Jon ArnoldComment

LUIS SUÁREZ. ROBIN VAN PERSIE. DEON MCCAULAY

Jon ArnoldComment
LUIS SUÁREZ. ROBIN VAN PERSIE. DEON MCCAULAY

Luis Suarez. Robin van Persie. Deon McCaulay.  The three forwards each scored 11 goals during FIFA World Cup qualification, tying for the mythical qualification Golden Boot. All three scored in seven matches. Suarez played in 16 to reach the mark, Van Persie nine. Belize international McCaulay played in all eight of his country’s matches before it was eliminated. Suarez and van Persie each converted two from the spot, McCaulay one.

Two of them, barring injury, will be lining up on football’s grandest stage hoping to take earn honor for their countries and boost their already gargantuan fame. The third (McCaulay) won’t be in Brazil but is raising his country’s football profile, simply by being a professional.

Here we could embed a YouTube supercut of van Persie’s World Cup qualification goals, with a Bruno Mars song even a soundtrack option for the Dutchman’s highlight reel. The first search result for a Suarez supercut uses a rock band from the Uruguayan’s home country as the backing track, and you can choose a three minute or eight minute option, depending on how much build-up you’d like prior to each tally. There’s a McCaulay video, too, but the soundtrack accompanying his remarkable run of form in 2011 is the persistent buzz of power cable interference and over-exuberant commentators.

It betrays the fact that while McCaulay made the same goal haul as the other two players, his hat trick against Montserrat doesn’t have quite the cachet Suarez’s four-goal showing against World Cup-bound Chile or van Persie’s triple against Hungary do. While van Persie played in front of more than 53,000 fans in Romania and 62,000 cheered on Suarez against Jordan, just more than 3,000 Belizeans made up the largest crowd to view McCaulay on his run.

Yet, there he was on the world’s stage alongside two of the game’s greats when the dust settled from qualifying, nearly two full years after Belize last lined up for a qualification match.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even expect it because I was out of qualifying for a long time,” McCaulay says. “So I was, like, really surprised to know that those 11 goals held up among some of the best players in the world. It’s very surprising, but it’s a dream that everybody wants to accomplish in their life. I feel that’s part of my history now, something good.”

In today’s era when both media training and press sensationalism are ubiquitous, many players would demure when asked about tracking a somewhat trivial individual record, but he made no secret of his desire to reach the mark, to have a small feeling of belonging to among football’s elite. On social media, he called it a blessing to still be the leading scorer in qualification and later told a reporter he would be in favor of an award being established for the top scorer coming from a small country.

He’s confident. He’s had to be.

In a country where the highest division of football isn’t professional, playing the sport for a living puts McCaulay in a category few others from Belize have ever reached, especially making a living outside of Central America. McCaulay himself has only now been able to make the sport his full-time job, joining the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League in March of 2014.

“He’s very relaxed. He’s usually really focused on what’s at hand and he’s kind of quiet at times, but also if he believes in something he’s one to speak up and really give his opinion,” says Ian Andrew Mork, a manager, scout and director of youth development who has coached McCaulay with Belize several times including in the 2013 Gold Cup (Belize’s first time in the CONCACAF championship). “He has a strong personality, and I think that’s part of why he’s gotten where he is because of that self-belief, which is very important.”

Though he’s had a handful of chances professional clubs before, the contrast between playing for Belize’s best team, the Belmopan Bandits, and representing a second-division outfit in the U.S. has been striking.

“For one, the whole atmosphere is different,” the forward says. “The training is different. Basically, everything is different. Coming from a semiprofessional league to a professional league, everything is different. You have to be disciplined with everything. It’s a whole new atmosphere out here,”

Football in Belize is popular, but not like it is in neighboring Honduras where football is mostly well-organized and the national team is in Brazil preparing for the World Cup despite the nation’s manifold issues. Things are far less structured in Belize, formerly known as British Honduras.

For one, young players play for school teams, but those are only in action a few months a year. If a player shows talent, like McCaulay did, he might be snapped up by a league team and thrown into the squad as a teenager. Those teams don’t have youth sides or programs. Experience is nearly the only teacher.

