A football fairy tale like no other

Caribbean stakeholders revel in Nations League dream

BY SEAN A WILLIAMS
Deputy Sport Editor

Sunday, October 27, 2019

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By all indications, football appears poised to be the consuming passion of Caribbean people on the sporting front.

No doubt, there are competing interests like cricket and track and field, but the globe's most popular sport is making a noisy comeback through the game-changing Concacaf Nations League (CNL) and other foundational programmes.

The new national competition, structured to accommodate three leagues played simultaneously by all 41-member associations of governing Concacaf, has brought a sort of renaissance in the game that has inspired, if not changed, the play.

Among its noted benefits, the ongoing CNL is seen for its early impact on broad development and growth trends of the game across the subsets of the Caribbean and Central America in particular.

Also of note is how it is positioned as an axis to determine confederation rankings and a qualifying platform for the marquis Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.

Importantly, too, the CNL's medium-to-long term potential for income generation through traditional and ground-breaking economic activity has key functionaries excited.

“First of all I have to say congratulation to Concacaf to rejigging the tournament to allow for small nations like Guyana to qualify (for the Gold Cup),” said Michael Johnson, former coach of Guyana.

The former Jamaica international says the CNL has quickly become a dream broker for Caribbean teams that prior had nothing but a sense of neglect.

“Back then there was little dreaming, very little belief that we could achieve, and what we have achieved is an unbelievable journey and one that lifted the country.

“Hopefully, our story will be an inspiration to many other small countries in the region who can start to think that if they can start to dream and believe and start to put things in place, they can also qualify and be at these major tournaments that bring so much exposure, so much hope, so much revitalisation of the country,” said Johnson, who guided Guyana in their first Gold Cup qualification earlier this year.

The former Birmingham City man notes that Guyana's story has the potential to be replicated by other countries within the region now that there is a platform from which to parade what's good of Caribbean football.

“This really has been a fairy tale story, and one which I hope for Guyana will continue and which I hope will bring enormous hope and pleasure to other countries in Concacaf, who like Guyana, probably thought it was never possible,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

Guyana are currently second in Group C of League B of the CNL on six points behind runaway leaders Jamaica, who have blitzed the group on maximum 12 points with 18 goals and none against. The group is completed by Antigua and Barbuda and Aruba.

“They (Reggae Boyz) have made a fantastic start (in the CNL) and the goals they have scored in their first four games speaks volumes to the job that the staff led by Theodore Whitmore is doing, and hopefully, it should all be going to plan for the rest of the tournament,” noted Johnson.

Jamaica, who are ranked third in Concacaf and 47th by Fifa, are not only set to qualify for the Gold Cup, but promotion to League A, which conventional rhetoric argues was their place to be to begin with.

In terms of the wider benefits of the CNL, especially as it relates to the Caribbean, Johnson was excited at the prospects.

“First of all, it's huge exposure around the world, which opens up sponsorship opportunities, which opens up visibility avenues for players; and because these games are a lot more frequent, we would be improving the players because they would be getting more game time, and not only game time, but the teams are improving because they are benefiting from more playing time, which makes the teams stronger,” argued the ex Notts County defender.

Another island nation, like countless others, living football's fairy tale is Grenada, a classic example of a CNL-influenced turnaround.

“To qualify for the Gold Cup would mean everything, not only for me, but the players, the staff and the country as a whole… and we have put ourselves in a good position in the first four games of the CNL as we are on top of the group and this shows the hard work of the players to have fought in those games to get positive results,” said Coach Shalrie Joseph.

“We have not qualified yet (for Gold Cup) as we still have work ahead of us and we have to make sure we finish the group strongly,” he added.

Grenada lead Group A of League B on 10 points after four matches. Other competing teams are St Kitts and Nevis, Belize and French Guiana.

The Spice Boys' dream run so far, confirms Joseph, is due mainly to “consistency” by the players, and is a course that the team intends to stay on.

“What you are seeing is consistency with having the same set of players and being able to see players in multiple games… we are still finding players who are eligible to play for Grenada, and we have been bringing them into camps and getting the games and this not only helps the quality on the field, but it also helps the quality in the locker room,” said the former Grenadian international.

Competing in the CNL, Joseph reasoned, has opened the appetite for the “Spice Island” to aspire for bigger and better things in football.

“As a footballer, as an athlete, you want to play in marquis games, and to be able to do that you have to be winning games and to be in the spotlight as we are now… we understand that we have to do more as we can't become complacent because we won a couple of games because there is a lot more that we want to accomplish as a team and as a country.

“We want to be in League A, we want to be in the Gold Cup and we want to qualify for the World Cup, and to do that, we have to play the big teams in the Caribbean and the wider Concacaf,” noted the former Seattle Sounders man of the Major League Soccer.

Joseph, 41, who is new at coaching at the national team level, sees the CNL as a growth tonic for so-called smaller nations of the confederation.

“I absolutely love how Concacaf has set up the Nations League tournament in trying specifically to give the smaller countries more games, more exposure, more competitive games and this is one of the things that we have been missing from this region for a long time.

“But now our players are getting looked at and being seen from different regions of the world… now a coach somewhere can see a 19-year-old from the Caribbean playing in the Nations League, and to see how good that player is and to give him the opportunity, whether in the MLS or in Europe,” Joseph told the Observer yesterday.

The Grenadian, who also had a playing stint with New England Revolution in the USA, views the football revolution as “re-energising the Caribbean”.

“I think it is excellent on Concacaf's part for what they are doing in the Caribbean on a whole and football in particular. Football is the world's sport and we in the Caribbean may be a little behind places like Europe and South America, but I think the Caribbean has so much talent and it's unfortunate that some of us are just seeing it.

“Yes, we may have started late in the Caribbean, but now we have more competitive games, more games being streamed, more fans watching, so we are on course to catching up,” Joseph ended.


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