Haiti slum breeds World Cup hopes

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ISMAEL GUSTAVE, a skinny 12-year-old, lives in a shack in what Haitians, in their French Creole, call "Site Soley" (Sun City). It is the worst slum in the western hemisphere. The communal lavatory for Ismael and his neighbours is a stretch of open wasteland, doubling as a rubbish dump, where men, women and children squat within yards of each other to excrete.

Ismael does not own a pair of shoes. Nor can his grandmother, his only relative, afford the basic pounds 2.50 a month to send him to school. Yet Ismael has a dream: to play football for Haiti in the 2006 World Cup finals.

That, until last year, would have been an impossible fantasy, but Robert "Bobby" Duval, a Haitian businessman and former political prisoner, hopes to make it a possibility. Mr Duval, a portly 44-year-old from one of Haiti's better-off mulatto families, has decided to do something for the youth of a country where goverment remains largely ineffectual, despite the 1994 US intervention to oust the military rulers and restore democracy. This former Haitian First Division player has bought land on the fringes of Site Soley and steamrollered it to create three bumpy, dung-dotted but playable football pitches, and is offering potential football stars a chance by giving them food, education and training.

Last year he set up Athletic of Haiti, a club with four teams for boys aged 10 to 18. His oldest team is only in the third of Haiti's three unstructured divisions, but is now beating - often thrashing - First Division sides in cup and friendly matches. His dream is to get Haiti into the World Cup finals for the first time since 1974.

"Haiti qualified for the finals in Germany because of grassroots work and a football structure, albeit under a dictatorship," he said, referring to Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, "Baby Doc", who was ousted by a popular revolution in February 1986. "With so much talent, success was inevitable. But since the fall of Duvalier there has been constant crisis, with coups d'etat, internal strife and a total lack of organisation."

Despite his privileged family, Mr Duval was jailed for 18 months under "Baby Doc" accused of trying to overthrow the dictatorship simply because he spoke out against it. "I was never charged, never tried. I saw 180 prisoners die in one year (in the infamous Fort Dimanche jail) from malnutrition. I was down to 90lb. I don't think I could have lasted for another week." He now weighs nearly 240lb.

As well as chasing a World Cup dream, Mr Duval's project is designed to fight malnutrition among slum children and keep them away from the drugs and gang violence that plague their communities. Now dedicated full time to the boys, he starts work at dawn, buying spaghetti, rice, corn, dried meat, vegetables and milk for the morning meal which is served in the windowless pink villa that serves as a clubhouse. For many of the boys it is their only meal of the day.

"Food is what glues this idea together. A lot of the kids came here initially just to eat - it was their only chance of a meal that day," said Mr Duval. "Look at them now. Some of these boys are big. They're beating people 7-1. They're playing in second-hand strips, wearing second-hand boots but they're so happy. They have a great spirit."

I watched Athletic's skilful under-17 side take on a team called Fleches Noires (The Black Arrows). After shooing dozens of cows from the pitch, they played in front of a crowd of around 20, all sitting on the gravelly grass. Athletic, in yellow strips provided by their only sponsor, the Pingouin (Penguin) ice-cream factory, cruised to a 3-0 victory, largely thanks to their striker, Eliphene Cadet, who hopes one day to play in European football. Mr Duval's own 15-year-old son is on trial with the French side, Metz.

Almost all Haitian football fans have traditionally supported Brazil, but this year, despite the fact that their ancestors kicked out the French colonialists nearly 200 years ago, they took to the French and Dutch teams because of their black or dark-skinned players.

The boys from Athletic are too young to remember him, but all would like to emulate Haiti's best-known footballing son, Joe Gaetzens, who scored the only goal in one of football history's biggest upsets, when England lost to the USA in 1950. His nephew, Pierre Richard Gaetzens, runs the Pingouin plant. Another donor is Peter Eves, an English Manchester United fanatic who part-owns a Haitian restaurant in Miami.

Mr Duval reckons he needs more than pounds 4,000 a month to run the club and pay the school fees of his charges. Eventually, he hopes to expand the project into a sports centre, with swimming pools and tennis courts. "All my boys love English football," he said. "It would be great if English clubs could help us."