Culture amidst conflict: why we should celebrate Haiti's moment of history
“Just look at her face!” is the line that Barry Davies might have used. As Haiti’s Melchie Dumornay peeled away to celebrate the goal which took her country to the women’s World Cup for the first time, the midfielder’s expression told a story that some would scarcely believe.
A team ranked 55th in the international standings, battling domestic upheaval which has seen their prime minister trapped in an airport by rioting police and the nation’s wealthiest citizens financing gangs controlling the island (whilst over 50% of the country’s children remain reliant on humanitarian aid to survive), had made history.
Their 2-1 victory against Chile books Dumornay and her teammates tickets to Australia in July, where they will meet England in the group stage. The sides will be separated by over 50 places in the world rankings, but numbers disguise a key similarity between the two camps.
I’ve discussed the importance of culture in football before, but it’s a subject worth returning to given the events of the last week. Have a look at the quote below, taken from an interview with Haiti’s goalkeeper, Lara Larco.
"There’s something in Haiti and our culture: no phones at the table, we're just discussing. We're there for an hour and a half just talking. It was very different than playing in the States and I think…everyone saw this was our opportunity to qualify for the first time. Like, 'Let's just trust everyone,' and it went well."
Clear camaraderie. An innate sense of trust in your teammates. Remind you of another team?
I was fortunate enough to spend some time over the last couple of months with members of the Lionesses coaching and backroom teams, both past and present, discussing the culture they have instilled over the course of the last 20-odd years.
What began as a concerted effort to introduce professionalism to what was still an amateur sport in 1998 (at least in England) has morphed into an ethos that transcends performance and mental health, ingrained within everything from the team’s pre-match preparations to their playing style.
It reminded me that glib references to ‘philosophies’ - which you’ll hear in many Premier League press conferences - are just that. It’s easy to become inured to the prospect of change, to suspect that a culture rooted in allowing people to ‘thrive’ is simply elusive within elite sport.
But from Haiti to England, there are reasons to think otherwise. The efforts of athlete-led campaign groups, such as AtheletsCAN in Canada, and integration of high-performance and mass participation sport in Australia show that - beyond national team flag-bearers - demands for structural reform can be powerful and (in some cases) heeded.
As calls for change - from the fight for fair pay engulfing Welsh rugby to independent regulation in English football - grow louder, it’s worth reminding ourselves that transformation is achievable. When the Lionesses and Haiti take to the field in July, the proof will be very much on the pitch.
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