Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:
Preview Feb 18, 2004
Update Mar 4, 2004
Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
Preview May 30, 2004
Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004
Preview Aug 9, 2004
Update Sep 20, 2004
Update Oct 26, 2004
Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004
Preview Feb 2, 2005
Update Feb 26, 2005
Update Apr 8, 2005
Update Jun 8, 2005
Update Aug 22, 2005
Update Sep 14, 2005
Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005
Preview Oct 29, 2005
Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005
Preview: CONCACAF qualifiers, Round 1
by Peter Goldstein
1) One of these three was a Dutch colony. Which one?
2) One of these three is an independent country. Which one?
a) St. Lucia
3) One of these three island groups has its largest islands just off the coast of Venezuela. Which one?
a) Netherlands Antilles
b) Cayman Islands
c) Turks and Caicos
4) One of these three hosts an annual summer football festival. Which one?
a) St. Kitts and Nevis
c) US Virgin Islands
5) One of these three is more than 30 spots above the other two in the FIFA rankings. Which one?
If you got all five of these, you're either a hopeless geography/history/football nerd or you cheated. (The answer to all five is A.) But you don't have to be a nerd to know that a quiz like this can mean only one thing: the amazing incredible CONCACAF qualifiers are upon us!
I'll forgive you if you're not terribly excited. The fact is, the CONCACAF countries aren't terribly excited either. Of the 20 Caribbean countries lining up starting February 18--Bermuda isn't anywhere near the Caribbean, but it's an island, so we'll fake it--maybe only 5 have football as a primary sport. With the exception of Bermuda, all the English-speaking countries (Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Montserrat, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, Turks & Caicos, US Virgin Islands) prefer cricket: more than half are bidding to host matches for the cricket World Cup in the West Indies in 2007. The Spanish-speaking countries (Cuba, Dominican Republic) are baseballers--Puerto Rico, another baseballing Spanish-speaking team, didn't even enter this time around. That leaves the Dutch (Aruba, Surinam, Netherlands Antilles) and the French (just Haiti, because Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Martin aren't FIFA members) as pretty much the only entrants that put football first.
But we should still care, because each of these countries has its fools or diehards, who know that one ball in the back of the net is worth any number of lbw's or stolen bases. And even if a team has only 1000 football fanatics, or 100, or only 1 (and some of these countries don't have a whole lot more), they're worth our time, because those few, those happy few, are our brothers and sisters, and blessed beyond measure. So get out your maps, and dig in for A Lesson in Obscurity: a preview of the first round of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers.
We start with an all-Dutch battle--but it's sort of like Ajax vs. Cambuur Leeuwarden. Surinam are the aristocrats: they've had a national league since 1923 (!), and became a FIFA member back in 1929, the same year as Mexico, when they were known as Dutch Guiana. They're also the big boys, a country of nearly half a million people, and although they've never come close to qualifying themselves, they've produced some of the finest footballers in the history of the Netherlands. Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids were all born in Surinam. In a way it's surprising Surinam haven't done better, given their potential talent base. Back in the early 80s, they had local clubs reach the CONCACAF club championship three years running. But they're a poor country, and don't really have the infrastructure to develop top talent. It's no surprise that their best players have matured back in the homeland. Nevertheless, they've been consistently the best of the Dutch Caribbean colonies for the last 40 years--not saying much, perhaps, but they've had their moments. In the 2002 WC qualifiers they only lost by the odd goal to Cuba; in recent Caribbean Cup tournaments they've managed draws with Barbados and Haiti, and another close loss to the Cubans. At their best, they're near the top of the Caribbean minnows.
Aruba, on the other hand, is a minnow among minnows. They used to be part of the Netherlands Antilles, and have only had independent footballing status since 1988. They're a small island, 75 square miles in area, with a total population of only 70,000. The current FIFA rankings have them ranked 10th worst in the world. In the 2002 WC qualifiers they were fortunate enough to face an even worse Puerto Rico in the opening round, but were then disposed of by Barbados on aggregate 1-7.
