Danielle Etienne interview: To the ends of the Earth – Haiti midfielder enters the stage

At their first FIFA Women’s World Cup, Haiti will come equipped with flair, flavour, and collective resolve. Nestled away in their individual stories is that of Danielle Etienne, the midfielder heading to Australia off perhaps the most whirlwind recent route of all.

“I don’t want an easy game; I like going into games where we may be the underdog. We want to use that opportunity to showcase ourselves and what we can do; if you can compete with European champions then you can compete with anybody.

“That’s the way that I’m looking at these games: as hard as they may be, we’re still there for a reason.”

Haiti’s World Cup might start against one of the so-called frontrunners, in England (22nd July in Brisbane), but for Danielle Etienne and her teammates, there is no sense of settling for the role of grateful tourists at their debut tournament. Australia is the setting for their Group D games, five months after Nicolas Delépine’s team made history in fellow host nation New Zealand.

A 2-1 victory over Chile in their inter-confederation play-off in Auckland sealed the deal, having overcome Senegal 4-0 five days earlier.

“We were in the locker room for probably two hours extra because we were just dancing in circles, the coaches were spraying the champagne everywhere,” Etienne recalls. “It was definitely a lot of excitement, because for all of us, that was the dream; for a young girl playing soccer, it’s ‘one day I want to go to a World Cup.’”

“We fulfilled that dream but also made history for our own country. We couldn’t do anything but just enjoy the moment and celebrate it, because a lot of people didn’t expect it to happen.

“We always believed in ourselves, but we knew we had to execute when it got time to playing.”

The New Jersey-raised 22-year-old’s biggest game day, however, had come two months prior. Back in the squad for February’s qualification, she had given birth to her first child, son Ezekiel, early in December.

“It was a month after I actually had him when I finally got clearance from my doctor to go into physical activity. I texted my uncle, ‘I’m ready to train,’ that day, literally after leaving the hospital, so the next day, we had a session.

“It started out with him saying, ‘We’re not even going to touch the ball today,’ and I hate hearing that from a coach! But I knew that was what I needed to start with, being able to run normally again, and feeling comfortable in my body.

“My partner (Elisha) was actually there and he would do the workouts with me, and then in the afternoon, he would have a small, group-soccer session, and I would join in that.”

The recent Fordham University graduate comes from a football family, with her father and uncle, the twin brothers Derrick and Darrell Etienne, having each played for Haiti. Her older brother, meanwhile, is current international and Atlanta United attacking talent, Derrick Etienne Jr.

With her father and uncle co-founders and senior pastors at the Latter Glory Church of Paterson, NJ, Dani also found no shortage of strength from faith and music while on the comeback trail.

“I think that’s when I went into my gospel playlists a lot, because that’s when I need that encouragement. I didn’t really need to be hyped up to go play, I needed to be told, ‘It’s not over, you’re not done.’

“Listening to Kirk Franklin, for example, those were moments by myself, kind of reflecting on everything. It would be like a sigh of relief, ‘This is true, I believe it, I can do it,’ and getting back to the grind.”

Even in lighter moments, the play button is often her chosen route, whether a smooth groove, hype jam, or dose of introspection is required.

“I love Miguel, I love J. Cole, and those types of artists. Maverick City is my favourite gospel ‘band,’ I guess you could call them.

“Those types of sounds are really important to me. I definitely think music is a big part of my (gameday) routine, just because I always listen to the same set of songs, and I always need that time, especially on a ride to the stadium.”

By the time of the final whistle in Haiti’s qualification clincher, the clock had reached a mammoth 16th minute of stoppage time, from 11 added on. Melchie Dumornay’s second goal had seemingly scotched any remaining doubts in the eighth of those minutes, only for Chilean star María José Rojas to halve the lead, as Haitian heart rates soared for the final nerve-jangling minutes.

Some Grenadières players fell to the turf at the whistle, but they would find their dancing feet soon afterward. Captured in full flow alongside Milan Pierre-Jerome and Claire Constant in those on-field celebrations, Dani is among those ever willing when the steps come out.

“It’s all the time, honestly; it’s like a bonding thing for us, to just kind of get comfortable and dance with each other. When new players come, that’s like their introduction; they either have to do a dance or sing a song.

“I chose to sing ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber, I think partly because I knew everybody would know that song. Everybody started clapping, so once I got to the ‘baby’ part, everybody was singing it with me!”

Just as on the field, Lyon-bound Melchie Dumornay, 19, is a driving force before the game, in her lesser-known role of national-team hype queen.

