Trailing 5-0 to one of the most soccer-crazed nations in the world, nothing was going right for the Haiti men’s national team against Brazil in its second match of the Copa América Centenario.
The Haitian squad had yet to find the back of the net in the tournament, but that changed in the 70th minute when Carolina RailHawks midfielder James Marcelin struck a deflected ball from Brazilian keeper Alisson Becker into the back of the net.
The goal didn’t impact the result of the game – Brazil’s lead stretched to 7-1 by the time the final whistle blew – but it arguably meant more than any other goal scored by any of the other 15 countries competing during the group stage last month.
It was the first goal Brazil has conceded against a Caribbean nation in its entire history, as well as Haiti’s first-ever Copa América goal.
“I’m just blessed to be a part of this group, and playing Brazil means a lot to me and lots of people and the country – me scoring that goal,” Marcelin, 30, said. “For me, I just see all the family, people and friends there for me in the bad time and the good time.”
One of those bad times stands out more than most: the earthquake that struck his home country on Jan. 12, 2010.
After the 7.0 quake were 52 aftershocks with magnitudes of at least 4.5 on the Richter scale, devastating the country. Marcelin was visiting his sister at the time of the catastrophic event, and he was initially assumed to be one of the more than 100,000 killed.
His club at the time – the Portland Timbers – was unable to make any contact with him for days.
When Marcelin felt the initial trembling of the earthquake, he immediately ran outside his home. When he turned around, the building had been reduced to rubble.
The country was thrown into disarray. There was no phone service, internet or electricity. People were in a constant fear of aftershocks bringing down more buildings.
“People were sleeping on the street because they thought the earthquake would return again, so nobody wanted to sleep in their house,” Marcelin said. “I was a part of these people … outside on the street. We do that for three, four weeks, like that.”
Not having an American passport, Marcelin had no way to leave the country and return to Oregon to prepare for the upcoming season. According to Portland Timbers general manger Gavin Wilkinson, the organization was left in limbo “for at least three days” before the two sides touched base for the first time.
“We were trying to track down James and the news circulating of how devastating it … was coming out bit by bit,” Wilkinson said. “We got calls from him from random numbers we didn’t know. He was trying to find a way to get out of there.”
Marcelin and the Timbers had mutual comfort in having been able to reach each other, but Marcelin was still stuck on the horror scene in Haiti.
That’s when Eduardo Cantore, who knew Marcelin from his time working as a television commentator for the Puerto Rico Islanders, took action. Marcelin, who had just completed two seasons with Puerto Rico, was one of Cantore’s favorite players.
After weeks of searching, the duo made contact over the phone after Cantore found Marcelin through a company bringing food and medicine to Haiti.
Cantore was also working for an airplane charter company and set up a time for Marcelin to be picked up by a private plane.
“He told me ‘We have an airplane that’s coming’ and he gave me the name of the guy,” Marcelin said. “He told me, ‘Yes, I’m leaving tomorrow, so you can bring your stuff.’ ”
A return stateside
Marcelin was welcomed into Cantore’s home for a week before catching a flight to Florida and then to Oregon.
However, Wilkinson knew that Marcelin’s mind was still occupied with the tragedy in his home country. The location of Marcelin’s family was still unknown.
“It took several weeks to get him up to Portland, and at that point it wasn’t just like any other player coming to town and putting him in a hotel until preseason started (a month later),” Wilkinson said. “He hung out with my family for a little bit and (assistant coach) Amos Magee. The biggest concern was his mental state.
“He’s always got a smile and good sense of humor, but when he was going through all of this he was just very solemn. It was a different James.”
As the preseason neared, Marcelin found out his family was safe and was able to return his focus to the pitch.
“When he found out everyone was good, his personality started to shine through,” Wilkinson said.
He played in Portland for three years, including the Timbers’ first two as a Major League Soccer team before stints with FC Dallas and third-division Antigua Barracuda FC.
In 2015, Marcelin was named to the “NASL Best XI” as a member of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
For club and country
For every minute Marcelin has been available for RailHawks’ coach Colin Clarke to use, he has been on the field.
His smart touch on the ball and ability to get back and defend has made Marcelin a valuable asset on every team hehas been a member of, but Marcelin isn’t shy when admitting that nothing beats the feeling of putting on Haiti’s blue and red kits for national competition.
“When I play for Haiti, it’s for pride,” he said. “You don’t get paid to play; you’re just happy to play for your country because there’s a lot of people watching and you know you have to do good for your country. When you play for a club in America, basically that’s your job. The fun you get in the national team, you don’t get that in the club.”
Since first appearing for the U21 national squad in 2006, Marcelin has made 33 appearances for the senior team since 2007, appearing in high-level competitions including two Gold Cups.
Before his goal against Brazil, Marcelin had scored against Grenada in the 2009 Gold Cup, twice in 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches and once in a 2015 friendly match against El Salvador.
Marcelin remembers Portland as the most memorable stop in his professional career, and Wilkinson, the man who inked Marcelin to his first American deal, was beaming when he saw the ball hit the back of the net against Brazil: “I’m proud of him. They lost that game when he scored, but it was quite special.”