Roughly two dozen Haitian teenagers made history for the French-speaking islanders this evening at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva when Haiti booked their first-ever berth at a FIFA Women’s World Cup after a 1-0 triumph over Canada.
It will be only the Caribbean nation’s second appearance in a FIFA tournament at any level since 1974.
Haiti will join the United States and Mexico as the Confederation’s three representatives after the CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship came to an exciting end in front of roughly 1,200 patrons this evening. In the tournament final, Mexico edged USA 3-2 on kicks from the penalty spot after both were locked at one goal apiece after regulation time.
The Mexico women, who failed to score in either of their two CONCACAF Under-20 final appearances, were first on the score sheet this evening after a Dayana Cazares strike in the 33rd minute. But USA equalised three minutes into the second half with a header from star defender Tierna Davidson.
Mexico succeeded in the shootout, though, to register another bit of history as “El Tricolor” secured a maiden title at this level.
The three North American nations—Canada included—have largely monopolised the Women’s World Cup qualifying spots in this neck of the woods. But, after a lengthy spell in the doldrums, Haiti will now join them.
Forty-four years ago, Haiti—then under President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier—got to the Germany 1974 World Cup after a controversial 2-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago in which the two-island republic, with players like Steve David, Everald “Gally” Cummings, Warren Archibald and Kelvin Barclay, had four “goals” disallowed.
Today, however, all of that was water under the bridge as the small home crowd in the host nation vociferously supported their regional neighbours throughout.
Just six days ago in the group stage of the competition, Canada had put a 4-1 whipping on Haiti—admittedly, a Haiti who fielded seven of their substitutes for that outing—while two years ago in Grenada, the North American nation had won 4-2 to edge the Caribbean nation out of a 2016 Women’s Under-17 World Cup place.
Not today, though.
Haiti captain and forward Nérilia Mondésir emerged as one of this tournament’s most impressive individual talents—she was the top scorer in the CONCACAF Under-17 competition two years ago, mind you—and her form was always likely to be pivotal to her nation’s chances.
But making that mean something was easier said than done as she found herself pitted against Canada’s gifted central defender, Maya Antoine.
Over the 90-minute contest, Mondésir did not get so much as a look at the opposing goal with the graceful, athletic Antoine matching her stride for stride on almost every occasion.
So Mondésir found another way to affect the outcome of the match.
In the 18th minute, the Haitian skipper dropped into the midfield area and, from near the centre circle, produced a brilliant incisive through pass that eliminated five Canadian defenders. Attacker Sherly Jeudy got on the end of the ball and finished with aplomb, smashing the ball into the roof of the net.
“Let’s go, Canada, let’s go!” roared Canada’s travelling supporters, who consistently urged on their strangely subdued players.
“Let’s go, Haiti, let’s go!!!!” the Ato Boldon Stadium’s “neutrals” responded with such gusto that the Haiti substitutes and coaching staff looked over the shoulders with wonderment and delight.
Canada could not find an appropriate answer—on or off the field.
Their prolific forward, Jordyn Huitema, could not get the right service or beat her wardens for pace while captain and playmaker Gabrielle Carle—who picked up an Olympic bronze medal in Rio with Canada’s senior team at just 16—found her path routinely blocked by Haiti’s 15-year-old midfield whiz, Melchie Dumornay.
Little that Canada coach Beverly Priestman tried worked.
In the 56th minute, Priestman replaced her midfield engine, Sarah Stratigakis, with the energetic Nadege L’Espérance. When Priestman offered Stratigakis a “high five” for her contribution, the player glared back at the coach as she would at someone who had just strangled her puppy. The high five became a low zero.
In the 82nd minute, Priestman sent on another attacking midfielder, Jessica De Filippo, in place of left-back Ashley Cathro. But De Filippo lasted all of six minutes before she was shown a straight red card for diving into a tackle with studs showing.
All the while, the Haitians used every time-wasting trick in the book, allowing vital seconds to tick away.
Mondésir and company were not interested in a moral victory; they wanted to go to France as one of the world’s elite football nations. And the final blast of American referee Ekaterina Koroleva’s whistle provoked memorable celebrations.
“It is a historical (sic) win,” said 67-year-old Haiti coach Marc Collat, via a translator. “It was very difficult because we played five games in 10 days and you could see the weariness of the players.”
It is difficult to overstate the difference between the Canada and Haiti head coaches. Priestman, just 32 years old, has already coached at Everton FC and New Zealand while she has steered Canada to two Under-17 World Cup tournaments in 2014 and 2016.
By comparison, Collat’s record is underwhelming. He never made it as a professional player and, although he worked with Paris St Germain as a scout and then as a youth academy coach, his biggest job as head coach before Haiti was in Mauritius, whose highest-ever ranking was a modest 112. Collat, incidentally, was not the head coach when that ranking was achieved.
Before this tournament, he had never coached in a women’s game and he told Wired868 that, prior to arriving in Trinidad, the sum total of his experience with this Haiti Under-20 team was three weeks.
“The girls have a more difficult time in terms of understanding the game,” said Collat, when asked to explain the difference in coaching the two sexes. “They prefer to just play and I would like them to understand the tactics more.”
Fortunately for Collat, Mondésir and company had been identified and polished by the Haiti Football Federation (FHF) long before he showed up and the Frenchman had only to add the finishing touches.
Now, remarkably, Collat will return to his homeland in August as a World Cup coach.
“I feel very good,”he said, “and very proud.”
Mondésir, who plays professionally for Montpellier, will not be an unknown commodity in France. And, almost certainly, a few of her teammates will follow her into France’s professional football circuit.
More than two centuries after Haiti’s acrimonious severing of the umbilical cord linking her to France—which helped shape the Western Hemisphere—the islanders are heading back to Paris as equals—at least, on the football field.
Today, the patrons at the Ato Boldon Stadium wished them bon voyage. On recent evidence, football in Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti are on vastly different paths.