( Saturday 17 September 2011

Caribbean hope springs eternal

“A team with a dream from a tropical, Caribbean setting,” is how renowned British actor Joss Ackland described Haiti in Heading for Glory, the official film of the 1974 FIFA World Cup™. The Haitians were only the second side from the sun-splashed West Indies to ever reach a world finals – after Cuba’s trip to the quarter-finals way back in 1938 – and they inspired warm feelings and support from German locals, who could not help but shout for the debutant underdogs from half a world away. Despite all that, and the impressive efforts of the late Emmanuel ‘Manno’ Sanon in attack, the islanders headed for home at the first hurdle.  

FIFA World Cup appearances for teams from the Caribbean have been few and far between; onlyCuba reached the knockout rounds. Jamaica arrived in France in 1998 boasting a wildly colourful kit, dreadlocks and earned an outpouring of compassion from local fans entranced by the island’s exported cultural trappings – Bob MarleyReggae, Rastafarianism. Eight years after that, Trinidad and Tobago took their bow on the world stage, in Germany again, and their 0-0 draw with Sweden in Dortmund was as good as a win, deemed a national holiday back home and cause for Carnival-come-early.

Leading trio chart a course
In the opening salvos of qualifying for Brazil 2014, Haiti, T&T and Jamaica – the kingfishers of the 24 Caribbean nations that make up the vast majority of CONCACAF’s 35 national teams – hold out the best hopes of reaching the later stages.
“We’re not far off from the successes we achieved in 1998,” said Jamaica coach Theodore ‘Tappa’ Whitmore, a midfield legend from the heady days of ‘98. “We just need to keep moving in the right direction and find the right balance.” Whitmore has assembled a hard-working, fast-moving team, led by standout USA-based winger Dane Richards, whose confidence knows no bounds: “This team can do really big things,” he said.

Due to their high ranking, reigning Caribbean champions Jamaica are not one of the 15 island teams currently engaged in the first group stage. The Reggae Boyz, along with Cuba, will enter the fray at the next stage along with the region’s bright lights like Mexico, USA and Costa Rica.  
Trinidad and Tobago are led by newly-appointed coach Otto Pfister, the German tactician naming Stoke City striker Kenwyne Jones as new captain and winning his first two games. “The people ofTrinidad and Tobago have football in their blood,” said the iconoclastic coach, who has worked in no fewer than 16 countries on four continents. For Haiti, a country with tragedy and hardship seemingly in its blood, a return to the world finals might just help ease some of the suffering caused by last year’s earthquake which killed hundreds of thousands, including members of the nation’s football community. They are currently tied with Antigua and Barbuda for first place in the all-Caribbean Group F.

Hope, optimism for the rest
Behind this trio are a gaggle of lesser lights with little more than a hope and a prayer. Some of these teams, like Puerto Rico (third in Group D) and the Dominican Republic (third in Group A) – nations usually associated with baseball – have made vast improvements in recent years. “There is a lot of football talent in Puerto Rico,” said Puerto Rico’s Costa Rican coach Jeaustin Campos, who took over from Northern Irishman Colin Clark, who himself made massive strides. Also, Grenada, Barbados, Curacao (formerly the Netherlands Antilles), Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis and Bermuda have been on the up in recent years and eager to walk in the footsteps of the region’s more established sides.

Like in all parts of the globe, the Caribbean is also home to some of those little teams, from lands with tiny populations, for whom lining up in a qualifier represents an achievement all its own. After beating neighbors British Virgin Islands to reach the group stages, US Virgin Islands Technical Director Keith ‘Grell’ Griffith said: “The only thing better would be to win the World Cup final!”, giving some indication of the relative nature of success in the smaller islands of the Caribbean, like the Cayman Islands, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia, who are all propping up their respective groups and a long way down the trough in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

With just under 1000 days to go before the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off, all 17 remaining Caribbean teams are on course for history. Will Brazilian fans have a hopeful band from the West Indies to cheer on? Watch this space to find out.



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