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    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

     

     



    EXCLUSIVE: The Turks and Caicos Story



    by Peter Goldstein


        Chris Gannon is a fireman. An important one, too: he's the fire chief of Turks and Caicos Islands, a Caribbean UK dependency with a population of 20,000. After eleven years of firefighting in England, he was chosen to establish the first national fire service in TCI. If you do a google search for "chris gannon turks," you'll find that among other things he arranged the purchase of the islands' first hook and ladder truck, capable of accessing buildings up to 75 feet high. You'll also see a picture of Chris in uniform, looking every inch the accomplished fireman.

        Chris Gannon is also a footballer--although perhaps not quite so accomplished. It might have been otherwise: in his youth, he played for the same school team as David James, and when he was 17, he was offered an apprentice contract with Charlton. But his father nixed the deal (what could he possibly have been thinking?), and so Chris went for the semipro level with Stevenage Borough, in the days before they made the Conference. But even that proved too difficult to fit in with his firefighting duties, and eventually he settled for amateur football.

        That made him a perfect fit for Turks & Caicos. TCI has a 5-team amateur league, so before you could say "Spartan South Midlands Premier Division" Chris was suiting up for the blue and white of KPMG United. In the 2002/3 season, they finished a rather ordinary third place, but this year, as of late March, they top the table, four points ahead of defending champion Caribbean All-Stars.

        Recently, though, KPMG United, and the rest of the TCI league, had to take a month off. Funding problems? Ground repair? Violence in the stands? Not at all--there was a little thing called the World Cup. Two games, February 18 and 21, Turks & Caicos Islands vs. Haiti, to be contested in Florida in the USA, the first round of the CONCACAF qualifiers.

        You already know the results, or if you don't, you can find them right here on this website. Haiti won the first game 5:0, and the second 2:0, so TCI went out 0:7 on aggregate. That's the way it'll appear in all the record books--just like Somalia going out 0:7 to Ghana, Niger going out 0:7 to Algeria, etc., etc. Just one among many.

        But of course life isn't a record book. Each World Cup story is unique. When it's France, or Brazil, or England, we get to hear all the details--too many, really. Who needs to know if Ronaldo changes brands of toothpaste? But for the outliers, the lesser nations, the ones buried in the small type, we know little or nothing. Lists of scores and scorers, maybe; substitutions and yellow cards, if we seek them out. But players for Equatorial Guinea, or Tonga, or Macao live the World Cup just as fully as Zidane, or Roberto Carlos -- even more, really, because it's so foreign to their everyday lives. The Turks & Caicos story is as extraordinary in real life as it is ordinary on the page. And we at Planet World Cup are thrilled to have Chris Gannon -- fireman, footballer, and member of the TCI national team--to give us the details of his team's great adventure.

    Let's start with Chris on football in TCI:


        The Turks and Caicos Islands Football Association (TCIFA) was only formed on paper in 1996. They had no pitch, no players, no league and a patch of dirt on which to start with. The country has no history whatsoever in football, and the national pastime is dominoes. The sporting choice of the youth is basketball, in common with many Caribbean countries.

        The TCIFA was set up by British expatriate workers who wanted to introduce the sport to the local community, and after a tremendous amount of bureaucracy and hard work managed to secure funding through FIFA's 'Goal' programme, which offers financial development support to smaller nations. The result was the completion of the very first playing field, floodlights, and just last year, changing facilities.

        OK, cricket I can understand, and even basketball. But dominoes? No changing facilities necessary there, I suppose.

        Speaking of the FIFA "Goal" program, it's done a lot of good in the Caribbean, helping to build offices and stadiums, and providing funds for equipment. But with FIFA there's no free lunch; along with the funds comes the obligation to compete in the WC qualifiers, ready or not. As fans, we can't even imagine not wanting to enter the tournament, but sometimes there are other considerations. TCI went out 0:14 to St. Kitts & Nevis in the 2002 cycle, and wanted to make better use of its money this time around:

        The TCIFA received a letter from FIFA demanding that we once again enter a team in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. We really tried to avoid participation: funds are limited and much of the financing is achieved through fundraising, so to spend so much on sending a team to the qualifiers seemed a waste of resources. The FA argued that the money should be saved and directed to our youth missions. Charlie Cook, our first director of football development, had done a magnificent job over three years establishing youth academies, and in particular a very talented women's team with native Turks Islanders. But with the commitment of the "Goal" funding programme to this country, the TCIFA could not afford to jeopardise this support, and had to comply with FIFA's insistence that we enter.

    First step, a coach and players:

        Paul Crosbie took over from Mr. Cook in August 2003 after being sacked by Wimbledon F.C. in England as part of their cost cutting exercises. He saw the job online, applied and got the position. He was only 27 years old, and had only ever coached kids' football. Mr. Crosbie's first project: select and train a World Cup team from an available, eligible pool of just 29 players!

