As a previous visitor to the small group of islands known as Antigua & Barbuda I was pleasantly surprised to see the media coverage their national side received in the UK in the summer of 2012 and for the few months afterwards. This coverage came in light of the appointment of Englishman and former Chesterfield midfielder Tom Curtis. His first venture into management Curtis’ appointment certainly helped raised the profile of the national side within England and there was a good degree of optimism going into their World Cup Qualifying clashes with Guatemala.
Matches which they had done well even to get to in all honesty. With a population of just over 80,000 Antigua & Barbuda are hardly going to be the next global football force but their progress over recent years is encouraging. In the first group stage of qualifying they were drawn alongside Haiti, Curacao and the US Virgin Islands. Despite the former two posing potentially tricky problems Antigua & Barbuda managed to overcome the obstacles ahead of them and win their group. From there they were placed in a group alongside regional heavyweights the USA and Jamaica. The other side in the group was Guatemala. Unfortunately it was here they came unstuck. A spirited 3-1 away defeat to the US and a highly credible 0-0 draw with Jamaica had led to great causes of optimism before the double header with Guatemala but unfortunately two defeats meant that Antigua & Barbuda’s adventure would go no further. Nevertheless they confirmed their progress as a side when they faced up to the US at home and managed to hold them at 1-1 until a 90th minute Eddie Johnson winner snatched victory for the US.
Unfortunately following their sudden exit there were some calls from local fans for Curtis to leave his position as head coach. There was rumoured to be a general disappointment with his fairly negative tactics. On 23rd October Curtis handed in his resignation but cited personal reasons and explaining that the criticisms he had come under had nothing to do with his decision. Regardless of whether it was his choice or the Antiguan FA’s or whether the calls for his resignation had affected him he was gone with the Caribbean Championship being played in the country in a few weeks’ time. The FA responded by announcing that rather than bring in another foreign coach they would appoint a local coach for the upcoming championships. After interviewing numerous candidates from the island Rolston ‘Debu’ Williams was selected to lead the team as interim coach. It was the second time Williams had led the side having been head coach in 2004 briefly. With just two weeks to prepare qualifying for the semi-finals of the Caribbean Championship, and therefore qualifying for the following summer’s Gold Cup was going to be a tricky task. A task that ultimately proved to be one too far for Debu as his side crashed out finishing bottom of their group. Nevertheless the departing coach was keen to point out the highlights of the “Boyz” campaign which included a 2-1 victory over Caribbean big guns Trinidad and Tobago. He also insisted that despite only having a couple of weeks to prepare the team were already playing more attractive football under his stewardship.
The locals can say what they like about Curtis, and they have done, but his reign should be remembered for the introduction of Nottingham Forest’s Dexter Blackstock into the Antiguan set-up. Reading’s Mikele Leigertwood already accepted Antigua’s call in 2008 but Blackstock rejected Jamaica in order to join Curtis’ project and the two were highly impressive in the 3-1 away defeat to the US. Blackstock’s pace is a nightmare for defenders at that level whilst Leigertwood’s experience means he is the perfect deep-lying playmaker, able to step in, break up attacks and then get his team’s moves going. The other development under Curtis was Antigua Barracuda FC, the island’s professional side set up in 2008, joining the USL Professional Division (the US’ third division) as a new franchise. It was an important step for the national side as the club will look to develop the young talent from the island in a bid to aid the overall progression of Antiguan football.
The two grounds that the national team use are both far better known for cricket rather than football but that is largely the norm in the Caribbean. The principle ground, the Antiguan Recreation Ground can hold around 12,000 and is the scene of two of cricket’s most famous landmarks. It was here that Antiguan hero Sir Viv Richards scored the fastest test century off just 56 balls against England in 1986. In 1994 Brian Lara batted to a then world record 375 against England and then in 2003 he broke the record again against the same opponents scoring 400 in the process. As was to be expected FIFA rejected the possibility of Antigua using that ground for their World Cup qualifiers so matches were played at the Sir Viv Richards Stadium, famous for hosting the test between England and the West Indies that was abandoned after just ten balls, and that was built using a Chinese government grant. Plans are in place for some redesigning of the former in the hope they can bring it up to FIFA standard and having watched cricket there it can make for an extremely vibrant atmosphere when the crowd gets going.
Amongst all the optimism there is always the overhanging black cloud that seems to accompany this tiny nation, corruption. As a visitor to the island both before and after the Allen Stanford investigation in 2009 I can vouch for the devastating effect it had on the country. Stanford pumped millions into the country and funded the Stanford 20/20 series which brought great media attention to the island. He also brought the country the series against England where the winners would pocket $20 million. His bank was thought to be utilised by some of the world’s shadier people including Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe but there was no doubting the money flowing into the country was aiding the economy. Then, just like that the money stopped flowing, Stanford’s jail sentence saw all ties with Antigua severed and it was the locals who had to bear the brunt of his criminal activity. Corruption has recently touched football as FIFA continues its investigation into the Antigua & Barbuda Football Association (ABFA) amidst reports of corruption in the voting in of the new president. Last year Gordon “Banks” Derrick and Everton “Batow” Gonsalves were both fined and suspended for their part in the “cash for votes” scandal in Trinidad. Rumour has it that the recent elections were led virtually unopposed hence FIFA’s subsequent investigation. Also recently there have been suggestions that a loan dating back over 10 years supposedly used to pay for lighting at a stadium has been used elsewhere or misspent. Now other funds are being used to settle this loan causing more disruption amongst the committee members. These are just more problems for Antiguan football to focus on and it is frankly an extremely unwelcome distraction as the only focus should be on the pitch not on power struggles behind the scene.
It is not all doom and gloom though as recently Hull City announced the signing of Dulwich Hamlet striker Calaum Jahraldo-Martin on an 18 month deal. Steve Bruce said of the move “He's been a breath of fresh air and who knows, we might just have unearthed a little gem”. The forward is an Antiguan U20 international and is said to have impressed the Hull coaching staff whilst on trial. Slow steps like these are what is needed in order to help the national side progress. They may have missed out on qualification but there are certainly reasons for Antiguan fans to not lose heart. FIFA have announced they are hopeful having the current political mess of the ABFA sorted out very shortly and hopefully that will allow for the development of the stadia and facilities as well as Antigua Barracuda FC. The new coach, who like Curtis will probably manage both the national side and Barracuda FC, must look to utilise Blackstock and Leigertwood as much as possible and draw strength from the development of players like Jahraldo-Martin and focus on players like the country’s all-time leading scorer Peter Byers.
Antigua & Barbuda are never going to get on the footballing map but given time and investment they have every chance of becoming a regular player at the top of the CONCAF region. With all that has gone on over the past few years in the country it would be nice for the people of this small island to have something to cheer.
Follow Pete on Twitter @psharland55.