things happened how they happened. You just got to take it.”
Like Guerrier, Jean-Ismaël Voltaire was a young player with a bright future ahead of him. The then-15-year-old was, and still is, a versatile defender who’s capable of playing either on the left side of defence or in the middle. He had appeared for Haiti’s under-15 national team. Despite being a teenager and playing a position that requires experience and bravery, Voltaire broke into AS Carrefour’s team in 2009. ASCAR was a club from his hometown that was playing in Haiti’s first division at the time.
The youngster felt like he needed to change side, thus, two days before the earthquake, he decided to attend Aigle Noir AC’s practice to try his luck with them. While Voltaire was on the bus ride to Aigle Noir’s practice session, he saw an old teammate of his from ASCAR, Dominique Charpentier.
Charpentier had transferred to Don Bosco and told Voltaire to come to his team’s practice instead. The teenager listened to his friend. “I didn’t want to be hard-headed because I knew him. I wanted to go on a team where I knew a player,” Voltaire said.
When the defender arrived at Don Bosco’s field, they were holding a tryout in which only three players would be selected. Voltaire made sure he was one of them. It was a huge steppingstone in the youngster’s career.
The following day, he had another strong training session with Don Bosco. Afterwards, Voltaire was watching a group of his kids playing football by his house. “You know, nobody knew it was going to happen. I had experienced an earthquake before as a kid, but it was a little bit of shaking. This one was terrible,” the Haitian said.
As he was enjoying the game, Voltaire felt a violent quaking; he then looked around and saw people running. Frightened, the teenager started sprinting too. Voltaire found himself running to the very place in which he’d made his life – a football pitch. That moment, when the youngster stood with his compatriots on the pitch, was just the beginning of a whole new life for Haitians, in which they would have to dig incredibly deep to find hope.
Fortunately for Voltaire, his family made it out alive, but everything he depended on to make a living stopped brutally: school and football. But were his teammates and coaches still alive? The new club he was so excited to be a part of, what would happen to it now? Everything was in the air.
Football wasn’t a priority anymore for footballers. It was all about finding who they’d lost – and everyone lost something or someone – or where the next meal was going to come from. Voltaire remembers travelling from town to town to go to the places where aid stations were distributing food. He also remembers running into fellow footballers, his only moments of joy.
Regardless of the state of Port-au-Prince, there was a distant hope that Ligue Haitienne would eventually resume. Despite not having contacts from anyone at his new club, Voltaire was determined to find his way back to them whenever they started training again. “In life, you never say never,” he said. “I always knew if the league was going to start again, I was going to find a way to get back in. The only thing that was going to take me out of the game was if they were never going to have a league again.”
Professional football in Haiti was back in action only about three months after the earthquake with the country’s cup, the Coupe d’Haiti. But Voltaire still didn’t have the contact of anyone at his team, and where they used to train was left in debris.
After earnestly asking around, one person put him in touch with another and, at last, he knew the details of his team’s next training session. “It felt really good,” Voltaire said. “I got to practice and they remembered me. They said, ‘Isn’t that the kid from ASCAR?’ I was already known to them [before the earthquake] and they liked me.”
Don Bosco was relegated during the 2010 season. Voltaire helped the team get promoted back to the top tier after just one season below. Meanwhile, at the international level, the left-back represented Haiti at the under-17, 20 and 23 levels, and even got a senior call-up for a friendly against Harvard University 15 months after the earthquake.
Unfortunately, after moving to the United States in 2013, Voltaire only played at the semi-professional level, falling off the national team’s radar.
Four words can begin to describe the beginning of Christiano François’ career: dream start, Hollywood movie. The youngster was just a kid from a small town near Port-au-Prince named Cabaret. He was spotted while he was playing in the streets as a 15-year-old and was granted a tryout with Racing. François aced it.
He’s an explosive winger with silky control and a powerful shot. François quickly became his team’s number 7. He enjoyed a phenomenal season in 2009, in which he netted a sensational volley from the edge of the box to help Racing win the closing half of the season (Ligue Haitienne is divided into an opening and a closing campaign).
Haitian sportswriter Enock Néré wrote on Le Nouvelliste that François could’ve won the Player of the Year award if he participated in the opening campaign. The starlet was only able to snatch the Young Player of the Year accolade. The sky was the limit for the winger. “Man, I thought I was going to be the next big Haitian player. I always thought I was going to go to Europe to play,” he said.
On the day of the earthquake, François was supposed to train with Racing in Port-au-Prince, but he didn’t feel like going after his classes ended too late. He stayed in Cabaret to practice with a team there. “God made me not go to Port-au-Prince,” the midfielder said.
It was when François and the other players were training that they felt the quake. They thought it was a tractor and finished the session. When they stepped into the streets and saw that the air was filled with brown dust from the broken buildings, that’s when they realised it was an earthquake.
The rising star thought the dream start of his career was over. “I thought my career was done,” François said. “I even thanked God because I had time to make it to the top level in Haiti and was just going to focus on school because it would’ve taken a long time for soccer to get back to what it was.
“A lot of my team’s fans died. The houses of some of the board members of the club collapsed. People lived in the stadium. My club was totally deteriorated. There was no more Racing Club, everybody lost hope. Soccer didn’t have value anymore.”
François and his mother prayed for any opportunities to present itself. “I’ll never forget that day,” he said. “I was home talking to my mum about what would happen of my career. My phone rang – an agent from the United States called me. He saw me on the first page of Ticket Magazine and that I was the best young player in the country. He asked me if I wanted to move to New Jersey and play for a school named Saint Benedict’s Prep.”
François moved to the US in 2010 with only a small suitcase to his name. Two years later, the Haitian won New Jersey Player of the Year. The now-26-year-old went on to play in the second tier in the US, the United Soccer League, where he’s one of the best wingers. Indeed, he won Ottawa Fury’s 2019 Fan Player of the Year and is a member of the national team.
A few other players who stayed in Haiti after the earthquake managed to enjoy a successful career, much like Wilde-Donald Guerrier. It took three years but in 2013, Wilde-Donald had an offer from a Polish club, Wisła Kraków. In 2017, the left-back moved to Azerbaijan side, Qarabag, appearing in the Champions League with them. The Haitian is still playing in Azerbaijan but with Neftçi PFK.
A decade after the earthquake, Ligue Haitienne is back at its previous level, and many of its youth products are receiving opportunities to play overseas. Even though the league did rebuild, the earthquake left it with a deep scar. There will always be a sense that Ligue Haitienne would’ve been at a higher level today if a large number of its talents didn’t leave the country in 2010.
“The earthquake had a lot of impact on our football,” Guerrier said. “A lot of players left the country, a lot of good players. The level of our league regressed after the earthquake. The physical and tactical level of the players went down.”
But at least Yvener Guerrier, Jean-Ismaël Voltaire and Christiano François survived to tell their story. As Haiti continues on a slow path to economic recovery, the hope is that one day, football in the nation will be able to bring the same joy as it did before the earthquake. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll see a Haitian football grace one of Europe’s top leagues.
By Ralph Chery @onz_11