        With the FIFA guidelines only allowing native Turks Islanders, naturalised islanders, and British passport holders living in the country for two years minimum, the list of available candidates was short, to say the least! The 'talent' pool of the squad ranged from individuals who had never played for a club football team in their lives, to a few mid 30's fellas with semi-professional experience from England, but generally we were rank amateurs who would best be described as a 'Sunday morning pub team'. The average age of the squad was 36, Ryan Duffy at 16 being the youngest, to James Slattery at 45 the oldest. All of us worked in the islands, and occupations ranged from 'underwater photographer' to me as the national Fire Chief.

    And, of course, training:

        Undaunted, we began training hard in September 2003 and pushed ourselves to the limit five times a week. Vomiting and black-outs were commonplace in the early weeks and the patience of wives and families was tested to the full.

        Ah, the romance of vomiting and blacking out for your country. I suspect "patience" understates it quite a bit.

        Eventually, the first big day came: December 5, the draw in Frankfurt. CONCACAF had divided the 20 first-round teams into two pots of 10, with TCI in the lower-ranked pot. Two of the teams in the higher-ranked pot, Cuba and Haiti, didn't really belong there; they were in fact too strong to play in this round. But because of confederation politics, two Central American teams, Nicaragua and Belize, got exempted instead. And of course...

        We understood that the FIFA qualifying format put us and all the other CONCACAF 'minnows' in 'Pot F' and we would be drawn against a slightly stronger team from 'Pot E' in a two-legged knockout tie. The draw date of December the 5th soon came round and we all watched our computer screens anxiously to see who came out of the hat in Germany. Turks and Caicos Islands will play...Haiti.

        I was shocked. What were Haiti doing in 'Pot E' anyway? They are one of the strongest teams in the region and actually made the finals in 1974! They are ranked 94 and we are 203? Something was seriously wrong. This was the biggest mismatch of the round and our dreams of progress, however unlikely, were effectively over. How can Haiti be in a group with the likes of the Bahamas?

        Welcome to FIFA, guys. The Haiti matchup was particularly ironic: the countries are very close geographically, and a large portion of TCI's population is made up of Haitian immigrants. In fact, some of the best players in the TCI football league are Haitian. Check out the scorers list, and you'll see names like Sadrac Mondestine, Dady Aristide, Roody Duffault, Gaston Charles, and Phenel St. Jean. The obvious downside:

        Of 5 preparation friendly matches against local select opposition, the TCIFA lost 4 and won only one match. These 5 games were watched by large Haitian crowds who were laughing wildly at our prospects and no doubt telling their countrymen that the results in Florida would be more like American football scores. We shared their opinions!

        While we're talking about Haitian opinions, that same "chris gannon turks" google search will take you to a site labelled "Foire d'Opinions Haitiennes": literally, "Haitian opinions forum." The French title is misleading; for the most part, it's an English-language site, designed for Haitians living in the United States. If you were surfing the Net on January 6, 2004, looking for an English-language website on Haitian football, you'd have found this message, from none other than Chris Gannon, using the handle "Chelsea" (was it the color blue, or a fantasy of being Roman Abramovich?):

        "Hello and happy new year to [the Webmaster] and all Haitian football fans!…As a player in the Turks and Caicos team, it may be interesting for you to learn more about our team etc. (without giving away any secrets!) and I would be grateful if you can update me on the preparations of the Haitian team, who I believe are in Brazil at this time…The population here is 20,000 people, but five years ago it was 11,000, the standard of football has gone from very poor to respectable in a very short time, this is largely down to the booming economy that has brought in Haitian, Jamaican, US and UK workers, many of whom play a good standard of football…What kind of attendance can we expect from the Florida Haitian community at the matches? We are chartering American Airlines flights from here and expect a large number to make the journey. When we receive our new uniform next week I will attach a photo of the current team. In the meantime, congratulations on your 200 year celebrations and best wishes."

        Amazing. Let's imagine it in a different setting [translation mine]:"Hello to all fans in Belgium! My name is Raul (it's actually Raul Gonzalez, but in Spain we football players go only by one name). I am on the Spanish national team, and we are scheduled against your team in group 7 of World Cup qualifying. We have played against you in past World Cups. In Spain we have a very good team, but unfortunately we have never been able to go as far at the World Cup as we want. The money is very good in our league (called La Liga), but some people say the best players in Spain aren't even Spanish. Tell me about your team in Belgium: who are your best players? What kind of training are you doing? Here is a photo of my club team, Real Madrid--the player next to me is named Ronaldo (he is Brazilian, and they go by only one name too). I hope everything is well in your country, and I look forward to playing against your team.¡Saludos!"

