Editor’s note: The following story tells Fernando Clavijo’s account of his time with the Haitian National Team in 2004, and is not meant as a reflection of the current state of the Haitian Soccer Federation.
For FC Dallas Technical Director Fernando Clavijo, Haiti holds a special place in his heart.
On October 16, 2003, Clavijo was named head coach of the Haitian National Team ahead of the country’s 2006 World Cup qualifiers. It was the beginning of a year that he would never forget.
“It was a life experience, to be honest with you,” Clavijo said. “It definitely made me more humble than I ever was in my whole life as a human being.”
The political state in Haiti during Clavijo’s time was particularly volatile and a coup occurred in the country in February 2004. As the team prepared for World Cup qualifying, the team’s stadium, Stade Cator, did not meet FIFA’s safety standards and the team was barred from playing or training in their own country.
“[In my year as head coach] I was [only] there [in Haiti] for seven days because it was not a place you could go,” Clavijo said. “I went to watch one game to look at players and boom, [you] hear shots were being fired – which I [had] never been in anything close to that.”
The first-time national team head coach was forced to get creative in preparing his team for its biggest games – taking refuge in Miami. In 2004, the team played all its ‘home’ games at the Orange Bowl and taking any practice field that they could find for free.
“I took the team to Miami for three months, I took the team to Brazil for two months, I took the team to Uruguay in my [hometown],” he said. “[With] all of those, it was friends of mine who provided everything free [for the team] – uniforms, shoes – they provided everything.”
In the first round of World Cup qualifying in February, the Haitian team took their home-and home series against Turks and Caicos Islands by an aggregate score of 7-0.
Then, in March, the team played a friendly against the U.S. Men’s National Team in front of 8,000 people at the Orange Bowl. After playing a scoreless first hour, Haiti shocked everyone and took a lead in the 72nd minute. As the team was holding out for the upset in the final minutes, the Bruce Arena-coached U.S. team tied the game in stoppage time – ending in a 1-1 draw.
“I thought we had it, but I was proud of the players. I was really, really proud of the players because they did so much with so little,” Clavijo said.
With moral on the field high, despite troubles at home, the Haitian team turned their eyes on the second leg of World Cup qualifying against Jamaica. The players and their families, however, were struggling financially with the little pay they had received.
As October 2004 rolled around, Clavijo said that he managed to work out a deal in which the Haitian Federation would pay each player a bonus from the first-leg match that drew 30,000 fans to the Orange Bowl for a 1-1 draw. After the game, however, not a single player received their bonus.
“I remember [one of the Haitian players] Alexandre Boucicaut, he was making plans to buy a house for his mom with that money, and out of the blue [that was] take[n] that [away],” Clavijo
According to Clavijo, three players deserted their country and disappeared into Miami. Eight days later when the team played the second leg in Jamaica, the short-handed Haiti club lost 3-1 and were eliminated from 2006 World Cup qualification.
Six months later on December 22, 2004, the Colorado Rapids named Clavijo as their head coach, ending his run with Haiti.
“We had a good team. We had something good going. For the first time I think the players believed. People in Haiti knew what we did,” Clavijo said. “They are a nation that [doesn’t] believe a lot in future things because people have promised things that they never delivered to them.”
During his time with Haiti, though, Clavijo went above and beyond to take care of his players when no one else would. The head coach bought his players meals with his own money and, in one instance, paid the medical bills for one defender’s potentially career-ending injury.
At 19 years old, Stephane Guillaume suffered a knee injury and the Haitian team doctor said Guillaume would never play again. Clavijo took his uninsured player with him on his trip home to Uruguay determined to get help.
“I talked to my friend, a doctor that did surgery [for] all the big players, and said ‘I cannot pay $10,000 for surgery. Look at him and see what you can do for him,’ Clavijo said. “[The doctor told me]…‘Fernando give me $1200 and that [will] cover the hospital, anesthesiology and [my expenses].’ I paid him $1200 and the kid is still playing today. He was never back to [his full potential], but he’s still playing.”
Now almost eleven years removed from his time with Haiti, when the team makes its sixth appearance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Tuesday in Frisco, Clavijo will be rooting for them.
“We always root for them – the players, and the people of Haiti as well,” Clavijo said of he and his family. “I think that they [the players] are incredible. They have a great quality. They’re committed. They just need a little bit of help.”
The Haitian team will face quite the challenge in a group with the United States, Panama and Honduras, but Clavijo knows what this means for the players.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity, and you’re going to see the commitment they have [and] how good they are,” he said. “At the end of the day, the gap [in the level of competition] isn’t getting any smaller for them. It’s getting bigger, so it is a challenge. An achievement would be just to compete with them for 90 minutes. Of course at the end of the day, logic will show that those teams are ahead of Haiti, but you can never really count them out.”