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Correction to This Article
An Aug. 19 article about Brazilian soccer in Haiti incorrectly said that Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, was formerly part of the Belgian Congo. It was in the area controlled by France.

Brazil Brings Haiti A Joyful Respite

'When I see Ronaldo, it will be like seeing God.'

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page A14

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Aug. 18 -- So far this year, Haiti has endured an armed insurrection that killed 300 people and toppled a president, and floods that wiped out entire villages, with no relief from the grinding misery that comes with being the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

But none of that mattered on Wednesday. Haiti had Ronaldo. The world's crown prince of soccer led Brazil's majestic national team, defending World Cup champions, into a freshly painted little stadium and electrified the nation.

Brazil's Ronaldinho, center, fights for the ball with Haiti's Turlien Ramulus, left, at a game billed as a "match for peace." (Walter Astrada -- AP)

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Screaming fans jammed the streets in midday heat of 102 degrees to catch a glimpse of a team of megastars adored by this soccer-obsessed nation, as Haiti had a rare day off from the anger, hunger, sickness and hopelessness that usually pass for daily life.

"We live in a country that goes from one crisis to another, but today look at everybody. They are all enjoying themselves," said Rejouis Jean-Cely, who ran through the dusty streets outside the stadium, waving Brazil's green and yellow flag and Haiti's red and blue flag, sewn together in the spirit of a game billed as the "match for peace."

Until Wednesday, for the average Haitian, Ronaldo was a face on a poster, a blur on the television screen, using his shaved head and lightning feet to do impossible things with soccer balls in distant countries. Ronaldo was a word -- real enough, but like other words from far away -- Mongolia, Siberia, Madonna -- not something an impoverished Haitian could ever imagine seeing in person.

"When I see Ronaldo, it will be like seeing God," said Noel Jean-Michele, 24, who came to the game, like thousands of others, wearing a Brazil jersey and a Haiti hat, rooting for everybody. "Ronaldo playing in Haiti is like a miracle."

Wednesday's game was the brainchild of Haiti's interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, who took over power from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who resigned under pressure and fled into exile in February. Latortue mentioned a few months ago that Ronaldo and Brazil's other marquee superstars could do more to bring peace and joy to Haiti than any number of peacekeeping troops.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, widely known as Lula, took up Latortue's challenge and announced that he would lead the national team to Haiti for a friendly match, saying the game was "a symbol, a gesture to show we want the world to live in peace, not war." Brazil leads a 2,300-member U.N. peacekeeping force here, which took over from a U.S. military mission that arrived after Aristide's ouster and remained until late June.

Lula, a populist who has sometimes had differences with the Bush administration, seemed also to jab President Bush over Iraq, telling reporters in Brazil recently: "We want to show the world that not everything demands cannons, machine guns and weapons of mass destruction. Sometimes affectionate gestures are worth more than certain wars."

It is not the first time Brazil has used soccer diplomacy. Brazilian soccer great Pele is credited with bringing a temporary halt to fighting in Africa when his club, Santos, played there. When Pele and Santos visited Kinshasa and Brazzaville in the former Belgian Congo in 1969, rebels put down their weapons and suspended fighting to attend the game. Kinshasa is now the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of Congo.

"Sport is an activity which can allow Haiti to play an important goal, to recover its place in the world," Latortue said last week on Haitian radio, calling the game a great opportunity for "conciliation and peace" among Haiti's bitterly divided armed factions. Latortue pledged a bonus from his own pocket of $1,000 for the player who scored Haiti's first goal, $500 for the second scorer and $100 to every player on the team if Haiti won.

Under spectacular Caribbean skies, Frantz Metellus, 23, a street vendor, said that the game "might help Haiti find the right road."

Six months after Haiti faced anarchy and marauding bands of armed groups, Port-au-Prince is largely peaceful, but there are spasms of violence.

On Wednesday, U.N. forces -- most of them Brazilian -- surrounded the stadium in full combat gear. Armored personnel carriers were stationed about 100 yards apart around the stadium, which was protected by fences and barbed wire. Haitian police patrolled with German shepherds and Rottweilers, and helicopters flew overhead. Blue-helmeted peacekeepers carrying shotguns ringed the field inside the stadium.

The game was seen as a chance to dance, sing and shout. With the stadium equipped for 15,000 or so spectators, the streets outside became a crush of people trying to get a look at the Brazilians or to just be close to the field, where dirt and tufts of grass had been replaced by a smooth carpet of artificial turf. Haitians rode around on bicycles flying the Brazilian and Haitian flags, and someone had painted his old Citroen sedan in Brazil's green and yellow.

Brazil cruised to a 6-0 victory in the game, with three goals by Ronaldinho, the team's second most famous star. But nobody in the stands cared who won. Even the Haitian players said their humble team, which has not qualified for the World Cup tournament since 1974, had no chance against Brazil, which has won the event five times. The teams are on such different planes that they had not faced each other since 1974.

Haitians are passionate about Brazilian soccer, and this country had an official two-day holiday to celebrate Brazil's victory in the 2002 World Cup.

The first act by Brazilian peacekeepers when they arrived in May was to distribute 1,000 soccer balls to Haitian children. Jean-Philippe Peguero, a Haitian team member who plays for the Colorado Rapids in U.S. Major League Soccer, said he asked a Haitian friend recently whom he was going to root for. He said his friend didn't hesitate. "This isn't war," he told Peguero. "I'm rooting for Brazil."

"This is an honor," said Haitian player Josue Maynard. "It's a step forward for our country. It's a show of respect for them to come here." Asked before the game about playing against Ronaldo, Maynard laughed and noted he was a defender who had to stop the high-scoring forward.

After the game, Jerry Jean-Louis, 17, one of the performers in the pregame show, clutched a soccer ball that had been signed by Ronaldo and other players. He said he treasured the ball and what the game had brought to Haiti. "We had everyone here today, sitting today watching the game. Maybe one day, we will be able to be united like that all the time."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company