For Haitian team playing Austin FC in the Champions League, the bigger challenge is off the pitch
Austin FC will be taking its first steps toward a trophy this season when it plays Violette AC of Haiti in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday. Violette’s participation in the tournament, meanwhile, might be worthy of its own award.
Disease, unrest and corruption have put the Haitian professional soccer league on hold. Teams have not played a full year of competition since 2018. In 2019, the season was abandoned because of civil unrest. The next season, because of COVID. In 2021, the league managed only half a season.
But in May, Violette Athlétique Club earned a spot in the annual Champions League tournament, which brings together the best soccer clubs from this half of the hemisphere.
Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff says there’s a lot more to think about with the Champions League, which is kicking off in the Dominican Republic.
“[We’re] going into CONCACAF, dealing with what it’s like on the road,” he said. CONCACAF is short for Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football, and is one of six continental governing bodies for soccer. “The refereeing can be slightly different than our league, the fields can be slightly different."
Getting information on their opposition was difficult.
“It’s very hard getting anything out of Haiti,” goalkeeper Brad Stuver said. “We’re really going to have to go down there with the idea that there are going to be some unknowns, and we’re going to have work on that on the fly.”
These are inconveniences for most modern pro soccer teams, but they are nothing compared to what Violette AC has endured and will continue to face after this round of the tournament is done.
Since 2010, Haiti has suffered earthquakes, hurricanes, cholera, gang violence and the political vacuum after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.
Haiti’s plight has drawn special attention from the United Nations.
“We have the harbor blocked by the gangs, not allowing fuel or needed materials to move,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said last month. “We have, because of that, no fuel in the city. Having no fuel, there is no water.”
These massive issues exposed smaller cracks elsewhere – even in Haiti's soccer federation. The 2010 earthquake made Violette’s stadium unusable, forcing the team to play elsewhere and sparking a financial and mismanagement tailspin.
The 2021 season stopped after Yves Jean-Bart, the president of Haiti’s soccer federation, was forced out over sexual assault charges. FIFA banned him for life, and no one stepped in to lead the league. Violette was declared the season winner.
There were additional barriers for the team. Violette could not train when they wanted or play other Haitian teams because of kidnappings and gang violence.
"The team, they can’t go nowhere," said Haitian journalist Emmanuel Merson, who started Goals9.com, a website dedicated to Haitian sport after moving to upstate New York.
Still, Violette kept playing and earned a spot in the tournament.
“In Haiti, keeping a team alive, even when it's not in competition, between May to today [is a feat],” former Violette player and coach Ralph Kernizan said. “Let's imagine the financial implications, keeping training staff, problems the players face with the growing insecurity [in Haiti].”
For safety reasons, Violette has been training for Tuesday's match in Santiago, Dominican Republic. They'll come to Q2 in a week for a rematch against Austin FC.
Only three U.S. teams have won the Champions League tournament, or its predecessor, the Champions Cup. Only one Haitian club has ever won it: Violette in 1984.