So there's no doubt who's the favorite here. And if that's not enough, take a look at the recent record between the two teams. In 2001, in a Caribbean Cup qualifier, it was Surinam 5-0; in 2002, in CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifying, it was Surinam 8-0 on aggregate. Against their natural regional rivals, Aruba will have plenty of incentive, but they just won't have the talent.
Surinam will--and maybe some luck besides. When they drew the matchups in Frankfurt, this was just another low-rent first-round tie. The winner would face Guatemala, and that would be that. But in January, FIFA suspended Guatemala for government interference with the federation. If the suspension isn't resolved before the summer, Guatemala will be ineligible to play in the qualifiers. There's been no word from CONCACAF on how that'll be handled, but by far the most likely scenario is that the winner of Aruba-Surinam (and of course it'll be Surinam) will get a walkover into the semifinal round of 12. They'll probably have to meet Canada, Honduras, and Costa Rica, and will be lucky to get a point. But think of the marvelous experience--and wonder whether a Gullit, Rijkaard, or Davids will emerge from Caribbean obscurity.
On the surface, this looks like an English-language version of Aruba-Surinam. Guyana (formerly British Guiana) is the big country, fully 700,000 in population, located next to Surinam on the South American coast. Grenada is the tiny island, with less than one-seventh the population. And of course one of the teams is a heavy favorite. But there's a switch--it's Grenada that's the pick, not Guyana.
Twenty-five years ago it would have been the other way around. In the 1982 WC qualifiers, Guyana thumped Grenada 8-4 on aggregate. But by 1990, the next time they met in tournament play, Grenada had caught up, drawing 0-0 in a Caribbean Cup qualifier. By the 1998 WC qualifiers, it was Grenada's game: a resounding 8-1 on aggregate, including a 6-0 win at home. Since then, Grenada has scored two more Caribbean Cup wins over Guyana, and there's no question they're the odds-on pick here.
How did such a small country overtake such a big one? While Guyana was putting all its efforts into cricket, a footballing culture was slowly developing in Grenada. A number of Grenadians play college soccer in the USA, where they get consistent action at a level better than most Caribbean nations. Grenada even has a couple of overseas stars. Jason Roberts, a striker who scored a goal for Portsmouth in the EPL this year, was just sold to first-division Wigan for a club record two million pounds (and scored in the first minute of his first game!). Shalrie Joseph, a midfielder, started every game of 2003 for New England Revolution of MLS. Don't get too excited, though; there are reports that the opening home fixture against Guyana may be pushed back because it conflicts with--what else?--a cricket tournament. Still, Grenada's results show that they're capable of competing at a high regional level. In 1997 they finished a stunning third in the Caribbean Cup, and in the WC qualifiers for 2002, they almost beat Barbados, going out on a golden goal.
Guyana does have a Brazilian coach, Neider Dos Santos, but no Brazilian talent. Organization is a problem, too; the federation was late establishing training camp because they had to move their offices. And they kinda sorta made a tiny mistake when they put the camp in the village of Buxton. Here's what the US Bureau of Consular Affairs has to say: "U.S. citizens should avoid stopping in or traveling to the village of Buxton...as it is known to be a base for criminal activity." Last week six members of the team were robbed at gunpoint. You decide whether that's a step up or down from the 2002 WC qualifiers, when Guyana wasn't even allowed to compete because the courts intervened in a federation corruption scandal. Any good news? Well, local boy Howard Eastman just successfully defended his European middleweight championship, and looks set for a world title match in the fall.
British Virgin Islands-St. Lucia
St. Kitts & Nevis-United States Virgin Islands
A couple of matchups that even CONCACAF fans will have trouble telling apart. Call it the Virgins against the Saints. (No wisecracks.) The two Virgin Island groups are actually quite different: USVI are by far the larger, with roughly six times the population. The respective UK/US influences also make for a dissimilar social profile; for example, in BVI, most churchgoers are Methodists and Anglicans, but in USVI, they're Baptists and Roman Catholics.
But the football is the same--in fact, frighteningly so. In 2002 WC qualifying, USVI lost 1-14 aggregate to St. Vincent and the Grenadines; BVI went down by the very same 1-14 to Bermuda. In 2003 Gold Cup qualifying, USVI lost 2-11 aggregate to Dominican Republic; BVI lost 2-11 aggregate to St. Lucia. My theory is that the newspapers didn't even attend the games, and just reported the same scores on general principles.
