If you’ve read this column regularly over the last few years, my rooting interests should be clear by now. I pull for the outsiders and outliers. The strugglers and stragglers. The players and teams who toil hard for the simple chance, however slim, of winning.
With the Women’s World Cup now in full flight, most attention has gone to the venerable teams like France, Brazil and Germany. And, of course, to the two-time defending champion United States: Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe and all those newcomers, a group with sizzling star power and a bold modus operandi that has pushed the boundaries not just for female soccer players, but for all of women’s sports.
Hats off to all those teams, each talent-blessed and well-funded by their national soccer federations and by business conglomerates. One of them will leave this tournament with the silver and gold trophy held high.
But through the early goings of this year’s group stage, with eight teams making their World Cup debuts, long shots have been having their moments. Monday evening, it was Philippines pulling off a 1-0 stunner over the co-host New Zealand. Last week, Nigeria played to a 0-0 draw with the favored Canadians.
My heart is with and my eyes are on the scrappiest, most resilient underdog in this tournament. That would be Haiti. Les Grenadiers, as the team is affectionately known. The Soldiers.
Les Grenadiers represent a nation that has long struggled to heal the deep wounds left by colonialism and slavery. In large part because of the burdensome debt levied by France in exchange for its freedom, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Over the last 13 years, its citizens have endured deadly, devastating earthquakes and floods. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, vigilantes have taken up arms against gangs, and democracy has crumbled. In March, the United Nations called for an international peacekeeping force to help restore order.
Such instability forced Les Grenadiers to live and play outside Haiti during World Cup qualifying rounds. No matter. The team wove around every thorny roadblock and in February beat Chile, 2-1, to make it to the tournament in Australia and New Zealand.
There is no corporate support for this team. Backing from the national soccer federation? Well, the head of Haiti’s federation, Yves Jean-Bart, isn’t traveling with the team. He stands accused of sexually harassing and abusing female players.
The Haitian team — No. 53 in the FIFA rankings — is stocked with athletes who were children in 2010 when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the island nation, killing roughly 300,000 people and leveling much of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
“It’s something that no Haitian has ever forgotten,” said Melchie Dumornay, the 5-foot-3 midfield buzz saw who, at 19, plays for the French club powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais Féminin and is Les Grenadiers’ best player.
She added: “So many of our loved ones died. There’s been a lot of sadness, despair, and pain, both emotional and physical. It taught us to be more careful, to take a more serious approach to what we do in life, and to always be determined, because we can tell ourselves that we’ve still got a life to live.”
Hardship has a way of creating steely, tenacious spirit. You could see it on Saturday, when Haiti went against England in its group stage opener. England, ranked fourth in the world, its roster stuffed with players who have competed in previous World Cups and in the biggest international tournaments. England, which marched through the European Championship in 2022 and took the crown by beating Germany, 2-1, in front of nearly 90,000 rabid fans at Wembley Stadium.
Given the wide disparity in experience and expectations, many of the tournament debutantes suffered walloping losses in their opening matches. Morocco gave up six goals to Germany and scored none. Zambia lost, 5-0, to the past champion Japan. Vietnam was routed, 3-0, by the United States.
Les Grenadiers would not have any part of those kinds of drubbings. The zigzagging Dumornay at times looked like the best player on the field. Goalkeeper Kerly Théus turned away shot after shot. With Haiti down, 1-0, in the 80th minute, striker Roseline Éloissaint sprinted half the length of the field, scooped up a pass, tore past three English defenders and launched a right-footed laser that would have found the back net if not for a diving stop from England’s goalkeeper, Mary Earps.
It was an action-packed night of soccer in Brisbane, Australia, and nip-and-tuck close to an upset for the ages. Not bad for first-timers from a nation that could use a jolt of optimism. Afterward, England Coach Sarina Wiegman sounded the alarm for both of Haiti’s next foes, assuring that Denmark and China “are going to really struggle” with Les Grenadiers.
“But of course,” she added, with a look of relief, “that’s not our problem.”
Still, the odds of Haiti advancing to the knockout rounds seem slim. On Friday, Haiti plays China, the champions of Asia, quarterfinalists six times entering the ninth-ever Women’s World Cup. Then the opponent will be 13th-ranked Denmark, one of the best compensated women’s teams in the world.
This highest-of-stakes, monthlong tournament is both slog and spectacle. No matter how Haiti fares, this much is sure: With all they have been through, Les Grenadiers will not give up the fight.
Read More:Why I’m Rooting for Haiti