On Friday, the men’s soccer team from Antigua and Barbuda (population 81,000) will play the team of the United States (population 313 million) in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in Tampa, Florida. The match will take place at the 75,000-seat Raymond James Stadium, which—as The New York Times reports underlines—“can fit just about the entire populace of the tiny Caribbean country.”
For the Americans, it is the beginning of a run of qualifying games presumably leading up to the main event in Brazil. But for Antigua and Barbuda — better known for producing world-class cricket players than soccer stars — this is the next stage, and a daunting one, in a World Cup campaign that began nearly a year ago and is far more uphill than what the Americans face. A series of incredible results against more formidable opponents, including a victory against Haiti, led Antigua and Barbuda to the semifinal round of qualification for the first time.
[. . .] Such confidence against dangerous foes seems emblematic of a team whose upswing in fortunes began last year with the arrival of a young English coach, Tom Curtis. Curtis, 39, had spent his playing career in the lower reaches of English soccer, and after coaching a university team in England, he was hired by Antigua and Barbuda. He soon discovered that even the most basic infrastructure was lacking. “We don’t have any football-specific facility,” Curtis said. “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 has long been a cricket country, a colonial legacy left by the British, from whom independence was won in 1981. Despite its size, it has produced some of the great cricketers.
Soccer, meanwhile, had always been cricket’s poor relation for Antigua and Barbuda, and previous World Cup qualification campaigns, all of them futile, were littered with one-sided losses. But last year, Curtis’s team came racing out of the blocks during the first group stage for World Cup qualifying, winning four games in a row and scoring 26 goals. The big test, however, was against Haiti. In that game, a solitary late goal in a match played in Antigua’s capital, St. John’s, was enough to send Curtis’s group to the next round. It sparked celebrations across the three main islands that make up the little country.
[. . .] The team includes seven British-born players, a couple of them recruited by Justin Cochrane, a 30-year-old midfielder who is British-born himself and hunts down players in English soccer who might qualify through their parents or grandparents. [. . .] Still, the biggest improvement in the team has come from homegrown players. Antigua’s soccer association created a team called the Barracudas, which plays in the USL Pro League, the third tier of American soccer.
But small nations can leave their mark. With that in mind, Curtis arranged for his team to watch a 2010 documentary, “Fire in Babylon.” The film follows the great West Indies international cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s — which included Antigua’s Viv Richards — that dominated and terrified the sport in equal measure, going unbeaten over 15 years. “The film is about national identity,” Curtis said. “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 crammed into an auditorium to watch the film. They cheered when Richards came on the screen to deliver his opening line. “We had a mission, and a mission to prove we were as good as anyone,” Richards said as the players quietly watched. “Equal for that matter.”
[Many thanks to Rod Fusco for bringing this item to our attention.]