The modest confines of São Paulo's 5,000 seat Estádio Conde Rodolfo Crespi, known locally as Rua Javari, felt as big as Brazil's legendary Maracanã stadium to one group of players in this year's prestigious Copa São Paulo youth soccer competition. "It's a dream to play in the tournament," said Fenelon Marckenson, a 17-year-old attacking midfielder for the Perles Noires, a team from Port-au-Prince in Haiti. "I've always loved the Brazil team. They play the most beautiful soccer."
The Perles Noires ("the Black Pearls") were the only foreign team to play in the 2016 edition of the famed competition, which featured giant Brazilian clubs such as Flamengo and Corinthians, and in the past has been responsible for revealing such talents as two-time World Cup winner Cafu, 1982 Mundial star Falcão, and Robinho.
"In Haiti, Brazil is still the país do futebol (the country of soccer). For these boys to play here, in a professional stadium, with a big crowd, in front of the media, is a dream come true," Rubem Cesar Fernandes, director of the Viva Rio NGO which was responsible for setting up the Academie de Football Perles Noires ("the Black Pearls Soccer Academy") in the outskirts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, told VICE Sports.
"There are a great many young people, boys and girls, living in extreme poverty and vulnerable situations in Haiti. Homelessness is a major problem since the earthquake," explained Fernandes. "We want to provide opportunities for these youngsters, and avoid what we call in Brazil nem, nem ("neither, nor") - youngsters who neither study, nor work."
Viva Rio's involvement in Haiti began in 2004, when the organization, which has over two decades of experience of tackling urban violence in some of Rio de Janeiro's most troubled neighborhoods, was invited to play a part in the UN's "stabilization mission," led by Brazilian troops.
"The UN decided that the situation in Haiti was very different from what they had faced in Africa, or the Middle East, or other parts of the world, and had more in common with the situation in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in particular, because of the level of armed, localized violence," Fernandes explained. "It was a situation where you don't have a war, but you don't have peace either, with gangs dominating poor, vulnerable communities."
When Viva Rio began to think of ways of creating a permanent legacy for Haiti, soccer was the obvious solution.
"We wanted to take advantage of the Haitian passion for soccer. Street soccer is huge there. At the weekend, the streets of the poor neighborhoods are blocked off for games. And you don't have to try very hard to convince a youngster to play soccer, or explain the rules," said Fernandes.
The Black Pearls Soccer Academy was built in 2010, and now has four pitches and a professional standard gym, offering talented young players from some of Haiti's poorest neighborhoods a place to live, train and study. "All the boys dream of being soccer players, and the Black Pearls gives them the chance to get a little closer to that dream," the team's Brazilian coach, Rafael Novaes, told VICE Sports.
That dream did not come true for the Black Pearls during this year's Copa São Paulo, however, with the team losing all three of its games against Brazilian opposition, and exiting the tournament in the group stage.
But Fenelon Marckenson, an Academy product who now lives in Brazil and was given temporary release by his club, Rio de Janeiro's Boa Vista, to play for the Black Pearls at the tournament, remained undaunted. "We played well," he told VICE Sports. "We should have won the first game."
Coach Novaes agreed. "The Copa de São Paulo is almost professional standard," he said. "We didn't manage a win, but we played well in each game. We surprised everyone."
And if the Black Pearls went winless on the pitch, they at least seemed to conquer the hearts of the Brazilian fans. "Almost everyone in the ground was cheering for us," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes.
Such feelings of affection are mutual. "I love the food here, the rice and beans and the chicken," Anel Jean Louis, another Black Pearls player, told VICE Sports. "The games were hard but our team played well. We're going to keep training so we can reach the final in 2017." His favorite player is Brazil's Luiz Gustavo – like him, a defensive midfielder.
Rafael Novaes believes that the experience of playing in the tournament can only strengthen the Black Pearls', and Haiti's, love for Brazilian soccer. "The Haitians love soccer more than the Brazilians," he told VICE Sports. "They don't know much about Brazilian clubs, but they love the national team. The boys were really upset when Brazil lost to Germany. Some of them were even in tears," he added, referring to Brazil's humiliating 7-1 defeat at the 2014 World Cup.
The country's passion for Brazilian soccer is longstanding. "There's been a connection with Brazil soccer for a long time, since the 1982 World Cup," Novaes explained. "The Jogo da Paz ("Game of Peace") in 2004 (when a Brazilian team featuring players like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos played a friendly match against Haiti in Port-Au-Prince) was really important too. Nobody in Haiti will forget that."
That game came about when, following the Brazilian government's decision to send 1,200 soldiers to lead the 2004 UN intervention into Haiti (at the time wracked by violent civil unrest following the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue suggested to journalists that "a few Brazilian soccer players could do more to disarm the militias than thousands of peacekeeping troops." Brazil's President Lula promptly accepted the challenge, arranging for the Seleção to play a match in Haiti.
"Though I'd played for Brazil on other occasions, in friendly matches and at the Olympics, I'd never experienced what it feels like to be a world champion, to be met by cheering crowds in my own country. But I witnessed that here. The emotions were very powerful…I consider myself privileged to have been here that day," said Roger, one of the Brazil players, on returning to Haiti for the 10th anniversary of the game.
Today, the links between the two countries extend well beyond soccer, with around 70,000 Haitian immigrants currently living in Brazil, according to the country's Ministry of Justice. The wave of migration grew rapidly following the 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and devastated Port-Au-Prince.
While the Brazilian government has generally welcomed the arrivals, offering immigrants humanitarian visas and recently granting residency to over 43,000 Haitians, the process has not always run smoothly.
In 2013 the state of Acre in the far northwest of Brazil, the principal point of entry for Haitians, declared a state of emergency in two towns due to the vast number of immigrants, many undocumented, flooding over the border from Peru. There was further controversy when the Acre state government bussed many Haitians out of the state in 2014, depositing them in São Paulo, hundreds of miles to the south.
And in August of 2015, a group of Haitian men were shot at with a pellet gun in downtown São Paulo. The shooter reportedly shouted "Haitians steal Brazilian jobs" after pulling the trigger.
Viva Rio runs a support project for Haitian immigrants called Haiti Aqui (Haiti Here), offering legal and administrative assistance, courses, job information, and broadcasting a radio show, "The Voice of Haiti."
Now the Black Pearls Academy plans to bring more soccer-playing Haitians to Brazil. "The next phase is to open a club in Brazil, where the players can come when they graduate from the Academy," explained Rubem Cesar Fernandes. "That will give them access to the professional game, and bring continuity to the project."
Thanks to the Black Pearls, youngsters like Fenelon Marckenson and Anel Jean Louis have the chance to fulfill their dreams, and offer the world a different view of their country. "The idea behind the Academy is to show that Haiti is capable of excellence," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, "and that it's not just a place of poverty and tragedy, but of fighting spirit and ability."
Photos courtesy of Vitor Madeira/The Perles Noires.