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We don’t like cricket

On the banks of a lake in a posh sports academy in Florida, two members of the Antigua and Barbuda national football team are arguing over whose turn it is to hold the fishing rod. Behind star striker Peter Byers and goalkeeper Olson Forde a bowl of doomed bluegills are flapping unhappily.

The academy is usually the home of wealthy school kids looking to hone their basketball, tennis or soccer skills. It isn’t a place where the Antiguans would normally train. It isn’t a place that the Antiguans could normally afford. But some hard bargaining by the Antiguan FA and the promise of some media exposure sealed the deal. The reason that such a tiny, unheralded team could command any media exposure at all was due to the fact that, in a few days time, Antigua and Barbuda are to play in arguably one of the most mismatched football matches in the history of the game.

Antigua and Barbuda (population 81,000) will face the United States (population 312 million) in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in the Florida state capital Tampa. If the US makes it to Brazil it will be the seventh time they have qualified for the tournament. The match is to take place at the imposing 75,000-capacity Raymond James Stadium. Built for the sport that most Americans regard as the true form of football, it is a stadium that holds almost as many spectators as the entire population of their opponents’ country.

“Antigua and Barbuda are gearing up to play in arguably one of the most mismatched football matches in the history of the game”

While it is the debut match for the US in the competition, Antigua and Barbuda – better known for producing world class cricket players than footballers – began their campaign last June. A series of incredible results against bigger opposition, including victory against Haiti – who reached the 1974 World Cup final stages – saw them reach the next round of qualification for the first time in their history. The first name out of the hat was the region’s powerhouse, the US.

But for now the two players standing on the bank of the lake – Byers and Forde – have more immediate concerns: dinner. “I’m from the ghetto in Antigua, I know what to do with the fish,” laughs Byers, winning the battle for the fishing rod before proceeding to pull out another bluegill. It’s so small that he unhooks it and throws it back into the lake to fight another day. “We’re gonna steam ’em. The food here, it’s all right…” he says. “But I’m used to catching fish bigger than me. Blue marlin, swordfish, tuna…”

The local man who they have commandeered the rod from, a former baseball pro who had moved to Florida for some peace, quiet and fishing, warns the players that the bluegills are not the only creatures that lurk beneath. Alligators live here too.

“Alligators?” Byers snorts dismissively. “We ain’t afraid of nothing.”

English-born player Dexter Blackstock fishing

Tom Curtis appears nervous when he opens the door to his room at the sports academy. Perhaps his apprehension stems from his time dealing with Britain’s feral sports press while playing for Chesterfield in the old English third division. Back then he was part of the great Chesterfield side that reached the semi-final of the FA Cup in 1997. He was a tricky winger, destined for great things that never really arrived.

But Curtis discovered his true calling when he retired. He took a coaching job at the University of Loughborough before being headhunted by the Antigua and Barbuda FA to coach not just its national team but also the island’s only professional outfit too: The Barracudas. It was a brilliant job for a new coach. The Barracudas gave him a day-to-day coaching role, and the Antigua national squad job was one in which the only way was up, given the team’s history of failure.

“I remember the first time I joined the national team they were talking about getting to the 2010 World Cup finals, and I thought: Really? We can only just about control the ball!”

Curtis has made a success of his work. The Barracudas now play in the USL Pro League, the third tier of American soccer. Previously players would work jobs in factories or on fishing boats while training in the evenings. Now they can focus full time on football.

“The Barracudas is the only Caribbean side playing pro outside the region,” he says, guardedly, when we sit down. “The purpose of the Barracudas is to develop the national team. A lot of thought has gone in to it.”

On his arrival in Antigua and Barbuda, Curtis swiftly discovered one major problem. The Caribbean islands didn’t have a single football pitch between them. “We don’t have any football-specific facility,” the 39-year-old coach explains. “We play at cricket grounds, the Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium. We don’t have good surfaces. But we’ve produced a competitive team.”

Antigua and Barbuda is a cricketing country, a colonial legacy left by the British after the islands won their independence in 1981. Despite Antigua’s size it has produced some of the greatest cricketers the world has ever seen, players like Sir Viv Richards and Andy Roberts. Football has always been cricket’s poor relation here, and previous World Cup qualification campaigns were littered with humiliating defeats. But last year Curtis’ team came racing out of the blocks during the first group stage, winning four games in a row and scoring an incredible 26 goals in the process.

