Haiti relishing Brazil meeting in Copa America

Orlando (AFP) – Brazil’s national team has a special place in the hearts of many football fans around the world but few places treasure the ‘Selecao’ as much as Haiti and on Wednesday the pair will meet for the first time in a competitive game.

The Copa America Centenario match at the Citrus Bowl will be in many ways the biggest game for the French-speaking Caribbean nation since their only appearance at the World Cup in West Germany in 1974.

What makes the encounter particularly special is the relationship between Haitian fans and Brazilian football, which goes well beyond simple admiration of the style and success of the South American nation.

Haiti midfielder Jean-Marc Alexandre said that the intensity of the admiration for Brazil increased after the 2004 ‘Jogo da Paz’, or ‘Game of Peace’ in Port-Au-Prince.

Brazilian soldiers with a key role in the United Nations Stabilisation Force in the troubled country, were joined by their national team in a game designed to help the efforts to bring about a reduction in violence.Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos were among the players who took place in the game.

“The deal was that you handed in a gun in return for a ticket to the game. They collected barrels of guns,” said Alexandre.

“Ronaldo told me that the experience he had in Haiti was one of the most memorable games he took part in. The team bus could not move, it was surrounded by fans,” he said.

“It was world class of Brazil to go and do that. We will remember that for rest of our life and in my opinion it should be seen as part of the history of football,” he said.

– Cultural dimension –

The Haitian love of Brazilian football has a longer history though and has a cultural dimension too, says Alexandre.

“For a long time Haitians have supported Brazil. I think one of the things might be that the Brazil team has always been a diverse team with more black players and mixed (race) players and of course you had Pele, Haitians could relate to them. You have a few Argentina fans but not many,” he said.

Wednesday night should therefore be a memorable one on the island.

“When we play, everything shuts down, there is peace in the country, anyone who doesn’t have a TV looks for someone who has a TV, people gather around. It is a blessing to have this opportunity. I will be thrilled to be on the field but part of me would also love to be in Haiti to see how the fans react,” he said.

“It’s a blessing, all the players, we are living this moment, it really is a dream come true. We all sat in front of TVs watching Brazil and you could never imagine playing against them.”

Haiti are coached by much-travelled Frenchman Patrice Neveu who has also coached Niger, Mauritania, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo and he expects Brazil, held to a goalless draw by Ecuador in their opening game, to be fired despite bringing a weakend squad to the tournament.

“This Brazil squad is still a team made up of winners, whether they are full strength or not is their problem. They drew 0-0 in their first game so we expect a very motivated Brazil,” he said.

Anything but a win for Brazil would, of course, be a shock outcome but despite his affection for Wednesday’s opponents, Alexandre says he and his team-mates will be mentally prepared for a contest.

“It’s emotional but you are an athlete, a professional and when the whistle blows the emotions go away and you compete,” he said.

And if the unlikely were to happen?

“If we win,” says Alexandre, “It will be the greatest miracle that God has produced in football.”

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