WASHINGTON - Haiti Soccer Federation officials are awaiting the decision of FIFA, the international governing body for football, on whether a Haiti-Belize World Cup qualifier will be held Thursday in Port-au-Prince.
Tessier Jeanty, communications director for the Haitian Soccer Federation (Federation Haitienne de Futbol, FHF), told VOA a FIFA security expert met with Haitian and Belize team officials Tuesday afternoon.
The FIFA security expert arrived in Haiti Tuesday morning and toured the capital to evaluate the security situation after Belize’s team bus was held up at gunpoint on Monday. The incident happened as the team made its way from the Toussaint Louverture international airport to their hotel.
Upon Belize’s 🇧🇿 arrival to Haiti 🇭🇹 for their World Cup Qualifier, their police escort was stopped by armed “insurgents”— Nico Cantor (@Nicocantor1) March 23, 2021
This is the video going around on social media.
Match is set for March 25. Belize has put out an official statement. pic.twitter.com/B3Z0gTfW16
The athletes, who were not harmed in the incident, described the harrowing scene during an interview with a Belize television station. They said high-powered rifles were aimed at their bus.
“Suddenly, we saw so many motorcycles with a lot of men and they were armed. You know, they stopped the bus and all we see, they were talking to the police. After that, we wanted to know what was happening. The next, they wanted us to turn back, pointing their guns at the police. So we don’t know what to do,” recalled Ian “Yellow” Gaynair, who plays defense for the Belize national team.
“Some of us were doing some video and they pointed on the bus and said cut out the video, so we had to cut the video, pull the curtain,” Gaynair said. “All of us were really traumatized, fearing we didn’t know what would happen. Next thing we thought they would even want to come on the bus.”
The armed men on motorbikes were members of a renegade group called Fantom 509, comprising disgruntled current and former police officers. The U.S. State Department described them as criminals on Twitter.
#PortAuPrince #Haiti: The criminal organization known as Fantom 509 is currently active in Delmas and Petionville. The group is known for violence and the ability to relocate quickly. Avoid travel to these areas. Do not attempt to drive through roadblocks. https://t.co/NpUjSlG2zR pic.twitter.com/sD2yTib70O— Travel - State Dept (@TravelGov) March 22, 2021
“The criminal organization known as Fantom 509 is currently active in Delmas and Petionville. The group is known for violence and the ability to relocate quickly. Avoid travel to these areas. Do not attempt to drive through roadblocks,” the U.S. Dept of State Bureau of Consular Affairs tweeted.
Belize team official Marlon Kuylen immediately reported the incident to FIFA and CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football).
“We’ve told them in no uncertain terms that we want to get our players out of the country. However, the match commissioner is arriving tomorrow to assess the situation and decide what happens from there,” Kuylen told the Belize television station.
The Belize Football Federation later issued a statement expressing “disappointment and disgust.“
Kuylen said his players are having a hard time concentrating on the upcoming match.
“The players, they are frazzled. They cannot focus on playing. We were supposed to go training … and they don’t want to leave the hotel," he said. "Our security is not guaranteed and what if we win and the crowd gets out of control again, who’s to say that we will be safe?”
Two officials from FHF went to check on the Belize players in the evening, according to a statement posted in French on its Facebook page.
“Jacques Letang ... and Yvon Sevère paid a visit of solidarity to team Belize to assure its members of that the FHF supports them,” the statement said.
FIFA has not yet responded to VOA’s request for comment on the incident.
The spike in violence in Haiti has alarmed both Haitian and international officials. Last week, Fantom 509 staged two jailbreaks, looted a car dealership and set fire to tires, blocking streets.
Jeanty of FHF told VOA it is unfortunate that insecurity in the country, which has become a part of daily life for most Haitians, now risks jeopardizing the national team’s ability to play at home.
“Haiti already has some factors working against it and now this complicates things even further,” Jeanty said.
As for Haiti’s beloved national team, most of the players, such as goalie Johny Placide, only began arriving in Port-au-Prince Tuesday morning. The majority currently play for European league teams.
“They weren't even aware of what happened yesterday,” Jeanty told VOA. “We have six players who arrived this morning. And we have three players arriving [Wednesday] — because they are traveling from Armenia. I'm talking about Donald Guerrier, Soni Mustivar and Alex Junior Christian. They are ready to win for Haiti, but it's shocking for them to see the images of what happened [on Monday].”
Jeanty told VOA the FIFA security expert, a former military official from Barbados, would send his report to FIFA and CONCACAF Tuesday night.
“After the meeting, we will not know immediately whether or not the match will go on in Haiti. He will send a report to CONCACAF and FIFA and those officials will issue a statement based on what the report advises,” Jeanty said.
In the meantime, Haiti’s soccer federation is appealing to the public to refrain from violence.
“Haitians must understand: if there is any kind of attack against this match, we can kiss Haiti soccer goodbye,” FHF secretary general Carlo Marcelin said in an interview with Haitian radio station Magik 9 Tuesday.
The World Cup is scheduled to be held in Qatar from November 21 to December 18, 2022.