Goalkeeper Molvin James

The big test was against Haiti. The two met in Antigua’s capital St John. A solitary late goal for Antigua was enough to see them through to the next round, sparking celebrations across the islands, and misery for Haiti.

“When we won the Haiti game I thought, Oh my word, we’ll have to play against USA and [fellow Group A team] Jamaica,” says Curtis. “It seemed a long way off. All of a sudden we are here.” During that time Curtis has found it difficult to arrange a friendly match with anyone, partly due to the fact that is it is so expensive to play another national team and partly because Antigua and Barbuda have historically been considered one of the worst teams in the world. While the US had prepared for the match by playing marquee friendlies against the likes of Brazil, Antigua and Barbuda had found it virtually impossible to play anyone at all.

“We’re not like US soccer, we don’t have the financial backing,” says Curtis. “They’ve played Scotland, Brazil, Canada… We haven’t been able to play against quality opposition, basically because of finances. We’ve had to play local sides in Florida and among ourselves. Which isn’t ideal. But it’s something we have to deal with as a small nation.”

 

Mikele Leigertwood, who also plays for Reading in the English Premier League

The Antiguans have a week to prepare for the game of their lives and Curtis is putting the team through its paces in the heavy Florida humidity. The accents on the training ground are familiar: Yorkshire, Midlands, London.  Such are the close colonial ties between Britain and Antigua that several dozen players plying their trade in the English Premier League and below qualify to play for Antigua. It is a pool of talent that Curtis has been quick to exploit.

“I remember the first time I joined the national team they were talking at the time about getting to the 2010 World Cup finals and I thought: Really? We can only just about control the ball!” says 30-year-old midfielder Justin Cochrane, laughing as he remembers how rudimentary the set-up was back then. Cochrane is British born and bred, a midfielder who has just been released by non-league Borehamwood and is now coaching at Spurs. He was one of the first British-born players to represent Antigua and Barbuda and now has a vital role to play in the squad, doubling up as the unofficial scout, hunting down players in English football who might qualify through their parents or grandparents. His work has so far has uncovered the likes of Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood, who is playing in this season’s Premier League, as well as Nottingham Forest striker Dexter Blackstock. “Now there’s a belief we can actually do something in this group,” he says. “The top two qualify [to the final round]. And why not? Why not have the belief? There have been bigger giant-killing results in football in the past 100 years.”

A wet training session at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida

But the team’s remarkable progress isn’t down to the English players alone. A huge debt is owed to 27-year-old striker Peter Byers, the fisherman at the lake. He is currently one of the highest scorers in 2014 World Cup qualification with eight goals.

“It’s a big, big challenge for all of us,” Byers tells me on the sidelines as training comes to an end. “It doesn’t matter how big the United States is. Antigua is 107 square miles, but it’s
11 players versus 11. So whoever puts the hard work in will be victorious.”

“We won’t let the people down. I know the prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, will be watching live and we’ll give him something to cheer about.”

The PM was so excited about the match that he came to St John’s airport to pray with the team before sending them off. Antigua and Barbuda is a deeply Christian country and the players seek higher inspiration before and after every training session.

“We get our prayers done because you can’t do anything in this world without the father above,” Byers says, pointing to the sky. “It is good to thank him every day even for the meal you get, even for the time to play this lovely sport.” Sure enough, at the end of training the academy’s lay preacher arrives to lead the group into prayer before the players leave for their afternoon naps.

Before Byers leaves the pitch I ask him if he thinks he will score tomorrow. “I don’t think I am going to score,” he replies. “I know I’m going to score.”

 

United States forward Landon Donovan gets by Antigua and Barbuda midfielder Quinton Griffith

The rain falls in sheets across the causeway that links the islands and marshes of the Florida Keys. It is hurricane season. The Antigua and Barbuda team sit in silence as their bus slices through the downpour towards the Raymond James stadium for their final training session.

