Tiny island begins to challenge neighbours
29 August ~ Sometimes mercurial, often spirited. The Antiguan national football team is currently enduring a transitional period which has seen an increase in sport participation on the island, a sudden rise in the FIFA world rankings and a credible ongoing journey in the third round of the World Cup qualifying. An island, home to around 80,000 people, Antigua is perceived to be a production line for some of the best cricketers as it is cricket that usually takes centre stage. However, there is an evolution starting to occur with more people starting to get into football. And a large reason for this is the fact the national side is currently excelling.
The qualifying stages for the upcoming 2014 World Cup, which will be held in Brazil, are currently taking place and Antigua have done remarkably well to still even be in with a shout of progressing past the third round – which is still taking place.
Having seen out some tough fixtures in early June, where they were beaten in the Group A opener by regional powerhouses United States and then able to salvage a point against rivals Jamaica – September is just as equally tough.
Much could be taken from the match against the States, though. Despite defeat, Antiguan forward Peter Byers was still able to get on the score sheet and it was a chance to showcase their development to a global audience as American sports channels Fox Sports and ESPN were showing the tie live.
The pace and tempo at which the game was played will only help Antigua to adapt, and this is significant as tournaments such as the Caribbean Cup and Gold Cup loom.
The World Cup qualifiers resume on 7 September and the Benna Boys will travel to the Estadio Mateo Flores to face Guatemala before taking a four-day break and then hosting them in the reverse fixture.
It’s a shame that they have to play away in the first leg, as the environment will be unfamiliar and Guatemala will be confident with the home backing. It’s important Antigua take points from the two games, though, as they are yet to taste victory and if progression is going to be turned into reality, a solid performance must be put in.
But in all honesty, the team should be playing with no fear. After all, they are underdogs. And manager Tom Curtis (below) knows that his squad have done so well to get this far. Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s a tiny island that lacks sufficient resources and enough serious investment to really get football off the ground domestically and on the international stage.
A nation constantly overshadowed by the dominance of neighbours Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. But maybe not for much longer. And we must also heap praise on the supporters back home who have been magnificent amid the fact Antigua have never qualified for a World Cup. But at the rate at which the side is developing – who is to say that a place at a World Cup isn’t achievable?
But success and admirers have been coming thick and fast, not least for the impressive results but also for the new-look system installed by Curtis. He has been able to lure Reading star Mikele Leigertwood and Nottingham Forest striker Dexter Blackstock to the setup and it’s proved beneficial as the chore and fluency of the team has significantly strengthened.
Leigertwood offers a dynamism that was clearly lacking before, and some much-need experience. He’s the lynchpin and heartbeat of the midfield, able to operate as a deep lying midfielder or drop in as a defender.
Whereas Blackstock, meanwhile, is a fantastic addition to supplement old guard Byers. He can run defenders ragged with his pace and is a threat in the air. Both of them started the match against the United States as well, and they were arguably the stand out players.
Curtis has been fortunate that he’s been able to call upon the services of players who originate from the island – and there could well be more newcomers as far as the rule continues to apply.
Having said that, players such as central defender Marvin McCoy, 35-year-old skipper George Dublin and tricky number nine Stefan Smith have all been influential characters in the recent rise. It would be unfair to overlook them.
It’s a far more expansive system that Curtis has deployed, and having watched the match against the States there was plenty of width and this meant the full-backs could push on and exploit the space behind. Byers, who came off the bench to score the goal, was able to get behind the backline through this and against lesser quality teams more goals could be scored.
But away from the World Cup, Antigua have also seen a step up in the recently updated FIFA World Rankings. They sit in 100th place, with their best ever position coming in November 2011 in 83rd. It’s a highly respectable position and one that sees them ahead of the likes of other Caribbean nations such as St Kitts & Nevis, Dominican Republic and Bermuda.
It’s now no secret that the Benna Boys are improving on all fronts, and with the instalment of some new key players, current success in the World Cup qualifying campaign and new-look position in the world rankings – you’d be foolish to cast a shadow over the Antigua and Barbuda national team. Ignore them at your own peril. Nathan Carr @Caribbeanftbl
This article first appeared on The Home of Caribbean Football