Haiti melding well in Gold Cup despite linguistic, cultural differences

With players born in the U.S., Canada, Haiti and France - among other places - Les Grenadiers had to gel quickly to make the quarterfinals

Blocks from Houston's Chinatown, it's the French language filling the air on a training ground Friday morning.

Well, mostly.

The pitch at a private school just off one of the city's immensely wide and still immensely traffic-choked major throughways is being used by the Haitian national team, leading to a mix of language flying around the field. Coach Marc Collat mainly instructs in French on the steamy morning, but there's also a strong Haitian Creole influence. As the session ends, a number of players chat with each other in English. It's a window into a Haitian team that has members from all over the globe but has come together for the common cause of Haitian soccer.

And they've come together well, earning a spot in the Gold Cup quarterfinals where they'll take on Canada on Saturday at NRG Stadium.

"I know some fans question how we communicate," defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste told Goal. "Some guys know Creole, some guys don’t. Some guys know French, some guys don’t. Some guys know Spanish. Some guys know Portuguese. But we’re able to bring it all together and communicate very well with each other on the field.

"Maybe our jokes off the field are not as good because of the language barrier, but at the end of the day we all know football. My French is not so good, but when it comes down to football, I’m quite fluent."

So too are the rest of the Haitians, who rolled through the group stage with three victories, including an eyebrow-raising rally to beat Costa Rica 2-1 and land in Saturday's quarterfinal. Maybe we shouldn't admit to raising our eyebrows, though. Haiti topped the entire Concacaf Nations League qualification table and internally set their sights on winning the group when the draw was revealed back in April. They're not surprised, though, to read about what an upset story winning the group has been.

"It’s the same old, same old. When you’re a Caribbean team there are certain things that are thought about you and the way that you play," forward Derrick Etienne Jr. told Goal. "I’m not surprised that people overlooked us. We take that as fuel and wanted to go out there and show that stigma is incorrect. To be honest, we didn’t care what people were saying. We knew in the group that we could do something special, and we were able to do it."

Haiti Gold Cup

The internal belief is critical to Haiti's success story. "Whenever we get together we try to be as much of a family as we can," said midfielder Steeven Saba, who was born in Haiti and currently plays his club football there but was involved in a United States youth camp and played with several U.S.-based clubs. 

While Les Grenadiers made the World Cup back in the 70s, further footballing success has been hard to come by. During Collat's first stint coaching the team, he decided to look abroad. Between 1990 and 2015, the Haitian population in the U.S. tripled, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And Haiti-eligible players aren't just born in the U.S. Forward Duckens Nazon was born in France, forward Mikael Cantave in Canada, midfielder Zachary Herivaux in Japan. The influence of foreign-born players or players who developed in other nations' youth setups has been immensely helpful.

"Well, it’s my second time as Haiti coach, and during my first experience in 2015, I realized that several Haitian players were playing in Europe or in the States, and to lower the age of the squad and integrate them, we recruited these players," Collat said through a translator at a news conference Friday. "Today the team is very, I would say, it’s far from what we could do with other squads.

"That being said, all the players, whether they’re from Haiti or were born in other countries, when they put the colors on, they defend Haiti’s colors and we’re very proud of that."

Even so, Jean-Baptiste said he felt like a bit of an outsider in the 2015 Gold Cup squad, with his teammates still getting accustomed to players born outside of Haiti or who didn't speak Creole or French as a first language. Progress hasn't come in a straight line, either. Haiti missed out on the 2017 Gold Cup after falling short in the Caribbean Championships. Those difficult experiences have paved the way for players like the 22-year-old Etienne, one of 11 players on the 23-man squad who is 23 or younger.

Duckens Nazon Derrick Etienne Jr. Haiti

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"It’s a great group of guys. A lot of guys speak English, so it was easy for guys to translate," Etienne said. "When you’re winning, everything is fine. We were able to get past that hump of not getting to the last Gold Cup. We came in here, we had one goal in mind: To make the Gold Cup. Then the next goal was to get out of our group, we saw the draw, the goal was to win the group. We set little goals for ourselves and the goal was to conquer them and hopefully we can continue."

The next goal is not so little. It is to beat an upstart Canada team and get to the semifinal for the first time in Gold Cup history. The Haitians respect Canada and know it won't be easy to get through. They also are well-aware they've lost the element of surprise they were able to deploy against unsuspecting teams in the group stage.

"Obviously the image around us has changed now," Jean-Baptiste said. "Nobody is going to be looking at us as the little country in the Caribbean any more. Now I’d like to say we’re a threat, and with the players that we have - we are."