Top flight team slumps into the third division before a well-off businessman takes control, recruits foreign coach, engineers a revival and targets the Champions League. Sound familiar?
That might sound like the story of Manchester city but is also what is happening to Antigua, a team from the Guatemalan Highlands.
Antigua were a first division team during the early part of the new Millennia but never likely to challenge Guatemala’s big two sides, Municipal and Comunicaciones, and the rot set in. After dropping out of the Liga Mejor, Antigua slumped into Guatemala’s third tier in 2009/10 then Richi Arenas took control. One of his first moves was to bring in a coach from the United States. Ziggy Korytoski’s previous job was manager of the Commonwealth of North Mariana Islands, a US protectorate in the Pacific Ocean, but he soon steered Antigua into the second division – known as some many second tiers are now as the First Division.
The Guatemalan league, which has four levels, divided into two tournaments in 2000: the Apertura runs from July to December and the Clausura from January to May. Promotion is achieved via a series of play-offs and the game that secured Antigua’s elevation was watched by a crowd of 10,000, which is not bad for a town of 35,000 people. By way of comparison, the Guatemalan championship is contested between the winners of the Apertura and Clausura and in the recent final, a 23,000 crowd saw Municipal take on Comunicaciones. Sides in the third tier are restricted to non-international players but promotion means that Korytoski can now sign two international players. A second successive promotion would widen that restriction to four internationals.
“Antigua is a beautiful city so attracting players hasn't been difficult,” reflects Korytoski. “With the increase in budget for next season, I believe that we will be one of the top clubs in the First Division. we have identified some very talented players that will add to our squad and be a tremendous part of our culture.” That culture is one that Arenas and Korytoski want to be very different to other Guatemalan clubs.
Guatemala’s national team, La Azul y Blanco, has been trying without success to qualify for the World cup finals since 1958 and a side once ranked 50th in the world have now slipped to 124th in FIFA’s rankings. Guatemala has a population of 14 million and football, the most popular sport, has been professionalised but resources remain thin. Overseas contracts are more alluring but few make the grade. Guillermo ‘Pando’ Ramirez, who has more than 100 caps, recently signed with Marathon in Honduras, midfielder Marco Pappa plays in the Major Soccer League with the Chicago Fire and has been joined in the MLS by itinerant striker Carlos Ruiz, now with Philadelphia Union.
Arenas and Korytoski’s ambition is to build a club big enough to win at home and abroad not just through big signings but by developing and producing home grown talent to keep that success going. “The good athlete does exist, players with vision, excellent technicians,” says Korytoski, who has formed Under-20, Under-18 and Under-16 at Antigua. “Many just need the opportunity to prove themselves day in and day out and be taught from an early age what their body needs to grow successfully.”
“I believe that most clubs here are very short-sighted and possibly can't afford consistent success. The clubs in Mexico appear to be much deeper as far as depth goes, but to me, if one could develop a club with a youth structure capable of developing professionals then I think things would change. Guatemala needs more quality coaches - particularly at the youth level. Many training sessions are out-dated and I believe that the players never maximize their abilities. Simple concepts in the game are still being introduced to the older players, which limits the tactics in which they may be successful.”
“As of now, not many players are going overseas, and I want to help change that. I think most players here are developed by chance instead of the day-to-day grind of finding the right player, and making him better. The thing that I hope to show is possible is to create a club that can win the Champions League and not only qualify for it.”
Given the resources enjoyed by clubs in Mexico and the United States, that might seem unlikely but there is a precedent. Comunicaciones were CONCAF Champions League finalists in 1962 and 1969 before Municipal topped that performance by beating Transvaal of Surinam to the title in 1974. Comunicaciones reached the play-off for the final again in 1978 but the title was not contested due to disagreement over dates. Since then, overseas success for Guatemalan clubs – like the national team – has been sporadic at best and, as always dominated by the big two; Municipal reaching the Champions league final again in 1995 only to lose to the Costa Rican side, Saprissa.
The tournament was originally a ‘Champions Cup’ but graduated into a Champions League in 2008/09 with little impact from Guatemala. Can Antigua really change that? Korytoski believes so. “The process has been long, but I believe we are truly changing the way people think in regards to business versus development.”
Steve is a freelance football writer and author. His most recent book, documenting the story of the GB Olympic football team, can be bought here. He has also written Outcasts, a look at international sides competing outside of FIFA.