That works against the national side, which tasked with playing squads composed entirely of professional players who have come up in systems meant to bring players along and fix weaknesses. Mork attributes part of a Gold Cup run that saw the country leave with no points and scoring only one goal to the fact that many of his players were simply overwhelmed by the whole process.

That same feeling of bewilderment can also come over players from smaller countries who may not be sure who to trust in a sport that has no shortage of unsavory characters looking to exploit ignorance for their own profit.

“There’s a big part of it that when you find a young player who has talent and you want to give him that kind of opportunity, a lot of times they’ll kind of look at you and say, ‘Yeah right, whatever, yeah right, yeah right, I know you’re just blowing smoke or it’s just another promise that’s not going to come true,’ because they get that a lot,” says Eric Wynalda, McCaulay’s current coach with the Silverbacks. “That’s just really not the case with me. If I take a chance on the guy, I usually can deliver on the second part, which is, 'If you get better you will go somewhere,' and I think a lot of guys believe that now.”

Wynalda, a former American international who until 2008 was his country's leading scorer like McCaulay, has developed a reputation for spotting talent. He said that while McCaulay and Belize didn’t have the best Gold Cup campaign, he was intrigued by what the forward was able to do off the ball, especially up against the United States team which ended up winning the opening group match, 6-1. Plus, “when someone scores 11 goals in the qualifiers, you’ve got to take notice of that.”

Being his country’s leading scorer at age 26 is notable, as well, though he isn’t the only McCaulay on the Belize list. His father, David, instilled the love of the game into Deon. “He is the one who taught me everything I knew,” Deon says.

David is also a trailblazer for football in the country, scoring its first ever international goal during the 1995 UNCAF Nations Cup and following that goal up with a goal in a losing effort during the country’s short-lived campaign to qualify for the 1998 World Cup. David and the qualifying debutants ran into a Panama team anchored by Julio Dely Valdes - the same man who nearly managed Panama to World Cup Finals qualification this year. Dely Valdes scored four goals in the two-legged tie and the Caneleros eased to a 6-2 aggregate victory. Father and son also led the Belize national league in scoring nearly 10 seasons apart.

The current Belize star didn’t get off to the start he was hoping for in Atlanta, scoring twice in league play for the Silverbacks and adding another in cup play during the first half of the year, but coaches former and current are confident he’ll adapt to the level and end up on an even bigger stage if he’s able to do so.

“When it comes to Deon, he’s everything that every single one of these managers is looking for, but to my point before, the only thing that will get him there is goals,” Wynalda said in an April interview. “That’s the only thing. I mean, regardless of what he’s done for Belize internationally, in Belize, the reality is is that some of these mangers in MLS, if that’s where he wants to be, won’t take him seriously until he starts scoring. They just won’t. They just need to see his name in the paper a few times.”

Is there another player waiting in the wings who can raise the level of football in Belize?

The game is growing, as is the country with the CIA World Factbook giving it the third highest population growth rate in CONCACAF. But those involved aren’t optimistic Belize will become a regional football power without significant change.

“I think it has to start from the training, and also I think that they need to support football in Belize a little bit more so it can grow,” McCaulay says. “It can’t be only funded by the federation and nobody else trying to get in there and help us out. It’s kind of hard, you know, having only the football federation to fund it.”

Mork echoes those comments, stressing an importance in coaching education. “They need more educated coaches, more coaches with international experience working at the top level there because otherwise it’s usually a person that kind of steps in to lead but not a person that necessarily has a coaching background,” he says.

“It’s tough, and then when you have to compete against professionals,” Mork continues. “The experience that Deon’s going to get in Atlanta is the experience that every player on the national team of Belize should be getting.

"They need to be in a similar environment for the game to really start to possess there because then they’ll be able to take that experience back to Belize hopefully in the future and pass that on. There’s quite a few of the guys there that have good personalities to possibly become coaches some day. I think they’re probably going to be the ones that will probably end up making a real difference in the country because they’re still trying to find their way.”

Until then, it’s unlikely another Belize player aside from McCaulay will be mentioned in the same breath with Suarez and van Persie. Perhaps by then, FIFA will have commissioned the trophy McCaulay suggested.

Jon is on Twitter @ArnoldcommaJon.

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