'Football is the joy' for Haiti's women's national team, who are just two games from the World Cup

Two more wins. That's all the Haiti women's national soccer team needs to qualify for the World Cup. Heading into the weekend, the team is two wins at FIFA's interconfederation playoffs away from achieving that goal and setting off celebrations in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien and beyond.

Two teams stand in Haiti's way. Les Grenadières need a win over Senegal on Feb. 18 to advance to a Feb. 22 date with Chile. Both games are in Auckland, New Zealand, with the winner of the three-team mini-bracket awarded a spot in Group D with England, Denmark and China.

"There's a lot of unhappiness in the country, and football is the joy," midfielder Danielle Etienne told ESPN. "Being able to qualify to the World Cup would be major. We want that for the country as a whole, to have a breath of fresh air and kind of step aside from anything going on."

While all 10 nations still competing for the final three spots in Australia/New Zealand are dreaming of success, few have faced as many obstacles as Haiti has to get to this point. The past 18 months have presented challenged even for a nation that has been through as many trials as Haiti has since a rebellion led by former slaves overthrew the French colonial government to earn independence in 1804.

In January, police rioted and trapped the prime minister in the airport. The country's wealthiest citizens have been exposed for financing the gangs that have overtaken the country, even as half of the nation's children require humanitarian aid to survive. The nation still hasn't recovered from past crises, like a presidential assassination, the 2010 earthquake and the cholera outbreak that followed.

This young team knows becoming the second Caribbean team to qualify for the Women's World Cup -- and therefore reach their first-ever World Cup -- won't resolve those issues. But it would be something positive, a reason for "Haiti" and "good news" to appear together in the global press.

"It is very hard because a lot of people around me that don't know Haiti tend to have a really bad view of it, and some people are even vocal about it and kind of degrading about it," goalkeeper Lara Larco said. "I want to have a voice and qualify to the World Cup to be able to say, 'Haiti is not what you think it is.'"

For the players themselves, it would represent the fulfillment of a goal many have been working toward for the majority of their lives. It would be a demand that their country and heritage be respected.

At age 20, Larco was the oldest of three goalkeepers called in for the CONCACAF W Championship in summer 2022. The shot-stoppers aren't the exception, either. French manager Nicolas Delépine's 23-woman roster for that tournament included just one player over the age of 25 and even included 11 teenagers. Among the latter group is star midfielder Melchie "Corventina" Dumornay, 19, who is set to join Lyon in the summer after a pair of successful seasons with Reims. She stood out at the CONCACAF competition, making the tournament's Best XI and earning the trophy given to the best young player.

However, for all their individual talent, it was a team effort that got Haiti into the new interconfederation playoff. Roselord Borgella and Nerilia Mondesir converted penalties on either side of the halftime break against hosts Mexico, with Sherly Jeudy's 79th-minute free kick goal the perfect cap on a 3-0 victory.

That win was sandwiched between a 3-0 loss to the reigning World Champions, the United States, and a 4-0 reverse against back-to-back World Cup qualifiers Jamaica. Haiti hopes even those performances give them something to build on ahead of this month's deciding games.

"It was definitely a roller coaster, we had our ups and we had our downs," defender Milan Pierre-Jerome said of that CONCACAF experience. "The Mexico game, I think that was where we saw what we could really do. And having played that game is kind of setting us up for this next tournament we're about to enter into."

While Haiti's players desperately want to qualify through this month's tournament, the future also looks extremely bright. Much of the squad has played together from the youth levels, with Dumornay, Mondésir, Etienne and Jeudy among the players who helped clinch a first-ever qualification to the U-20 Women's World Cup in 2018: Dumornay even celebrated her 15th birthday during that competition.

Players like Pierre-Jerome, born in the United States, have helped bolster the roster as well. There was a gelling period for the various groups of players, several said, but the team now understands everyone is pulling in the same direction even if their strongest language is English or French rather than Kreyol.

The turning point was the month of training they scheduled before the CONCACAF W Championship, a time that Larco said she believes turned the collection of players into a true team.

"We really bonded at all the meals. That's something in Haiti, or in my culture: No phones at the table, we're just discussing. We're there for an hour and a half just talking," the Georgetown goalkeeper said. "It was very different than playing in the States, and I think that tournament everyone saw this was our opportunity to qualify for the first time. Like, 'Let's just trust everyone,' and it went well."

Through no fault of their own, Haiti's women have had to cope with far more than most, not only dealing with the macro issues in the country as a whole, but also suffering wounds from inside the setup supposed to help them reach their goals.

According to a FIFA report, female players in Haiti's residency programs were sexually harassed and abused by then-Haitian Football Association president Yves Jean-Bart, some of them while they were minors. He was given a lifetime ban from the sport in 2020 by FIFA's ethics committee. This Tuesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that ban; the decision was celebrated by Jean-Bart, who denies the accusations, but received criticism from Human Rights Watch, which cited evidence of witness intimidation.

Other officials, including the country's ex-head of referees and a women's administrator have been given bans for the parts they played in creating or facilitating an unsafe atmosphere.

"One thing we do is we acknowledge it," Etienne said. "We've had team meetings, just to even say, you know, we understand what's going on with Haiti. I think that's one of the biggest things, acknowledge what's going on and make it known that we're trying to support our country."

Pierre-Jerome said she believes that after working together at the youth levels, the team has grown to feel like a sisterhood. A group chat serves both as a place for motivation in training, with players sharing videos of workouts or highlights, and for team building as the players laugh at memes and jokes.

"Families don't let anything break them apart," the George Mason University captain said. "Yes, we hear the things that are going on, but we know our goal, and we're not going to let anything stop that."

If Haiti is able to find the results this week in New Zealand and book a return trip to the region for the World Cup, Pierre-Jerome said she'd be, "Speechless. I couldn't put into words how much that would mean to us, to myself, to Haiti.

"It would just put a smile on everyone's face. No matter the circumstances in Haiti, we're doing this for our country. To be able to bring that home to all these people would mean the world to us."