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One man and a BlackBerry: Rebuilding Haiti's decimated football family

By Chris Murphy, CNN
  • 32 officials from Haiti's football federation were killed in January's earthquake
  • Dr Yves Jean Bart, the federation's president, survived the quake
  • Dr Jean Bart says the only thing left of the federation is his BlackBerry
  • Haiti's teams have vowed to fulfil their international fixtures

(CNN) -- Dr Yves Jean-Bart's BlackBerry has suddenly become the most important tool in the fight to rebuild Haiti's decimated soccer community.

The president of the Haitian Football Federation was one of the few officials from the organization to survive when Port-au-Prince felt the full force of January's shattering earthquake.

He had just left a meeting at the headquarters building when the tremors began; moments later he was frantically trying to pull his colleagues from the rubble of the five-storey block. The majority, 30 in number, failed to escape with their lives.

The only equipment to survive was Jean-Bart's mobile phone, a device which allowed the determined president to start the pain-staking process of restoring the soccer-mad country's federation back to its feet.

Read Jean-Bart's account of the day the earthquake struck

Haiti, though small in size and population, boasts a proud footballing history that includes a World Cup appearance in 1974. According to the official Web site of sport's world governing body FIFA, the nation has a passion for football "among the most intense on the planet," an opinion shared by Dr Jean-Bart who claims "there is not one Haitian that has not touched a soccer ball."

Consequently, FIFA President Sepp Blatter has been vocal in his insistence that the international "football family" should help in the rebuilding process.

"As Yves Jean Bart said to me, football is an integral part of our society and that's why it's important that we get the football activities up and running -- to bring a little serenity and joy," he told CNN.

In the days after the earthquake Dr Jean-Bart's team primary struggle was to return the bodies of his former colleagues to their families (only three could be successfully identified and delivered). The search for buried friends led to the finding of Jean-Bart's phone which, once plucked from the wreckage, allowed the mammoth rebuilding effort to start.

"We were able to get together, us members of the federation, and we all did our best to get back to work. The players lost immediate families; parents, wives, and children. A lot of young players are now orphans. When communication is fully restored and when teams start training again, we will have an idea but the numbers will never be exact," he said.

There is not one Haitian that has not touched a soccer ball
--Yves Jean Bart, Haiti Football Federation President

"From the headquarters there was nothing left. We lost a lot of colleagues including our best coach for the past years, all the equipment of our national teams, thousand of balls recently purchased, everything...everything."

Pledges of support soon came flooding in. The president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, called Dr Jean-Bart and stressed that he was not alone. The game's governing body have now donated $3.25 million.

Speaking exclusively to CNN, Blatter said: "We are doing everything we can to support people in their hour of need. We still have an unbelievable amount of work ahead of us, but Haiti can count on the solidarity of the football family. Yves Jean-Bart told me that the term "football family" is living up to its name fully at this time.

"He is showing extraordinary courage. However, in times like these, you not only need courage but a great deal of hope in order to find the strength to rebuild the country. But that's why we're here and that's why there is solidarity and hope through football.

"As Yves Jean Bart said to me, the very idea may seem strange just a few weeks after such an overwhelming tragedy, but hope is vital at times like these. It's incredible, but amid all the devastation, young people still want to play. Football is an integral part of our society and that's why it's important that we get the football activities up and running -- to bring a little serenity and joy."

Haiti has vowed to fulfil their international fixtures, starting with a regional under-17 women's tournament next month. Neighboring Dominican Republic has given the squad a place to live, and train.

As Dr Jean-Bart begins rebuilding the infrastructure of the sport in Haiti he is convinced the beautiful game can provide solace for his fractured and grieving country. "Football is part of the everyday life of Haiti, even with the scary living conditions in Port-au-Prince, even with the fields being occupied, they still play soccer," he told CNN.

"It is the only entertainment reserved to everybody. At the federation we had the great idea of distributing in the temporary shelters the few soccer balls we were able to recover and it was an explosion of joy.

"We feel that we have more responsibility than before. With all this solidarity coming from all around the world and with this sudden loss for everybody, we feel that soccer has an important role to play in the reconstruction of this country.

"With the lack of resources we had in the past we were able to accomplish so much, now with all the support that we will get, we will come back stronger than before."