“I think every time we’re on the bus, she has a speaker, and she plays a variety of things; sometimes it’s Haitian music, sometimes it’s French music, sometimes it’s straight American music.”

While this is their first senior World Cup, Dani was part of 2018’s Under-20 edition, appearing in France alongside the likes of Dumornay, current captain Nérilia Mondésir, Sherly Jeudy, Roseline Éloissaint, and goalkeeper Kerly Théus. Haiti would lose by a solitary goal in group games with China, Germany and Nigeria, but the competition was another of many experiences to solidify their understanding through the years.

The mix of Haitian and American-raised players in the team means that, in addition to French and Creole, English also forms part of their communication. In any case, Danielle ‘Rosetta Stone’ Etienne is on hand to assist!

“Some of my teammates have learned English as they’ve gotten older, so we can always communicate that way. I’ve actually taken French throughout the majority of my schooling, that’s actually my minor in college.

“Then when it comes to Creole, when I first started playing with the national team when I was 14, I didn’t know much Creole at all, but growing up around the girls and spending a lot of time with them at camps, I’ve learned a lot of Creole since then. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent but some of my teammates actually use me now as a translator for some of the girls that don’t speak Creole!

“So, I guess that shows how far I’ve come.”

Walking out at a World Cup will be the polished prize at the end of days, weeks and months characterised by discomfort and doubt, but also incremental moments of triumph. Her brother’s advice always comes with the authenticity of a current top-level pro – an MLS Cup winner at that – and it was never more impactful than on her recent recovery road.

“I definitely had moments where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, maybe it’s too much, I’m in over my head.’ Even times where I had to text my brother, ‘I’m struggling right now.’

“He would kind of just be like, ‘This is the dream that you’ve had since you were little, you can’t doubt yourself, you have to believe you can do it. It’s gonna be hard but you can do it; we wouldn’t expect you to do it if we didn’t think you could.’

“Just hearing those encouragements along the way definitely helped me keep pushing. Now I’m at a point where I know I can do it, because the way that I feel right now is amazing.

“It was a hard time to get here, but I’m going to a World Cup, and my son’s going to be in the stands watching me, and those are two really good feelings.”

With her older sister Darice, there was bonding to be had via Beyoncé songs growing up (car singalongs included). The four-year gap between Dani and Derrick, meanwhile, made for a mix of natural sibling rivalry and support.

“I think it was kind of both, because in some aspects, I really did follow a lot of my brother’s footsteps. A lot of the stuff that he did, I would sometimes be like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’ and sometimes it would be, ‘Urgh, you’re my brother, I don’t want to have to do that, too.’

“But I definitely think that I took a lot of things from him, in music but even in soccer, just kind of learning from him and taking little nuggets for myself. I started listening to J. Cole because of my brother; it was kind of like whatever my brother listened to, sometimes I would sneak off to the side, ‘Oh, what song is that?’ type of thing, because I didn’t want him to know I liked the music he was listening to!”

The acclaimed 2014 Forest Hills Drive, responsible for a million ‘J. Cole went platinum with no features’ memes, ranks as one of Dani’s best-loved albums. Still hoping for her first opportunity to see the Dreamville titan in concert, she has, however, caught performances from one up-and-coming artist – her cousin, Darrell Etienne Jr., due to play Division 1 soccer at Farleigh Dickinson University.

“He produces his own music; he writes his own raps and he sings. His rap name is D.Etienne and he’s been making music for a while now; he’s just started producing his own beats.

“I think a lot of his style comes from what we grew up listening to, so he kind of has that ‘90s r&b and rap style.”

Few were as memorably unique within that sound as the Fugees, flying the flag in the process for Haiti, through Wyclef Jean, Pras, and ‘Haitian by association’ Lauryn Hill. Being born in 2001 may have precluded Dani from experiencing that era in real time, but she was raised on its music almost as much as faith and football!

“My dad is like an old-school guy, so he always had ‘90s hip-hop and r&b on. I think that’s why I enjoy that realm of music too now, and the same thing with my brother, we kind of like that style because my dad played it in the house all the time.

“The same with my mom, they kind of went hand in hand. Of course, some of the vulgar rapping, my mom didn’t really like!

“But she definitely loved ‘90s r&b, so Tony! Toni! Toné!, En Vogue, that’s definitely what my parents had in the house.”

Even without the throwback thrill of coming away from a record store with a new CD, Dani’s first music-buying experience had her basking in double-disc bliss all the same.

“I definitely never bought one in a store but I think it was probably Beyoncé’s self-titled album; I was still in middle school. That was probably the first one I downloaded, and she had videos too within that deluxe album you could watch, so I thought I was so cool at the time!