Ask FIFA, and they'll tell you BVI is the stronger squad. The Brits are ranked a semi-respectable 176, four spots ahead of Bermuda (um, didn't Bermuda beat BVI 14-1 in the 2002 qualifiers??), whereas the Yanks are down at 199, only five from the bottom. The difference? BVI have actually managed a few results recently, including two friendly wins over Anguilla, a Caribbean Cup win and draw against Puerto Rico, and a very surprising Caribbean Cup draw with Cayman Islands. USVI have Caribbean Cup draws with Turks & Caicos and Bahamas, but those date back to 1999. Just last week, in a tuneup for the qualifiers, BVI scored a comprehensive 5-0 win over USVI. (Coach William Ramirez of USVI: "For me, the match was OK. We had problems with people working and training and other players away. We have some positional discipline that needs to be worked on." The next night they lost to Dominica 0-5.)
But whether USVI or BVI is better won't matter much against the Saints. Like the Virgins, the Saints are quite different countries: St. Lucia is nearly four times larger than St. Kitts & Nevis, but SKN has a measurably larger GDP per capita; STL is one of the Windward Islands, SKN one of the Leewards; STL grows bananas, SKN sugar.
But when it comes to football, again the teams are similar--about eight levels above the Virgins. In fact, both St. Lucia and St. Kitts & Nevis are among the strongest of the Caribbean minnows. (There's a third Saint, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is even stronger, and has a bye this round.) It's the smaller country, St. Kitts & Nevis, that has a slight edge, but they had a head start, getting full FIFA membership in 1992, with St. Lucia joining up in 1998.
In fact, St. Kitts & Nevis, although still predominantly a cricketing nation, has put together a solid footballing culture. The last two summers they've hosted the St. Kitts & Nevis Football Festival, where they've posted excellent results against teams like Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, and Trinidad & Tobago. They have a number of overseas players, of whom the best known appears to be striker Keith "Kayamba" Gumbs, who plays in Malaysia. They've managed a number of good tournament results: a draw with Cuba and a trouncing of Surinam in the 2001 Caribbean Cup; a close 1-3 loss to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the 2002 WC qualifiers. After they dispose of USVI, they'll face Barbados, and although the Barbadians will be favorites, an upset, and a place in the semifinal group stage, isn't out of the question.
As noted, St. Lucia is a bit behind the Kittsians-Nevians, but they've been closing the gap. Back in the 1998 WC qualifiers, they went down 1-6 aggregate to their fellow Saints, but in 2002 they lost only 1-2 in a Gold Cup qualifier--and actually finished ahead of SKN in the group stage by scoring a stunning win over Trinidad and Tobago. In the next round they took Haiti's scalp as well, although Jamaica proved too strong. A year previously, in the qualifying for Korea/Japan, they went down on penalties to Surinam; I wouldn't be at all surprised if they're stronger now. They're getting some financial assistance from the government and from the FIFA GOAL Project, which is building a state-of-the-art training center. Given their larger talent pool, they may very well surpass St. Kitts & Nevis in the near future. After the inevitable win over BVI (remember, it was 11-2 over the same team in the 2002 qualifiers), they'll face Panama. It's a good draw, and they too have a chance at an upset and that magic place in the semifinal 12.
With Cuba we finally get a team with World Cup pedigree. True, it was all the way back in 1938, but there they posted one of the most famous upsets in tournament history, defeating Romania in a replay to reach the quarter-finals. And with Cuba we finally have a team that, although not as strong as Jamaica, and a clear minnow compared to USA and Mexico, can at least sometimes stay on the field with the big boys.
In fact, there seems little doubt that right now, Cuba is the strongest team in the first round draw. They showed their mettle in 2003: first they defeated Trinidad & Tobago on the road in the Gold Cup qualifiers, then, in the tournament proper, scored an upset over Canada and outplayed mighty Costa Rica for 45 minutes before going down. The USA thereupon took them apart, but the point had been made. They play a classic Latin style, with lots of short passes and good ball circulation; on defense they're what is kindly called "tactically na´ve," but overall the team can be a genuine threat. On the other hand, they tend to be inconsistent. Witness the 2002 WC qualifiers, when they were upset on penalties by Barbados, but in the repechage lost to Canada only 0-1 on aggregate.
