IRENE, South Africa (AP) — Jozy Altidore has USA on his chest and Haiti in his heart.
Devastated by the January earthquake that rocked his parents’ homeland — and where many of his relatives still live — Altidore found himself distracted. Soccer is his job, and never was a season more important than this last one, what with Hull fighting relegation in the English Premier League and the World Cup only a few months away.
But how could he concentrate on a match when people were dying? When children were left orphaned and living on the street? When a country that is part of his heritage was suffering?
“It was just depressing, depressing for a while,” Altidore said Wednesday. “Even while I was playing football, at times, football wasn’t even on my mind. It was just the worst possible mindset I could have been in, playing in the biggest league in the world, playing for a team that’s trying to avoid relegation. You need all your players to be there.”
Loaned to Hull by Villarreal last August, expectations were high Altidore would do well in the Premier League. American field players have had increasing success in England, and the big, bruising striker has a soft touch around the goal.
But the Tigers were dismal, and Altidore was of little help. He scored just two goals — one in league play and one in the League Cup, the third-tier competition in England — and missed the last two games of the season after head-butting Sunderland’s Alan Hutton, who had thrown the ball at him.
Trying to explain Altidore’s struggles winds up sounding like so many excuses. Listen to him to talk about Haiti, though, and you begin to understand.
His parents, Joseph and Giselle, left their impoverished nation for the United States some 35 years ago. Neither spoke English. Giselle had $300 in her pocket, Joseph $500. In time, Joseph became an engineer and Giselle a nurse, and the couple and their four children eventually settled in Boca Raton, Fla.
Haiti was never far away, though. Giselle and Joseph left brothers and sisters behind there, and they occasionally took their own children back for visits.
“When we’d go, we’d spend three weeks,” Altidore said.
Though he was born in New Jersey and spent his entire life in the United States, the connection to Haiti was so strong that Altidore at least considered the possibility of playing there. But it would have meant getting a Haitian passport and, likely, giving up his American one.
“That was a really tough decision,” he said, “because my family all had American passports.”
Instead, he showed his loyalty by wearing a wristband with the flags of both Haiti and the United States.
“Whenever I get the chance, I always praise my people back in Haiti,” Altidore said. “I just try to balance a little bit of both and show respect for both countries.”
Altidore’s father was visiting England when the magnitude 7.0 quake hit. With phone lines down and Internet connections wiped out, they spent days trying to find out if more than a dozen family members were safe. Altidore made pleas on Twitter, asking his fans to pray for Haiti and donate money. He also appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and ESPN to draw attention to the relief effort.
“Put yourself there and imagine how scared and torn you would be? Please do anything you can to help them. I beg of you,” one of his tweets said.
Despite Hull’s precarious place in the Premier League, manager Phil Brown gave the forward two weeks off. Altidore considered going to Haiti and searching for his missing relatives, but ultimately decided he needed to stay in England to help Hull and keep himself fit for U.S. team duty at the World Cup.
No matter how hard he tried, however, he couldn’t stop thinking about Haiti.
“My focus on football wasn’t there the next three, four months,” he said. “It was hard to not click on the news, not hear about Haiti and then go and research and do all these things.”
Time has eased his despair, and Altidore again seems like his old, carefree 20-year-old self. He is well aware the World Cup could be key to his professional future; still the property of Villarreal, a good showing in South Africa could earn him another loan or an outright transfer.
And, in motivation closer to his heart, the World Cup is an opportunity to draw attention to Haiti’s ongoing plight.
“My only message would be just to imagine how you would feel if it was your son or daughter that is … 5, 6, 7 years old and they’re living on the street,” Altidore said. “It’s tough for me to think about every day, which is why I’m happy I can have this opportunity and try to represent not only myself, but them as well.”