“‘XO’ I remember was on there. That was the first album I downloaded myself and I made it a point to learn all the lyrics to the songs.”

In the partially-possible scenario where she gets to record a cover song herself one day with a teammate, one of her most trusted national-team colleagues will be co-collaborator.

“I definitely would do it with Milan Pierre-Jerome, because we’re very similar in our music taste, so I know that she would know the songs. I probably would choose ‘Sure Thing’ by Miguel, since that is my favourite song.”

Dani’s midfield game is built around tidiness in possession, with skilful changes of direction and touches also in her armoury. January 2020’s Olympic Qualifying Championship group game against the U.S. in Houston gave her the chance to face up against World Cup winners Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz, and the less imposing but famously-silky Rose Lavelle.

The possibility of joining the midfield battle against England, Denmark and China in a few weeks’ time is one she would love to grasp. Although her football education began long before, her four years with the Fordham University Rams in New York City have been key in her development.

She will soon transfer to The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina to undertake a master’s degree and continue her collegiate playing career. Her maroon-and-white-tinted Fordham memories, though, will always be associated with a ‘90s novelty classic, given a further explosion in popularity a few years later.

“With Fordham, music is a big piece. A consistent theme that’s happened every year is the senior class makes a playlist for the pre-game warm-ups, so when we’re at our home stadium and they play it on the loud speaker, that’s like a reflection of that current senior class.

“That’s something we take a lot of pride in, so when my class sat down to put together our playlist, we took a lot of time to do it. Some of my fondest memories being at Fordham was the pre-game in the locker room; before we even got out on the field, we would just essentially have a dance party.

“We had one particular teammate who kind of took the stage when it came to dancing in the locker room, Milan Bornstein; it was good vibes always before the game with her. It’s actually a song from Madagascar, ‘I Like to Move It’ (Reel 2 Real featuring The Mad Stuntman), that was the song right before we would leave the locker room, and that’s the song that Milan would dance to – she made a very memorable routine with it!

“That’s always my go-to song when I think of Fordham soccer.”

Featuring last month for Paisley Athletic of the USL W-League, preparations with the national team are now ramping up, less than four weeks from their opener against England. On top of their work ethic, she hopes her side’s intelligence and creativity shines through during their major-tournament debut, with millions cheering them on from afar.

“I talk to one of my aunts who lives in Haiti and she says they’re just so proud of us. They really do enjoy watching our team play, and knowing that we’ve taken that step and put ourselves in history, and creating a light for Haiti, they definitely appreciate that.

“Especially in times like these, it’s necessary to have those moments where you can look at something that’s really positive and brings joy. They definitely are waiting to see what we do at the World Cup and will be watching everything, no matter what time it is in Haiti.

“They believe in us, so that’s why it’s hard not to believe in ourselves.”

Ample time remains to plot her long-term future in the game, though like many players, she hopes that her World Cup participation will be a springboard. After straining and striving to earn her place, she will more than be forgiven for allowing herself moments to stop and take in the reward during the coming weeks.

“Being able to say I’m going to a World Cup within months of having my baby is a really big thing. It reminds me, because I believed it, that you don’t have to stop playing once you bring life into the world; that’s just another motivation to play even more.”

Her in-game intelligence is matched by a studious outlook on societal issues and the world around her. In moments of downtime, she often opts for an intense documentary, with son Ezekiel also getting to take it in (whether he realises it or not!).

In a family filled with so many footballers, recreational games have been known to take place between Dani, her immediate family and uncle, and various cousins with their own aspirations in the sport. The closing question of these interviews over the years is therefore in perfect keeping with those ‘Etienne Classic’ match-ups.

In this one, the player is asked to throw together just some examples of current or former teammates they would like alongside them in a 5-a-side line-up, based mostly on their entertainment value. All Etiennes are also welcome here, but how many will make the starting team?!

“When I played club at New York City (FC), that was my last two years before going to college, there was a player, Angela Aguero, and she would try the craziest things; I’m talking like Ronaldinho-crazy things in training and in games. Sometimes when you’re playing in a competitive environment, you lose track of how much it can just be fun.

“I would have to say my brother’s on the team, because he is one of my favourite players, and growing up, whenever I played on his team, he just made me better. Then I would have to say Melchie (Dumornay) as well, because she’s such a fun teammate to play with.

“From Fordham, I would have to say Fernanda Serna; she’s another cheeky player who tries a lot of things. She’s fun to play with, and she’s got that kind of ‘Brazilian’ flair.

“That team I just named would be so dangerous it wouldn’t even be fair to the competition!”

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow: @chris_brookes

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