The beautiful game

Over the past week, two separate events left me in a state of extreme dehydration. The second of these was a rather messy affair which I won’t recount for fear of putting you off your dinner, so I shall instead focus on the former, a training session with the local youth football team.

The team is run by Mr.Jules, a teacher at the school and an ex-player from Haiti’s equivalent of England’s Championship.   It’s aimed at local teenagers, roughly 14 to 16 and takes place at one of the town’s recreation grounds every Saturday morning. From the couple of minor kickabouts I’d already had with some of the older boys at Hope House I was fairly concerned that they would run rings around me but with football being our national game I felt duty bound to go along and ‘fly the flag’.

Mr.Jules dropped by our the house just before 7 in the morning to pick us up as part of a ‘walking bus’ arrangement and we proceeded through the rough and rocky tracks that make up the street network in Fond Parisien gradually picking up other children as we went. Most were kitted out in navy blue shorts and shirts which make up the club’s training kit. Very smart I thought, and was even more impressed to hear they have another kit for when they play matches. Footwear however was less uniform, with children wearing an assortment of trainers, football boots and in some cases school shoes.

All were in high spirits though as we made our way through town and past the ice factory which was already a hive of activity with men shouldering large blocks of ice and loading them onto waiting trucks. By now we had up to forty kids in tow, including a few from Hope House, Mercon, Jadonnel, Sonson and Luckman.   We turned a corner, through a narrow gap in some cactus bushes and emerged onto the playing field.

The pitch was a good size but alas, not a blade of grass in site. Instead the surface was hard earth, completed covered in rocks of varying sizes while wandering goats grazed on the occasional weeds that poked through. There were goals at each end, made from metal pipes, but the route between was blocked by several large mounds of dirt around the centre circle. Apparently the intention is for these to be spread over the pitch as a means to improve the surface but for now it had the effect of creating a skate park in midfield.

Mr.Jules soon got us into our stride with a thorough warm up. We were organized into three files and began by pacing back and forth across the width of the pitch. This led into jogging which was then made more challenging by adding in little exercises such as headers, touching toes, heals and ankles as we went. I slotted in at the back and took things easy, well aware that this was the first time I had broken into anything above a brisk walk in over a month. Looking around, I took in the magnificent view of the hills, the lake and the palm trees, a cluster of which lay out past the water’s edge, claimed by the lake in recent years as its level has risen.

Next, we formed into a circle, jogging on the spot and performing some jumping and stretching exercises which required a level of balance and coordination that was certainly taxing this new recruit. The pace of the session continued to build but I was pleased to see that my fitness levels at least seemed to be up to the challenge. The heat was building though, and as we broke up to grab a drink, my brow was already wet with perspiration. It was only 8 o’clock but I imagine the temperature was already up into the high twenties.

After a pause in which Mr.Jules registered the names of all the players, this being the first session of the season, a ball was brought forth from a rucksack and given a pump before it was chucked onto the pitch and twenty of the more confident boys went haring after it. But with only one ball, Mr.Jules made the decision that it was not practical to have a game with all the children involved so instead two teams of 11 were picked, and large rocks were erected as goals on each touchline as we elected to play across the width of one half, thus largely removing the mounds of dirt from the field of play.

I was sent to join the team that would be kicking uphill, to my slight dismay, and slotted in at left back. The boys seemed to be well organized and sorted themselves out into formation with little fuss, the lad on the left wing even offering to swap with me. I politely refused, planning instead to play a holding role involving very few forward runs, leaving the wing play to those with younger legs and more energy.

We kicked off and I was pleased to see that a pretty cultured game of football began to develop. The boys’ natural instinct was to look up and pass the ball to teammates in space, hold formation and move into space. Their, first touch was pretty good, considering the surface, and they got their heads up quickly to look for support. Then the ball was sprayed out in my direction and I turned and chased to collect it. As I came on top of the ball a rock caused it to deviate in its path, only fractionally, but enough to make me miss it and run two yards past. I turned to collect, only for it to snag on a root and I overstepped again. Stumbling around, I must have looked a right clown as one of the opposition rushed onto the ball and took it in his stride as he raced down the wing.

Thankfully, the attack was snuffed out and after that I settled into the game, taking great care over my first touch and managed to make a few decent passes. A couple of our players, Luckman and Wesley, seemed very skilful, shaping their bodies one way and then turning the other to give themselves the time and space to control the game from midfield and make intelligent passes. I took things easy at the back, letting others go forward, but nonetheless I was sweating so much my eyes started stinging from the salt.

We peppered the other team’s goal but with no luck.   Then a free kick was charged down and they had a break on. As one of their players went through on goal, our keeper burst out and dived at his feet, amidst the rocks to prevent a certain goal. Brave keeping indeed! After 30 to 40 mnutes, Jules called time with the score at nil-nil. A good game and I was pleased not to have disgraced myself or to have turned an ankle. I grabbed a drink and was almost tempted to wring out my shirt, such was the amount I had sweated, but we were quickly called back for some shooting practice.

Again, with only one ball, it meant that most of the kids had to stand around and watch but as I was given the honour of the first shot, I think they were all curious to see what I would do with it. ‘No pressure’ I thought, as the ball was placed for me, 20 yards out, ‘just don’t do anything that is going to undermine your reputation when you return to school on Monday morning’. I ran up, made a slightly scuffed contact with the ball and shanked it low and wide. Not too embarrassing but certainly not a shot that was going to restore the already beleaguered image of English football. Thinking, I’d blown my shot at glory, Mr.Jules then insisted I had another go. This time I elected to clip it with my instep and was pleased to wrap my foot right around it, curling it just inside the left post. Sadly the keeper scrambled across and parried it out but it was a fine save and I was pleased. Nonetheless, Mr.Jules insisted I take another shot. With forty kids still watching me, I was beginning to wonder where this would end. So a third attempt, and another sweet strike, but again it drifted to the right and across the face of goal.

No goals then, but thankfully Mr.Jules had seen enough and moved on to the kids who took it in turns to sky the ball high over the bar or shank it wide as I had done. Of the dozen kids who were given a turn not one was able to score, which left me feeling somewhat better about my own efforts and also pondering whether Haitian football needed to work on its finishing a bit more.

With the shooting practice over it was time to head home, and not before time; although it was only 9 o’clock and the Sun was still on an upward march, the heat was making me dizzy. We wandered back down the same tracks, passing a bar where men huddled around a TV watching the Argentina Brazil game. I said goodbye to Mr.Jules as we parted company at his house and made it back to Hope House in time to join Pierre Richard for the last 5 minutes of the South American ‘Super Classico’ which he was streaming over the internet.

It seems that football is a national pastime here in Haiti, just as in so many parts of the world. I had a great time playing with Mr.Jules and the kids and I hope they will not have to wait too long before their pitch is upgraded somewhat. I certainly hope to attend another session or two before I leave and I will see if I can’t rustle up an extra football or two to take along with me.

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