You might’ve been shocked to see videos on social media showing masses of soccer fans in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, playing Kompa music and pridefully sporting the Brazil national team’s iconic yellow jerseys.
But there’s one thing that this month is keeping the minds of many Haitian people off the political and economic upheaval in the island nation: Brazilian football.
People dancing to percussion instruments in the streets were celebrating a string of Brazil’s victories in this year’s World Cup, which is currently taking place in Qatar.
This fandom is the fruit of a fascinating soccer love story that has endured throughout the Haitian diaspora for decades.
At Alberte’s Haitian restaurant in Lake Worth Beach, fans screamed with joy, skipping in front of small TVs during Brazil’s 4-1 victory against South Korea last week. They will gather again Friday when the nation take on Croatia, for a place in the semi-finals.
A post shared by #1 Haitian-American Platform (@lunionsuite)
For many Haitians, Brazil — or the Seleção — is the home team wherever they play. And one man deserves the bulk of the credit: Pelé. The Afro-Brazilian legend dominated the football world from the late 50s through the early 70s.
“Historically, Brazil is the only country that had a good amount of Black players in it. A lot of people knew that soccer was played in Europe and we associate Europe with white people,” said 43-year-old Michael Mathieu, a New York-based videographer and football fanatic.
Mathieu, who was born in Haiti, said for many older Haitians in his dad’s generation, Brazil’s mere presence opened up a world of possibilities when Pelé led his country to win three World Cups: 1958, 1962, and 1970.
Mathieu said his dad celebrated those teams and that “watching Pelé was like watching himself.”
“We would say jokingly, like, ‘If Haiti is playing Brazil in a World Cup final, who would be root for?’ That’s how deep it goes,” Mathieu said. “And I’ve actually asked my dad that question one time, and he paused, you know, like the automatic ‘Haiti’ didn’t come out and he paused. He’s like, ‘Well… Haiti.’”
Pelé, who is currently battling colon cancer, was so popular for his time that he’s largely credited for causing a 48-hour cease fire during a Nigerian Civil War because the two sides wanted to see him play in an exhibition game.
Cultural similarities and unbridled passion
It’s this kind of soccer diplomacy that often binds cultural similarities and the unbridled passion for the sport.
Football made common historical connections between Haiti and Brazil more visible and accessible, from the brutal history of enslaved Africans to the traditional African religious and spiritual connections in places such as Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia.
Sports is a form of communicating those shared cultural similarities. But many Haitians in Haiti and in South Florida — which has the largest Brazilian and Haitian populations in the U.S. — say they haven’t been able to use football as a means to share their own story.
Haiti’s only appearance in the World Cup was in 1974.
Paul Junior Prudent, a sports journalist for the Haitian news outlet Radio Ibo, says there’s still strong support for the Haitian national team, clubs, and football governing bodies – all of which have been severely underfunded for decades due to economic and political turmoil and “the lack of security” gripping the small island nation in a chokehold.
“We are connected to these people. They [Brazilians] look like us. And we see them as models, as models of excellence,” Prudent said.
“If we had more support, more funds, more infrastructure in our country, we would probably not be as good as them, but, you know, maybe on top of the world, maybe one day on top of the world.”
In 2016, Haiti lost to Brazil 7-1 at the Copa America tournament at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando. But striker James Marcelin’s single goal by the underdog Haiti brought both Haitians and Brazilians to their feet.
The feeling is mutual
Maria de Oliviera, 60, a social worker for Broward County, said she was at that game with her daughter, Tab Hernandez. Oliviera, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, said the connection between Brazilians and Haitians has always been close to her heart, especially after the Copa game.
“It was so much joy. Everybody is screaming and dancing and us. “We hugged them. We congratulated them,” Oliviera said. “We truly love the support of the Haitian community in South Florida.”
As Brazil made its way through the rounds to this World Cup’s quarter-finals stage, the mother and daughter watched the games at Boteco, a popular Brazilian restaurant and bar in Miami.
Surrounded by tables filled with a variety of meat dishes and caipirinha glasses, Hernandez, confessed her love for Brazil goal-scoring forward Richarlison’s Dança do Pombo goal celebration dance. She said she feels “happy about Brazil’s African ancestry.”
Oliviera expressed pride in Brazil’s West African ancestry and influences, such as the connections between Haitian vodou and Brazilian Macumba. During the Atlantic slave trade era, Brazil imported more enslaved Africans than the US.
The conversation at Boteco turned into a history lesson after Brazil lost 1-0 to Cameroon, an African nation. “And that’s O.K.” Oliviera said. “It’s Africa.”
So long as the defeat is not from a country “that I shall not name.” That would be, of course, Argentina.
Brazilians might feel a special connection with Haitians, but they’re bitter rivals with Argentinian soccer fans. Some Haitian households are surprisingly divided over Brazil and Argentina. Haitians playfully debate which football legend is better, Pelé from Brazil or Diego Maradona from Argentina, despite the legends playing in different eras.
At Alberte’s Haitian Restaurant in Lake Worth Beach, Brazil football fanatic and Haitian blogger Jephte Alexis teased some Argentine fans who walked into the place. His own father is an avid Argentina fan, but they’re a minority in Haiti because the love for Brazil still reigns supreme.
Geopolitics and soccer diplomacy
Michael Mathieu praises the positive cross-cultural impact the football games can have on different communities but points out that geopolitical issues between countries can often shift perceptions about fandom.
Brazil was the first country to donate to Haiti’s Reconstruction Fund after the 2010 earthquake and the countries maintain a stable political relationship. But Mathieu says younger Haitians online weren’t pleased to see Brazil contributing military personnel to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti that year, because they viewed it as part of another failed foreign intervention.
Sports and politics can often go hand in hand, from Qatar’s Emir waving Saudi Arabia’s flag during a Wold Cup match and Arabs waving Palestinian flag as a political statement to women’s and LGBTQ rights trying to make space in the games.
But despite ideological differences, football is often viewed as the great equalizer.
“We don’t have a lot that separates us. You know, we are more alike than we are not alike. So I think that’s a very good thing,” Mathieu said. “And I think overall that’s what soccer does — the same way football brought Brazil and Haiti together.”
Doing some reporting on why Haitians love Brazilian soccer. It’s quite a deep, African connection that date back decades. Brazilian legend Pele had a huge impact on Haiti.
Here are Haitians in Lake Worth, Florida, responding to Brazil scoring its 4th goal against South Korea pic.twitter.com/5bXr6ujToj