Gabriel Calderón: Haiti, the soccer team that does not play at home: “The Government asked us to look for another country”

The technical director of the Haitian national team, Gabriel Calderón Pellegrino, in Buenos Aires
The technical director of the Haitian national team, Gabriel Calderón Pellegrino, in Buenos Aires.Tiago Ramirez Baquero

Haiti is often said to be the poorest country in America and the West, with an absent State, a capital governed by mafias that replaced an assassinated president, and a territory cursed by natural disasters. In that region of adversity, one of the few national demands is football, its national teams. The women’s team has just participated in its first World Cup and the men’s team is fighting to get a place in the 2024 Copa América and the 2026 World Cup. The automatic classification of the three organizers of the next World Cup, Mexico, the United States and Canada, increases the expectations of the second order of Concacaf.

  Haiti players sing the national anthem before a match between Haiti and Mexico as part of the 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup at State Farm Stadium on June 29, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona.
Haiti players sing the national anthem before a match between Haiti and Mexico as part of the 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup at State Farm Stadium on June 29, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. Jam Media (Getty Images)

The coach of the men’s team and one of the advisors of the women’s team is the Spanish-Argentine Gabriel Calderón Pellegrino, born in 1986 in Seville, when his father, also Gabriel – a footballer for the Albiceleste in the Spain 1982 and Italy 1990 World Cups -, He played as a forward for Betis of Spain. Although he lives in Madrid, Calderón Pellegrino does not stop visiting Argentina, the country where his parents live – his mother is also Argentine – and he feels it is his own. Last Monday, hours after flying from Buenos Aires to Suriname, where this Thursday Haiti will face the local team in the Concacaf Nations League, the youngest technical director of an American team – at the end of the month he will turn 37 – He spoke with EL PAÍS about what it’s like to lead the most errant team in America, to the point that it hasn’t played at home in its homeland for two years.

The history of Haiti is also the history of a selection in exile. In fact, Calderón Pellegrino – who in May 2022 became a member of the Normalization Committee, established by FIFA, which temporarily administers the Haitian Football Federation, and who on May 1, 2023 took over as head of the men’s team – has not yet He stepped foot in the country he leads.

Ask. What is it like playing at home in other countries?

Answer. We were playing at home in the Dominican Republic until this training camp, but it has already been cancelled. The Haitian Government asked us, please, to look for another country because there were internal political problems that I am not familiar with, a small diplomatic conflict between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the border they share on the same island (Hispaniola) was closed. That is why this Sunday we will go to play in Trinidad and Tobago at home, in quotes, against Jamaica.

P. Are those difficulties part of the combo of leading Haiti?

R. We were used to Santo Domingo (the Dominican capital). We had been there for a year and a half and at least we knew the people at the hotel. But since it is not our country, or the country of the players, it is not ideal either, especially because Haiti is a very soccer-loving country. (At home) they fill their stadium, there is much more passion and support; On the other hand, in Santo Domingo very few people go to the countryside. Trinidad and Tobago will also be a new country for us.

P. In that context, Haiti’s last game in its country, in Port-au-Prince, was in June 2021. He did not manage at home.

R. No, I never led any party in Haiti. That was two years ago and now the country is in a situation of insecurity and a very big social-political-economic crisis, and they are not allowed to play. There is no football activity: the local league also stopped quite some time ago.

P. How do you explain that, in this context of misgovernment, criminal gangs and earthquakes, Haiti is in 87th place in the FIFA ranking, above the middle of the table of all countries?

R. It is explained very easily: it is a football country. Haiti suffers a lot, because on top of that it has had to endure natural disasters and has always had difficulties, but it is also the only country in the Caribbean that is only about soccer. It is as if we were talking about Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil, where soccer is the king of sports, the only one that is practiced. In Haiti they love soccer and it is curious because in the Dominican Republic, which shares an island, it is quite the opposite. In addition to the passion and cultural level, there are very good soccer players, you can see it in the kids on the street: that talent that we see in South America is also seen there.

P. Soccer is born in the neighborhoods. Is there still street football in Haiti or did the chaos stop everything?

R. There is a lot of football. Those that stopped were the official competitions, the First Division and the Second, and the activity of the clubs, but local, neighborhood leagues were set up, especially outside of Port-au-Prince (the capital), where the social problem is focused. In the interior of the country the situation is much calmer and there is a lot at stake, also at the women’s level.

P. How do you choose the players?

R. I use a data and analysis platform in which we follow all Haitians or binationals. There are many players who are born and raised abroad but, since they have Haitian parents, they have nationality. I also consult with the Federation or with like-minded people. When I can, I travel, I go to see them play and draw conclusions. Today all the national team players play in competitive leagues abroad, such as France, Holland, Portugal, Israel, the MLS and Canada: they develop well there. That makes for a fairly competitive selection. Everything external, what surrounds the team, is complicated: the country, the infrastructure, the organization, the resources. That limits a little bit from going a little further. This team gives more. We could go very far.

P. What does football, its national teams, mean to Haiti?

R. It means a lot, they are a joy and an escape from people’s daily problems. Every time the team plays, the men’s and the women’s, the country stops. They value both equally, they follow them a lot. They know that their players compete at a good level. Playing in high-level tournaments, such as the Gold Cup or the Nations League, and facing strong teams like Mexico, allows people to get away from their daily problems a little.

P. Haiti was one of the nine representatives of America in the last Women’s World Cup. How is it explained?

R. I was very close to this team, which was led by a Frenchman. I accompanied the players to the World Cup as a member of the Federation and coach and technical advisor of the men’s team. The Haitian women’s team competes at a higher level than the boys’ team because it has a better ranking: in Concacaf the women’s team is better positioned than the men’s team. If in men’s terms we are more or less behind the big ones, such as the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica, the girls are between second and third place. They had a good campaign in the World Cup: they lost every game but by one goal, and always on penalties. We left with our heads held high. There are very good soccer players who play in France.

Coach Gabriel Calderón during the first half of the Concacaf Gold Cup Group B match against Mexico at State Farm Stadium on June 29, 2023.
Coach Gabriel Calderón during the first half of the Concacaf Gold Cup Group B match against Mexico at State Farm Stadium on June 29, 2023.Christian Petersen (Getty Images)

P. Can objectives be planned for the men’s team? Or is it a constant day to day?

R. The Nations League would allow us to qualify for the Copa América. We have to pass our group (it competes with Honduras, Cuba, Grenada and the aforementioned Jamaica and Suriname) and in November there will be a playoff initial and another in March, the last: there are six places for Concacaf. It is a goal that we have set for ourselves but we understand that we are not favorites. The World Cup is a very difficult dream but nothing is impossible. To qualify for a World Cup you need stability and many things, beyond good players.

P. Did you know Haiti?

R. No, I arrived in May 2022. FIFA put a Normalization Committee in charge of the local Federation, which had already traveled to Santo Domingo, and then I have not had the opportunity to go to Haiti.

P. Seven of the ten coaches of the South American teams are Argentine: Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina itself. In the past Qualifiers, other compatriots also led Peru and Ecuador. Diego Cocca commands Mexico, who in turn replaced Gerardo Martino. Although he was born and lived in Spain, you have blue and white blood. Why so many Argentines?

R. Argentina has always been a power. That generates confidence in countries where football is at a, in quotes, lower level, and they trust their coaches to go. Furthermore, Argentines adapt to the outside world, they have personality and charisma, they are football people and they help development. It also happens with the Spaniards since the boom of 2008. Before that tradition of many Spaniards abroad did not exist.

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