        (Make up your own posts for Beckham or Zidane.) We're so accustomed to football glamour and gamesmanship that regular-guy honest goodwill seems extraordinary. Go to Haitiwebs and take a look at the whole correspondence -- it's a model of sportsmanship for fans and players.

        And while we're talking websites...as Chris noted, one of the problems with assembling a Turks & Caicos national team was the extremely small player pool. Enter the Information Age. In the months preceding the qualifiers, this message appeared on the TCIFA website:

    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.



        If that doesn't make you check your birth certificate, what will? Chris takes up the story:

        Following an appeal on the TCIFA website, we managed to secure the services of Gavin Glinton of the Dallas Burn (MLS), and his brother Duane, currently training with San Jose Earthquakes (MLS), as well as two good amateur players from the UK. Sadly they could not join us until the day before the first match, and the Orange Bowl would be the first time we had ever played together! The coach travelled to the Glintons' homes in California and Texas to tie up the details and selected them on recommendation alone. The services of the Glintons was a major coup: not only were they sons of a genuine Turks Islander but they were both being tipped to represent the USA, and convincing them to pledge their futures to the world's second weakest team was a magnificent gesture of patriotism to their father's country by the players. Their appearances were the biggest bonus to our national development, the kids in this country now have two genuine sporting heroes to emulate instead of a bunch of aging white fellas puffing their way round the pitch! I had the pleasure of rooming with these two guys and cannot speak highly enough about what they have done for our little country.

        As a USA supporter, I have to say that although the Glintons are talented players, they would have been longshots for the national team. But it doesn't matter--for MLS players even to consider playing for a team so obscure, in games they couldn’t win, without any tangible reward, is remarkable enough. Think about it next time you read the headlines on Ailton and Qatar. Oh, and speaking of headlines:

        Our squad departed from the Turks and Caicos Islands on the 16th February, football is such a fringe sport that we did not even get a single line in our national newspapers despite the event being the biggest in the country's sporting history!

    And so to the big event:

        The TCIFA did a wonderful job of organising hotels, transport, team track-suits and tour shirts, we had special menus at our meals and reserved training facilities with everything a player could wish for. The Miami public must have thought we were somebody famous as we travelled around in style and when our luxury coach pulled up outside the American Airlines Arena, home to the Miami Heat basketball team, the public must have thought we were the opposition, until they saw the size and shape of us stepping off the bus! We were there as complimentary guests, again organised by our terrific management team.

        On the day before the first match, we trained at the Orange Bowl and just stepping out into that enormous arena was enough to make the legs wobble. To make matters worse, the Haitian squad came along to watch the session!

        On the day of the match we were pretty apprehensive and the team briefing before the game mirrored that concern. The strategy would be to defend our own half of the field and make Haiti play through us, with the defensive line being held almost on the edge of our own box. In all honesty, if we could keep the score below 10 in each match we would have exceeded all expectations. On paper it should be a double figure victory.

        Game time came around and we all walked down the tunnel next to our opponents, there were some nervous-looking faces in our line up and I wondered if some would freeze completely during the game, so I let out a couple of 'war cries' which seemed to break the tension and had the Haitian players looking at me like I was mental or something!

        The anthems were sung with pride and reality suddenly dawned that this was it, our moment in the Coliseum had finally arrived. As a footnote, earlier the very same evening, England were playing a friendly with Portugal. In goal for the English team? My friend and school team-mate David James! We were both achieving international caps in two very different circumstances!

        The game started and although the crowd was only around 6000, the noise was deafening and it was hard to even hear each other on the pitch. Now I knew what it must feel like to be a professional.

        We adopted our formation and immediately conceded possession entirely to the Haitians who popped the ball around uncontested. The ball went out to their left winger on 6 minutes and he skipped past our midfielder and right back, so I went across from my holding role in central midfield to put in a tackle. I bounced off, landed on the floor, and he crossed for a nice volley into the net from their centre forward. 1-0.

        I was gutted, I really went in hard but the guy was made of rock! Thankfully that was my last regret. Unfortunately our player-manager and best defender, Paul Crosbie, went off injured after 10 minutes, Gavin Glinton was fouled twice and never recovered from a very bad ankle injury, and everything seemed to be going wrong.

        But the expected avalanche did not materialise. After 42 minutes and some good defending, it was still only 1-0, then tragically our Jamaican-born defender made a couple of dreadful errors and they scored two in two minutes just before half time to lead 3-0. The third goal was scored three minutes into first half injury time.

        The second half was further damage limitation and we conceded two more. At the final whistle, I was delighted to have only suffered a 5-0 defeat under the circumstances, and we were all shocked and surprised by how well we had competed against an excellent side. They had 7 shots on target and scored 5.