How far can Cuban football go? They have a huge potential talent pool, but it's limited in two ways. First, baseball is and always will be the national sport. Second, the communist leadership prevents the best players from getting experience in leagues outside the country. Just as many Cuban baseballers would be regulars in the major leagues in the USA, so some footballers would be able to land jobs in MLS, or the Central American leagues. But there's small chance of that happening under the current regime. For the foreseeable future, Cuba's aspirations will be limited.
The matchup with Caymans looks like an amusing novelty--the last hard-line communists against the ultimate capitalist offshore bankers--but it isn't a novelty at all. That's because this is the third straight time in which these teams have been matched in the qualifiers. In the 1998 and 2002 cycles Cuba breezed, first 6-0 on aggregrate, then 4-0 on aggregate, and there's no reason for it to be any different this time around. The last time the two teams met was in late 2002, in a Gold Cup qualifier in Caymans, where Cuba ran rampant 5-0.
It's an unlucky draw for Caymans, who are actually quite respectable in the region. Like the rest of the English colonies, they're cricketers, but have put up some respectable results over the years. In recent competitions they've managed a draw with St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and a win over the Dominican Republic. That aggregate 0-4 to Cuba in the qualifiers was certainly no disgrace. But the team has to be a bit rusty--like many of the small Caribbean countries, they played no internationals at all in 2003--and while a quick training camp might have been enough against an Aruba or Guyana, Cuba will be out of their reach.
But if the draw was unkind to Caymans, it was doubly so to Cuba. That's because their second round opponent will be Costa Rica, and even at their best the Cubans can't beat the ticos over two legs. The 2003 Gold Cup game was classic minnow-vs.-giant: Cuba ran rings around Costa Rica for 45 minutes, but Costa Rica got the first goal in injury time, and coasted to a 3-0 win. I've written elsewhere about how unfair this draw is (and I'll do so again this summer); for the moment, let's expect Cuba to show their class against lesser opposition.
Bermuda is the odd man out in this group: 1) they're located about 1000 miles north of everyone else; 2) they're an English colony that really cares about football. The problem is that 1) and 2) don't mix. Because they're so geographically isolated, they find it expensive to travel to games and to get their peers to come for friendlies. They withdrew from 1998 WC qualifying, and haven't entered the Caribbean Cup in recent years. In the last couple of months they were turned down by St. Kitts & Nevis and Caymans for warmup games. Barbados, a team out of their class, came in and beat them twice, aggregate 6-1; Trinidad & Tobago, another team a cut above, arrives this week for two games. The federation applied to the government for financial support for more friendlies, but were turned down; still, they were told that if they put together a 4-year plan for the next cycle, there might be some funds available.
Let's hope so, because Bermuda has some potential. In the 2002 WC qualifiers, they pasted British Virgin Islands 14-1, and only went down to a decent Antigua & Barbuda squad on away goals. Back in 1999, the last time they competed in the Caribbean Cup, they hosted a group stage and scored solid victories over Bahamas and Caymans, losing to Cuba only 1-2. They've produced a genuine star, too: Shaun Goater, the veteran striker in England, who just this week scored his 200th league goal. Kevin Richards looks like a prospect on defense, and was recently drafted by Colorado Rapids of MLS. Bermuda, although small, is a fairly affluent place, and with more support, they might become consistent competitors at the minnow level. At the moment, it's hard to know what they can accomplish.
But Bermuda's troubles pale next to Montserrat's. It's one thing to be too far away to get the games you need; it's another to have two-thirds of your island rendered uninhabitable by an erupting volcano. On July 18, 1995, the Soufriere Hills cone began doing its stuff, and by August of 1997 the capital city of Plymouth had been effectively destroyed. The volcano remains active even now, with a major eruption as recent as last July. When the lava first hit, more than half the island evacuated, most to Antigua, and now about 4500 people (of an original 11,000) live in the north of the island, the only safe area.