The huge stadium juts violently into the dark clouds above, the steep terracing exposed to the heavens. This is the home of the American Football team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who play from the warmth of the autumn through to the spring. Soccer is trespassing here and has to make do with the rainy season. As the bus arrives, almost exactly 24 hours before kick off, it becomes clear that the pitch is in no fit state. It is waterlogged. The match is suddenly in jeopardy. Curtis ushers his players in to the biggest dressing room any of them has ever seen. “I’ve been in some pretty nice dressing rooms,” says Dexter Blackstock, who has seen his fair share of Premier League grounds. “But this…”

It was supposed to be the final chance for Curtis to run through the plan. But a few minutes after the start of training a deluge makes it virtually impossible even to see the other players. The team runs for cover and watches as the pitch slowly floods. The Americans have already cancelled their training sessions and moved to an indoor pitch on the other side of town. Curtis has to troop his soaking team back on the bus for the long journey over the causeway.

There is one last piece of the jigsaw for Curtis to put in place before Friday’s big game. He has arranged for the team to watch a motivational film: the 2010 documentary ‘Fire in Babylon’. It follows the great West Indies international cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s – which included Antigua’s greatest ever sportsman Sir Viv Richards – that dominated and terrified the sport in equal measure, reigning unbeaten for 15 years. It is a feat unparalleled in any team sport anywhere in the world.

“The film is about national identity,” Curtis says in his room as he tries to find it on his laptop. “If the players can glean a little bit of confidence and a little bit of swagger then it can only be beneficial for them.”

The players cram into the auditorium at the academy to watch the film. They see how their national heroes strutted on the world stage, destroying their former colonial masters at a game of their own invention. The film opens with a burst of speed and violence as fast bowler after fast bowler powers their deliveries into the ribs, chins or arms of the batsmen before them. The players cheer when the man on the receiving end is white. But they cheer loudest when Richards, a man credited in the Caribbean with as much cultural and political importance as Bob Marley, comes on the screen to deliver his opening line.

“We had a mission, and a mission to prove we were as good as anyone,” he says to the camera. “Equal, for
that matter.”

US fans

Friday 8th June 2012. The stars and stripes fly in their thousands in the soaking wet parking lot of the Raymond James Stadium. As at most public events in the US, be they Major League playoffs or Tea Party rallies, the pre-match entertainment takes place out of the back of a sea of pick-up trucks. Several thousand fans sing the national anthem, drink beer and smoke cigars despite the deluge of rain. It is their first 2014 World Cup qualifying match but also a rare chance to be in the majority at a home international.

“You know, we are an immigrant country,” explains one a fan wearing a stars-and-stripes bandana and smoking a wrist-thick stogie. “Usually those communities come and support the other team. But today it will be mostly us. I hope.”

Sure enough the away team is, for once, in the minority. Only a few Antiguan flags fly during the national anthems as nearly 30,000 fans brave the conditions. The US team can call on any number of international stars. In the starting line up is Michael Bradley, who will soon sign for Roma in Italy’s Serie A; Fulham midfielder Clint Dempsey, who was one of the best players in Europe last season, and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard. In the dugout sits the team’s German coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who took Germany to third place at the 2010 World Cup finals and was part of his country’s winning team in 1990. Antigua and Barbuda, on the other hand, have marshalling their defense 35-year-old Marc Joseph, who plays for semi-professional Kendal Town in the Northern Premier League, the seventh tier of English football.

The match begins badly for Antigua. Within a few minutes they have gone 1-0 down. It isn’t long before Joseph gives away a penalty, making it 2-0. Half-time comes as wave after wave of attack threatens to deluge the Antiguans. But as the second half starts, Antigua grows in confidence, taking the game to the Americans. And then the moment Curtis had hoped for. He throws Peter Byers on. Byers harries the US back four, stooping slightly as he slaloms through them looking for an opening. When a ball is looped over the top he cleverly spins the last defender, sprints clear and passes the ball under Howard’s falling body. 2-1. A low hum of disbelief fills the stadium.

Antigua continues to press, looking for the equaliser that will make headlines worldwide. But they leave space at the back and the Americans score a late third. The match finishes 3-1 but Antigua have not been embarrassed. Later, at the post-match press conference, Klinsmann will express his shock that he had been run so close. A few days later Antigua will win their first point of qualification, a 0-0 draw with Jamaica at home. Further matches against Honduras, Jamaica and finally the US will decide their fate. The dream is still alive. But Curtis cannot shake the feeling that he could, he should, have won against the US on their own turf.

“I just said in the dressing room, everyone is a little disappointed we lost which I think is really a testament to how far we have come,” Curtis tells me in the emptying stadium as his players pile on to the bus for the long journey home. “At one point in the second half we were close, though”, he says, smiling. “And they were worried.”

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