In football-mad Haiti, World Cup offers relief from daily grind

Amelie BARON
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Haitians watch Saturday's World Cup Group Stage match between Argentina and Iceland in a small barber shop in downtown Port-au-Prince

Whether they are fans of Argentina's Lionel Messi or devotees of Brazil's "Selecao," Haitians struck by football fever have brought life on their Caribbean island to a standstill, as the World Cup offers a month-long respite from daily hardships.

The poverty-stricken country's team languishes in 104th place in the FIFA rankings and did not qualify for the finals in Russia, but that hasn't prevented fans from cheering for their Latin American neighbors to the south.

Only a few cars could be seen early Saturday in downtown Port-au-Prince's normally congested streets. But on one sidewalk, dozens of people all hurried in the same direction: towards a small TV set inside a barber shop.

"See how empty the streets are -- everyone's in front of the screen watching the match!" Joe Saintilus said from the shop's doorstep.

Authorities have installed several giant screens on major public squares throughout the capital to facilitate World Cup watching.

- No electricity, no problem -

According to the World Bank, a full two-thirds of Haiti's nearly 11 million people have no access to electricity, but the director general of the country's power authority promised early June to step up production to coincide with the sporting event.

The country is still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016 -- six years after a massive earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.

Football, however, offers a form of temporary relief, and World Cup fever is evident.

Inflatable balls, artificial turf and the flags of the World Cup teams have been installed around three big screens at the Champ de Mars, the main public square in Port-au-Prince

"In Haiti, we love two things: carnival and football, and we forget all our differences," explained Jean Orvile, who was sitting in the stands.

"Obviously, there's some differences between Brazil and Argentina fans, but it's just so we can tease each other during the games," he adds.

As a Brazil fan, Jean celebrated when Messi missed his penalty against Iceland. But his friend Pascal Chery, sat next to him and proudly wearing his blue-and-white striped Argentina jersey, was despondent.

"Look at these colors and look at the colors of the sky: how could you not love this team?" Chery asked.

"And Messi is the best player of the world, even if today he didn't quite show it."

The final whistle comes, and the stands empty out: time to buy a drink and something to eat, and wait for the next game.

"When we watch a match, we forget our problems, we set aside our stress and miseries and just enjoy life for one month," says Chery, who has all his barbs ready for Brazil fans when they take on Switzerland in their opening match on Sunday.