        Five-nil was no great accomplishment for the winners. Haitian accounts were unanimous: the team had played poorly, missed many chances, and should have had several more goals. Turks & Caicos didn't belong on the field with them. But TCI received some sincere praise as well: they might have packed the defense, but they had played fair all the way. (You mean everyone doesn't?)

        Haiti went with six new starters for the second game; on paper, a weaker lineup. But they were still far out of the class of TCI, and presumably could win any way they wanted. But now it was time for the vomiting and blackouts to pay off, for the VIP treatment to be deserved, time for some magic:

        With only two days before the return leg, we took the decision tactically to change our approach. Having seen what they had in the first game, we agreed to have a go at them and play higher up the field with a sweeper system. Basically, if we were going to go out, let's go out with a fight.

        The stadium in Hialeah was much smaller, the surface was rough and this definitely gave us an advantage. Again the anthems were sung and the passion amongst the massed Haitian fans was evident, bearing in mind that a civil war had just erupted in their country during our visit!

        To illustrate the 'weakness' in the Haitian team in that second game, Paul Crosbie recovered to man-mark a forward who plays in the Argentine Premier League, and I marked the other striker, who had just signed a contract with Uruguay's top club, Penarol. So much for a weaker team!

        On 9 minutes the Argentine-based striker, predictably and rather sadly [England vs. Argentina, the eternal rivalry] performed a horrible theatrical dive for a penalty and their first goal. We were fuming, was this really necessary against such inferior opposition? But I suppose that was our rude awakening to international football. However, there was a real steel about our team for this match and from the first whistle to the last we fought our guts out for every ball. On 43 minutes we were dealt another cruel blow when poor Paul Crosbie, who had the weight of the world on his shoulders for the previous 5 months, diverted a harmless cross into his own net. 2-0 at half time. This time we went in for the break feeling hard done by, which is extraordinary.

        The second half, where our aging limbs should surely fail us after two games in three days, was amazing. Our keeper Gerard Gregg, who does not look the world's most athletic at first glance, pulled off some wonderful saves and showed that he is an excellent player. This and some tremendous battling all over the field kept the second half 0-0. We had two good opportunities to score, but sadly the keeper made good saves on both occasions. But what a difference! That half was our World Cup Final, and we collapsed in a collective heap when the whistle blew.

        The Haitian fans must have turned up expecting a slaughter after the first game, but what they got was one of the gutsiest performances ever by a tiny nation. It resulted in a 10-minute standing ovation from their fans. It was one of the most emotional moments in my life and many of the players were holding back the tears.

        Yes, you can watch Real Madrid and Arsenal every week on your satellite dish. You can see the world's most spectacular goals every night on the news. You can watch 24 hours a day all the tapes of all the great World Cup games of the last 30 years. But don't you wish you could have been in Florida that night, to join in the ovation?

        When Chris Gannon got back home, he found that his life was still closely tied to Haiti. With Aristide's government falling, and violence a constant threat, TCI had to prepare for a flood of illegal immigrants. Two days after returning from Florida, Chris found out his fire station might have to be used as a detention center for Haitian refugees. For all he knew, he might have to shelter the families of the men whose hands he had shaken, and whose shirts he had exchanged.

        When real-life horrors happen (and goodness knows they happen enough), sportspeople are apt to say "it puts things in perspective," meaning it shows how unimportant sport is in the scheme of things. But that's getting it the wrong way round. Of course saving lives is more important than scoring goals. But everything, including sport, has its appropriate place in the human panorama. Everything can be turned to good. That Haiti played TCI as their country collapsed is not a triviality; it's a triumph. Chris Gannon and his mates, by playing hard and fair, and achieving beyond their most insane expectations, triumphed in a different way. The Turks & Caicos story is also the Haiti story. And it's our story, the story of the place of football in our lives.

        A couple of days after Chris got back to TCI, he logged on the "Foire d'Opinions Haitiennes" to talk again with the Haitian fans. Let's close with his final words to his new friends:

        A heartfelt thank-you to all who have replied and commented on the Turks and Caicos Matches with Haiti last week. You are true football fans who understand the importance of our development in world sport. The standing ovation at the Ted Hendricks stadium was one of the most emotional moments of my life and the Haitian supporters there were magical…We are desperately upset about the situation in your country right now and pray for quick resolution, our thoughts are with you and let us look forward to the day when we can play a match in a peaceful Haiti instead of Miami so we can salute the wonderful fans of Haiti who made our World Cup fairytale so very memorable.

    Let sport be the winners, always.



    Pictures: Teams entering the field, Paul Crosbie & Chris Gannon



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