RIO DE JANEIRO — When Brazil won an unprecedented fourth World soccer title in 1994, Haiti went berserk. That's Haiti - the Caribbean nation more than 1,000 miles from the nearest point in Brazil and decades past the only Cup competition it ever qualified to play in. Tens of thousands of Haitians defied the military dictatorship's ban on public demonstrations and took to the streets to fire guns in the air and wave aloft gold Brazilian shirts.
It has always been so. When the World Cup comes around every four years, Haitians deck themselves in the Brazilian colors of green and gold. Brazilians, Haitians reason, are just like they are, predominantly black and predominantly poor - perfect proxies for vicarious soccer glory. A win for Brazil is a win for Haiti.
Haiti's long-suffering soccer fans have a chance to cheer Brazil at close quarters this week when their own team takes on the reigning World Champions in an unprecedented exhibition match at Port-au-Prince's Sylvio Cator Stadium - which was once such a mess that the national team played their home games in Miami.
For Haitians, the match billed as a "Peace Game" eclipses all else - even the vast commercial tentacles of the Olympics (after all, the glory of the modern Olympics depends largely on TV screens and electricity - things the majority of Haitians don't have).
Today's match is more of a political spectacle than a serious football contest: a Brazilian side containing legends like Pelé may have perfected the attacking style of play that became known throughout the world as "the beautiful game," but there is unlikely to be anything beautiful about a game matching teams ranked 1 and 95 in the world. Today's match is beautiful simply because it is taking place.
As the best and biggest draw in sport, Brazil usually charges fortunes to play small-time opponents. However, this time the Brazil team travels to Haiti free of charge with shirts and soccer balls to give away to the poor, and enormous goodwill. Ronaldo, the Brazilian star who plays for Real Madrid and who earns in a hour what most Haitians earn in a year, has donated $150,000 to Haitian charities.
Brazil is going to Haiti thanks to a suggestion from Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, the man charged with getting the country back on its feet after yet another unexpected change of government in February. Brazilian peacekeepers took over the leadership of the UN force in Haiti shortly after Mr. Latortue was appointed, and he quickly suggested that Brazil's much-loved stars could do more than any number of blue helmets to disarm the thugs, bandits, and paramilitaries who threaten the peace and stability of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Latortue asked the two sides to play a match in front of a crowd who had exchanged guns for tickets.
Authorities eventually blew the whistle on that idea because of security concerns, but Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pushed for the game to go ahead as a small but symbolic show of his country's serious bid to establish itself as a regional leader.
Since Lula took power last year with an agenda of righting injustice at home and abroad, Brazil has led a powerful trade bloc of developing nations, taken an aggressively proactive role in Latin American affairs, and is hoping to win a seat on the UN Security Council. The decision to lead the peacekeeping force in Haiti is one sign Brazil is taking the initiative in its own back yard. Taking a team of superstars to Haiti is another.
Soccer matches have caused wars, and many are still a substitute for them. But this match threatens to boil over with joy. That the game will be more of a political statement than a contest of equals is no reason for lament. The Haitians deserve some good news, and the match will give them a brief but richly deserved respite from the misery that blights daily life in a nation where unemployment stands at 80 percent and more than half the population live in poverty.
Haiti has no chance of winning, but that hardly matters because, for once, the cliché is true: It isn't the winning or losing that matters, it is the taking part. Whatever the score tonight, Haitians will be back on the streets celebrating.
• Andrew Downie is a Scottish freelance writer who, in the 1990s, tried out for a Haitian soccer league team - and didn't make it. He now lives in Brazil.