Forget Fabio Capello. Steve Menary meets an international manager with real problems.
“It can’t go on,” sighs a dejected Richard Franks. The manager of the Falkland Isles’ team is sat in the dug-out at Oakfield FC, a team from a working class suburb of Ryde on the Isle of Wight. “What we need are a lot of games at this level. Before we came here, we’d only had one in the last two years.”
Franks has just overseen the Falklands’ final group game in the 2011 Island Games football tournament. A biennial mini-Olympics for islands, the football tournament offers the only competitive outing for the South Atlantic colony’s beleaguered players.
For the Falklands, which has a population of just 3,100, the tournament has gone from one disaster to another.
A handful of players went to the UK well before the Games for a holiday, leaving nine to travel out a week before the Games - only for the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano to erupt.
Swathes of southern hemisphere flights were cancelled. With the Ministry of Defence refusing to operate the ‘air-bridge’ – the name for the flights going from Mount Pleasant airfield in the Falklands, via Ascension Island to the UK – the team had no choice but to try and go via Chile.
A flight from Stanley had to stop off in Argentina. When the players got to Punta Arenas in Chile, they were delayed for a day before reaching Santiago. Most of the squad got on a Madrid flight to London but there were no seats for three players, who had to fly via the Peruvian capital of Lima.
The squad finally assembled a couple of days before the tournament began and played a hastily arranged friendly with Eastleigh, an ambitious local semi-professional side from the Blue Square South league.
The result was a 5-0 defeat but worse was a broken leg for Ian Betts, who was under consideration for the role of captain for the side’s three Group C fixtures on the Isle of Wight.
The opening fixture was against Guernsey, who will play in the Combined Counties League on the mainland in 2011/12 and have won the Island Games football tournament twice. The Falklands were only down 1-0 at half-time. That was progress. But the Channel Islanders, whose ranks boast former Football League professionals such as Chris Tardiff and Ryan Zico-Black, rattled in four goals without reply in the second half.
In the next game, a poor performance saw the Falklands overwhelmed 6-0 by the Isle of Man leaving only the fixture in Oakfield to restore some pride. Captain Bill Chater, a giant central defender, put in a titanic showing but their opponents, the Swedish island of Gotland, ran in six goals watched by a crowd of 200 or more that was boosted by an army of ground-hoppers.
Creditably, the Falklands refused to give up and Rafa Sotomayor got on the score-sheet for his adopted homeland, who could have added a second but had to settle for a 6-1 defeat.
The qualification rules in the tournament are more relaxed than FIFA’s, only requiring a one-year residency. The manager of the Falkland Isles Gift shop, Sotomayor was joined in the squad by two fellow Chileans, a chef, Carlos Fajardo, and Patricio Balladares, a waiter at the Malvina House Hotel.
The eclectic squad also included a Georgian, Zaza Elbakidze, and Adam Glanville, a veteran for the team, who was born on another remote British colony in the South Atlantic. Glanville is a veteran with the national team and can recall better times.
Not so long ago, football in the Falklands was booming. The spur was a short tour of Chile in 1997 led by Patrick Watts, the Islander who over the radio relayed the details of the Argentine invasion in 1982 until being forced to lay down his microphone at gun-point, the invaders having reached Stanley.
By the turn of the Millennium, five teams from Stanley, including one comprised solely of St Helenians, played in a league. In 2001 the national team entered the Island Games football tournament for the first time, where expectations were exceeded despite an inauspicious beginning.
The Falkland XI began their campaign in the Isle of Man began with a 9-0 thrashing from the hosts but results improved. Eventual winners Guernsey were restricted to a 3-0 win, Greenland went one better winning 4-0 but the Falklands finished on a high, routing the Orkneys 4-1.
Travel remains expensive with athletes expected to make a significant contribution to the cost and the Falklands’ footballers sat out the 2003 tournament in Guernsey but entered again in 2005, making the long-trek north to the Shetlands.
The Manxmen inflicted another 9-0 pasting, while the Shetlands beat the Falklanders 4-0 but the Finnish island of Åland won just 2-1. Then at the community centre in Whiteness, the team put in perhaps their greatest ever performance against Saarema. The Estonian island XI included Victor Alonen, who had 68 caps for Estonia, but goals from Eoin Anderson and a Martyn Clarke penalty produced what is still the biggest shock in Island Games football.
Clarke is a divisive figure in Falkland football, having controversially taken up the offer of a trial with Argentine giants Boca Juniors in 1996. Then just 16, he was partly the victim of a public-relations exercise that caused ructions back home and in 2002 left the Islands for the UK.
Clarke played for the team at the 2009 Island Games in Åland, where the Falklands lost all three games, but now in his thirties he was not considered for the Isle of Wight jaunt.
With Clarke gone and veterans such as Glanville and perhaps Chater nearing the end of their international footballing careers, a vacuum has opened up in Falkland football with few players coming though and the game is in crisis with only three teams left.
Sullivan Blue Sox, Kelper Stores and Sealed PR did not even manage to complete the last league programme and the Falklands might not send a side to the next Games in Bermuda in 2013.
For Kyle Biggs, who toiled tirelessly alongside his brother Daniel for the Falklands against Gotland, the reason is simple.
“There’s not as much interest in football as when we were kids,” says Biggs, only in his mid-20s. “Football is still the number one sport but people are going off to play cricket now they have money to spend.”
Despite plenty of British, Dutch and French colonies joining FIFA, the influence of Argentina makes that idea not worth entertaining for the Falklands’ footballers - but cricket is another story.
Again spurred by an earlier tour to Chile, the Falklands became an affiliate of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2007. Argentina abstained but in a sport dominated by Commonwealth countries that protest barely registered.
In 2010, the Falklands played in the inaugural ICC Americas Championship Division Four tournament in Mexico and even beat Costa Rica by 39 runs in a 50-over match. With international recognition comes sponsorship – and interest from the islands’ tiny population.
For Richard Franks, faced with increasing encroachment from cricket, there is only one solution to save the dwindling role of football on the islands – and that is a radical one.
His face red in the hot Isle of Wight sun, Franks explains: “The Air Bridge is sponsored by FIG [Falklands Islands Government] and I’ve been wondering if they might give us seats once a month or even every two months so we could come over here.
“That way we could get 20 games a season over here. We’ve got to do something, it’s the lack of games; something has to be done.”
Perhaps, like Guernsey, the Falklands too might find their way into the English pyramid? Quite how they would get teams back to Stanley for a home game is another story.
Steve is a freelance writer and journalist. He is also the author of Outcasts! The Lands that Fifa Forgot, and GB United? British Olympic Football and the end of the Amateur Dream.