Under the circumstances, it seems hardly fair to mention that Montserrat is ranked dead last in the FIFA rankings. But you probably knew that already, because of the famous 2002 publicity match between Montserrat and Bhutan. Someone had the great idea to match the world's two lowest-ranked teams on the day before the World Cup Final, so Montserrat traveled to Bhutan and lost 0-4, thus claiming the bottom spot.
But it's amazing that they've competed at all in recent years. They bravely entered the 2002 WC qualifiers, playing their home game in Antigua, losing 1-6 to Dominican Republic on aggregate. They followed that up with a Caribbean Cup entry, losing to fellow superminnows Anguilla and non-FIFA-member St. Martin. They haven't played since the Bhutan game, and to my knowledge have no full internationals scheduled before the series with Bermuda. But FIFA has helped in the rebuilding process, so Montserrat will actually have a home game, which is a triumph in itself. Even a well-drilled Montserrat would probably be a cut below the Bermudians, so it's hard to see them making it past the first round. But let's hope they acquit themselves well.
If the Dominican Republic ever decided to take up football, they'd do some serious damage. The country has more than twice the population of Uruguay, plus a larger GDP per capita than Paraguay or Ecuador, and it's produced a remarkably large number of outstanding athletes. Unfortunately, they all play baseball. In Cuba the diamond sport is definitely king; but in Dominican Republic it's king, queen, knave, and the whole court. With the World Cup qualifiers coming soon, you'd expect the local papers to provide a stream, or at least a trickle, of football stories; but right now the Caribbean Series is on, and you might as well not bother. And although the first qualifier is a month and a half away, the team hasn't had a single training camp.
A shame, really, because even at a very low level of interest, Dominican football isn't too bad. They're in the middle of the Caribbean pack, not quite up to teams like the Saints or Surinam, but clearly better than the superminnows. In the 1998 WC qualifiers they beat both Aruba and Netherlands Antilles; in the 2002 qualifiers they easily handled Montserrat; in recent Caribbean tournaments, they've beaten Puerto Rico and Antigua & Barbuda, and played both Cuba and St. Kitts & Nevis close. One would like to say they're on the upswing, but it isn't so--the emphasis on baseball has kept them stagnant, and figures to do so well into the future.
Still, they should have no problem with Anguilla, a proud member of the superminnow club. (FIFA has them at spot 198, only one place above United States Virgin Islands.) With the exception of Montserrat, Anguilla has the smallest population in the region (12,000), and as in any sensible English dependency, they spend most of their time playing cricket. In 27 international football matches over more than a decade of play, their only wins are against British Virgin Islands and post-volcano Montserrat. Back in the 1998 Caribbean Cup they got whacked by Grenada 1-14 and Guyana 0-14 (not aggregate, folks, single games). They wisely didn't play again for a couple of years, and in the 2002 WC qualifiers lost only 2-5 on aggregate--but don't get excited: their opponent was Bahamas, a fellow bottom-feeder. These days they're sticking with their class: St. Martin and BVI have been their sole opponents for two years, and though they've lost all three games, they've been only a goal short each time. Against the Dominican Republic they're not even bothering to host their half of the tie; both games will be played in Santo Domingo. At least the agony will be short: game one is March 18, game two March 21.
It's easy to confuse Dominica with Dominican Republic, but they couldn't be more different. Dominican Republic is a large Spanish-speaking country, Dominica a very small English-speaking country. Dominican Republic plays baseball, Dominica plays cricket. Just about the only thing they have in common is the level of their football, although to be honest Dominica would have to be in strong form to match the Republic.
But before we get to the numbers, let's mention the head of the Dominica federation, Patrick John. What makes him special (besides having two first names)? Well, FIFA's GOAL project has recently dedicated the Patrick John Football House, serving as the new federation headquarters. Why the honor? Probably because John is the only head of a federation who was both 1) a prime minister of his country; 2) convicted of treason for attempting to overthrow the succeeding government. (No wonder Sepp Blatter likes him.)
