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Port-Au-Prince (AFP) July 13, 2012
Haiti's infamous Cite Soleil, one of the world's most violent and run-down slums, could boast a 15,000-seater stadium and sports complex if one philanthropist's dreams are realized.
Named after the mythological bird that rises from the ashes, the "Phoenix" is to be constructed, at least in part, using debris from the devastating January 2010 earthquake that claimed a quarter of a million Haitian lives.
The project is the brainchild of Robert "Boby" Duval, the son of one of Haiti's richest families and a former soccer and basketball star who is well-known for decades of philanthropy in Cite Soleil.
Duval chose the location intentionally so the stadium might stand as a symbol of the fight against injustice in a Caribbean nation where 80 percent of people live in poverty, in the poorest country in the Americas.
For more than 20 years, the 58-year-old Duval has headed up the Haiti Athletic Center, planted in the heart of Cite Soleil on a field that once served as a bottling center's dumping ground.
"This neighborhood is detested as an eyesore and some wanted to completely bulldoze it. So this is a big project," he told AFP.
Imprisoned for political activities against the repressive regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the 1980s, the former leftist activist came up with the idea when he was released and sought a new direction.
"I came to Cite Soleil because I was looking for a social commitment in line with my life's vision. I said to myself, I am going to build a center for developing athletic talents," Duval said.
He is looking to the Inter-American Development Bank, the Clinton Global Initiative and others to help him raise the $5 million (four million euros) necessary to build the arena.
Despite no firm commitment on funding, he is determined his plans will come to fruition.
"The project is moving forward. The land is there -- it was given to me by a Haitian. We are going to erect a beautiful stadium," he said.
And Duval has a reason to be confident, for he has already achieved much.
-- 'It's not a choice' --
What started as soccer lessons for a small group of under-privileged youth has grown into a massive program that, in recent years, has provided the bulk of new players for Haiti's professional clubs, as well as its national team.
The center's young players have competed in tournaments around the world -- bringing home trophies from Norway, the US, and most recently, from the 2011 Homeless World Cup, held last year under the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Duval said his program does more than just teach soccer.
"They come from far away to train. They play soccer, but also basketball, practice karate or boxing," he said. "They also get something to eat, and there is a regular school."
In addition to the new stadium, Duval aims to expand his program to reach more of Haiti's children, one in eight of whom die before the age of five.
"Before I die, I dream of building centers to train young athletes across the country," he said.
Duval has received international accolades for his work, including being named a "CNN Hero" in 2007, but he says not all Haitians approve.
"There are still die-hards who think I shouldn't come here (to Cite Soleil). They think it's not my place," Duval said with regret. "But," for him, he added forcefully, "it's not a choice."
Within Cite Soleil, a sprawling shantytown of 200,000 to 400,000 souls on the northern fringe of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince that is patrolled by violent gangs, "Boby" is adored by his young, would-be soccer stars.
"I'm a mid-fielder. I dream of playing for clubs in Europe," said 14-year-old Ariel Charles, nicknamed Zannetti.
"My dream is to play like Suarez, like Messi," said another, referring to Liverpool and Uruguay striker Luis Suarez and Argentine captain Lionel Messi, often cited as the "best player in the world."
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