Austin FC Upset Is About “More Than Football” for Haitian Underdogs Violette

“We knew it was going to take heart”

Steeven Saba of Violette AC (left) dribbles during a CONCACAF Champions League match against Austin FC at Q2 Stadium (Courtesy of CONCACAF)

Even by soccer’s dubious standards, CONCACAF – the sport’s governing body in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean – has a checkered reputation. Laughable playing conditions, inexplicable refereeing decisions, and bizarre fan conduct are all fundamentally ingrained in the region’s footballing identity.

But on nights like Tuesday night at Q2 Stadium, CONCACAF is everything that’s right about sports.

Fair warning: This is not an Austin FC column. If you’re here to learn why Gyasi Zardes managed zero shots on target in a match where ATX had 76% possession and 58 crosses, go elsewhere. If you need to rage-read something about Austin FC embarrassing its country in CONCACAF Champions League, try last week’s installment, which followed El Tree’s stunning 3-0 loss to Haitian club Violette AC in the first half of the two-leg matchup. Austin’s 2-0 win at home on Tuesday wasn’t good enough to flip the script, so its story has already been told.

No, this is a Violette column. Because Violette deserves it. Because when you take a step back to understand exactly what the Haitian side achieved in eliminating an MLS club from the knockout competition, and you process exactly how high the odds were stacked against them, and you listen to what it means to those players given what’s transpired in their country over the past several months… it’s no less than one of the most remarkable sports stories in recent memory.

“Honestly, it’s the most beautiful moment of my life,” said Violette captain Steeven Saba, holding back tears. “This game wasn’t about beautiful football for us. It was more than football. It was for everyone in Haiti.”

Things are dire in Saba’s home nation, which has been in the thrall of a humanitarian crisis since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in the summer of 2021. Gangs control much of the country; violence, hunger, and death are rampant. Recently the situation has escalated, and the Caribbean nation has asked for armed intervention from abroad to help end what a U.N. human rights official called a “living nightmare.”

Naturally, sport is an afterthought in such a climate. Haiti’s domestic league is suspended indefinitely. Prior to last week’s first leg against Austin, Violette had not played an official competitive match in nearly 300 days. And when they did host the Verde and Black for their “home” leg, the match had to be played across the border in the Dominican Republic in a nearly empty stadium.

But through 180 minutes against an American club with every imaginable advantage, Violette stood tall, becoming the first Haitian club ever to win a CCL round. “Where we’re from, I always say we never stop fighting. We fight through adversity through anything that happens,” Saba said.

With six players barred from entering the United States due to unobtained visas and a bench that ran just three players deep, Violette defended its 3-0 aggregate lead like its life depended on it. Austin applied constant pressure and ran up the shot tally to a staggering 35. Sebastián Driussi found two second-half goals (one from a brutal goalkeeper error) and Austin came up on the wrong end of multiple VAR decisions. But Violette never crumbled, and saw out arguably the biggest upset in CCL history.

“We knew we had to suffer through difficult moments. We knew it was going to take heart. Even with only 14 players, we wanted to go through, and we fought,” Violette manager Rony Attimy said, hoping that the historic victory can serve as some inspiration to his fellow Haitians through the turmoil.

"The players showed that no matter what the difficulty we are facing at home, we need to keep going,” Attimy said. “Keep fighting. Keep creating. Because in adversity, good things can still happen.”

For more Austin FC news and analysis, visit The Austin Chronicle's Austin FC hub. Follow “The Verde Report” columnist Eric Goodman on Twitter: @goodman.

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