John is quite obviously a man to be reckoned with, and he's done a good job with Dominica football: the domestic league is thriving, and preparations for the qualifiers have gone well. In the past, Dominica has fluctuated between respectability and superminnowness. On the plus side, in the 1998 WC qualifiers they defeated Antigua & Barbuda and only went down to Barbados 0-2. In 2001 they managed a draw and a close loss with St. Lucia in a Windward Islands tournament. On the other side, though, in that same tournament they lost to Grenada 3-8, and in the most recent Caribbean Cup they lost games to Guyana and St. Martin. It's hard to read their 2002 WC qualifiers, because they were outclassed by Haiti 1-7 on aggregate. But right now they're looking like something more than a superminnow. A couple of weeks ago they traveled to British Virgin Islands, beating the host team twice and whomping USVI 5-0.
That should make them a favorite over Bahamas, which, although four times Dominica's size, is only now discovering football. In their first significant competition, the 1999 Caribbean Cup, they managed a win over ultraminnow Turks & Caicos, but could only draw with USVI (at home!), and later lost to Bermuda 0-6, Cuba 0-7, and Caymans 1-4. In the 2002 WC qualifiers, they somehow managed to get Anguilla in the first round, but were then sent home 0-13 on aggregate by Haiti. As yet the federation has been unable to secure significant government support for the team, and preparation friendlies have been hard to come by. They managed a home game with Haiti (0-6), then another home game against a Haitian league select squad (2-1!), but it looks like only local sides for the rest of the runup. At least we can't throw all the blame on cricket--these days, Bahamas seems more interested in basketball and athletics. But football is still a third-class citizen, and a win over Dominica would be a surprise.
Antigua & Barbuda-Netherlands Antilles
Four facts you probably didn't know about Netherlands Antilles:
1) It's made up of 4 1/3 islands: large Curašao and Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela; tiny St. Eustatius, Saba and the southern third of Sint Maarten (called St. Martin by the French) southeast of Puerto Rico;
2) It became a FIFA member back all the way back in 1932, when it still competed as Curašao;
3) It was a founding member of CONCACAF (along with Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras);
4) It was the first Dutch New World colony to compete in the World Cup, entering the qualifiers (beating Guatemala, but losing to Costa Rica) for Sweden 1958.
Not at all a bad pedigree; up through the mid-1960s, in fact, the Antilles were consistently the strongest team in the Caribbean. Since then they've been surpassed by fellow Dutch speakers Surinam, not to mention Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, etc. etc. They're by no means a superminnow, but it's been a while since they had a really good tournament result: back in the 1998 WC qualifiers they lost to Dominican Republic 1-2 on aggregate; in the 2002 WC qualifiers they got outclassed by Trinidad & Tobago. The best they've managed in recent Caribbean tournaments has been a win against Guyana, plus draws with Surinam and current foes Antigua & Barbuda.
Antigua & Barbuda aren't bad themselves, but they're lucky to be here at all. In May of 2003 they were suspended by FIFA for irregularities in the federation, including a million or so US dollars that went missing. One bungled election, one FIFA visit, and one "normalization committee" later, they were reinstated just in time for the qualifiers. As a local journalist wrote: "Many would say that, in the end, football has prevailed through all of the pulling and pushing and that once there are players who are willing to suit up in their team's colours and play for the ultimate glory then no amount of stabbing, bombing and suffocating could harm the sport in Antigua." Wow!
Although they're cricketers born and bred, Antigua & Barbuda can still play a solid brand of football (when they're not stabbing, bombing, and suffocating each other, that is). They knocked off Bermuda in the first round of the 2002 WC qualifiers, and actually won the opener of their second-round series against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In the 2001 Caribbean Cup they got a draw against St. Kitts & Nevis, and the next year fell by only a goal to Haiti. They even beat St. Kitts & Nevis in a home friendly last week, albeit on a disputed penalty. Like Netherlands Antilles, they're in the middle of the Caribbean pack, and this looks like the hardest of the 10 matchups to call.
But forget numbers and predictions--let's talk nicknames. Caribbean islanders love to give their players nicknames, and Antigua has some beauts. How about keeper Elvis "Reptile" Anthony, midfielder Kevin "Saxman" Watts, or defender George "Sour" Dublin? For a Brazilian touch, there's midfielder Desmond "Zico" Bleau. And send me an e-mail if you can explain Schyan "Skem-up" Jeffers!
