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More than a Vela lookalike: Haiti's Saba bouncing back after injuries kept him away from soccer

00:30 GMT+3 03/07/2019
Steeven Saba Haiti
His similar profile to the Mexican forward has drawn attention, but the midfielder's on-field skill helped Haiti into the semifinal

It's always been Steeven Saba's look drawing the attention. 

When he was an up-and-coming player, a standout at South Florida club Weston FC, it was his mop of curly hair. Even as Saba was invited to a trial with Blackburn Rovers, attended a Real Madrid camp and suited up for the United States U-18 national team, he still took questions about his locks. Now, the Mexican press has seized upon a profile that gives him a striking resemblance to Mexican attacker Carlos Vela.  

He stopped for photos several times on the way out of State Farm Stadium with each outlet looking to get its own shot to display next to Vela's photo. "It's a fun story," Saba said Monday. But the midfielder's story goes far beyond appearances. 

His hair still curly but now more carefully groomed, Saba is in a place he never thought he'd be: On the field of State Farm Stadium, training with the Haiti national team ahead of an improbable Gold Cup semifinal against Mexico on Tuesday night. But more broadly, there were moments when he thought he'd never be on the soccer field playing at a high level ever again. 

Saba never was able to make good on the promise of playing in Europe, his career derailed by not one, not two, but three knee surgeries.  

"You can’t do what you really love to do. You can’t show the world what you can do. To be honest, it was the worst moments of my life," he said. "I can’t thank my parents and my brother and sister enough because if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here today." 

The injuries kept him mostly out of the sport for three years, but at 26 Saba still has some of the skill he flashed a decade earlier left in his legs. Now playing with Violette AC in Port-au-Prince, he's is one of three domestic-based players in Marc Collat's squad. 

He got the call from the coach last year, suiting up for a friendly against Argentina during the Albiceleste's World Cup preparations. He returned this year to help Haiti top of the Nations League qualification table and earn a spot in the Gold Cup, where he has started all four matches. 

"Steeven, I must say, joined the team this year. He’s a little bit atypical in Haiti and brings a lot of technical skill to the team," Collat said at a news conference Monday through a translator. "He’s very precious and I believe there’s a lot he’ll demonstrate throughout the competition." 

Saba hopes his showings in this tournament pave the way for an exit to a bigger league, but he's immensely proud to be representing not only the nation of Haiti but the league itself. 

"There is a big gap, but there’s a lot of talent in Haiti. I can promise you that," he said. "There are two or three players on the team that play in Haiti currently, and I couldn’t be happier to be doing what I can to prove that there’s a lot of talent in Haiti." 

The talent has been on display in this tournament. Saba keyed Haiti's impressive third goal in the quarterfinal win over Canada, fighting to get possession and then sending a long switch to a wide-open Duckens Nazon. Nazon went to work and eventually set up Wilde-Donald Guerrier for the winning goal. 

Saba said it was a particularly satisfying moment after being on the receiving end of trash talk from Junior Hoilett for most of the game. And after the final whistle, Saba broke down in tears at helping Haiti get into the Gold Cup semifinal for the first time ever. 

If Haiti were to somehow do the same Tuesday and beat Mexico, Saba has no doubt his emotions would overcome him once again. 

"I’d cry on the field again. I’d be the happiest person ever," he said. "In Haiti everything is hard. We’re fighters. We’re warriors and we’ll see where it goes from there. I think the entire team is confident. I can’t wait to start the game."