Haiti-Turks & Caicos
I should have covered this matchup first, because it'll be the first to be completed (match dates Feb 18 and 21). But I've saved it until last, because it's my favorite. Not because it's so competitive--in fact, it's the biggest mismatch on the board--but because there are so many interesting facets to the story.
Haiti, like Cuba, has World Cup pedigree: they qualified in 1974, famously scoring first against Italy, with Emmanuel Sanon breaking Dino Zoff's record scoreless streak. Since then, it's been pretty much downhill: they finished a distant second to Mexico in the qualifiers in 1978, and haven't been close since. They're one of the poorest nations in the region, and their appalling political troubles haven't helped much. We can't say football has been the last thing on everyone's mind (because it's never the last thing), but you can understand why it hasn't been front and center.
Making things worse has been a string of player defections. Not defections as in refusing to play for the team, but defections as in defections -- leaving the country altogether. Haiti plays a fair number of their games in the USA, because stadiums at home aren't up to par, and there's a large expatriate community in south Florida. The problem is that sometimes players just don't come back. Last year they lost some of their U-20 roster, and Charles Alerte, a striker who scored in the 2002 Gold Cup, is now officially AWOL as well.
And yet the federation appears to be getting more support lately, and there are signs of a genuine resurgence. In 2000, Haiti gave Trinidad and Tobago a fight in the qualifiers for Korea/Japan, then the next year finished runner-up in the Caribbean Cup, their best finish ever. In the ensuing Gold Cup, they defeated World-Cup-bound Ecuador and threw a real scare into Costa Rica. Their new coach is Fernando Clavijo, a defender who played for the USA in the World Cup in 1994. He's instituted a comprehensive training regime, including a full month-and-a-half camp in Haiti and a trip to Brazil. No one expects them to qualify for Germany, or even to make the Hexagonal, but if they figure out a way to barricade the exits, they might very well give Jamaica a run for their money in the second round.
And then there's Turks and Caicos. They may be the most obscure team in the region--perhaps even in the whole world. They're a British dependency, a set of 20 islands (6 inhabited), total 190 square miles, population about 20,000. They're ranked next to last in the FIFA rankings, ahead of only Montserrat, and they've never won a full international; a draw with USVI in 1999 is their only positive result. In the 2002 WC qualifiers, their first, they were beaten a mere 0-14 aggregate by St. Kitts & Nevis. They've never played an international at home, because they don't have a sufficient stadium.
But you gotta love these guys. First of all, they have their very own website, where you can find out that keeper John Hilton drinks Draft Guinness, and -- get this -- you can even order replica kits! And the home page has this remarkable announcement:
Your Country Needs You!
If you originate from the Turks &
Caicos Islands and are playing soccer
overseas you could be eligible to
represent the Turks & Caicos Islands
in the 2006 World Cup Qualifiers.
Now that's the way to do it! Players from the USA, UK, and Canada have answered the call, including the cinematically named Lawrence Harvey, formerly an accountant playing Sunday league in England, now a defender on a World Cup qualifying squad.
Best of all is their sporting spirit. I was looking at an online Haitian football forum for details on the game, and found a remarkable series of posts from Chris Gannon, a starting midfielder for Turks & Caicos. That's right: an actual starting player for the national team chatting about football with opposing fans. Basically he wished the Haitians well, told them about Turks & Caicos football, and looked forward to making friends. He rather optimistically described his team as "on a par with countries like Panama," but what the heck, might as well think big. The Haitian fans responded warmly (incidentally, there's a Haitian community on T&C, and some Haitians play in the local league), and there was lots of give-and-take on the state of football in their homelands. Wonderful stuff--can you imagine David Beckham hobnobbing with Polish or Austrian football fans?
Both games of the series will be played in the USA. If Haiti can get everyone on the plane for the flight home, they'll be happy. If T&C scores a goal, or holds Haiti to single digits, they'll be triumphant. Qualifying football at its best--if I could choose one tie of the round to attend, this would be it. Forza Haiti! Forza Turks and Caicos!
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