On Friday night in Tampa, Fla., the U.S. national team will take its first step down the long road the 2014 World Cup against a country that could fit around 80 percent of its population inside Raymond James Stadium.
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The World Cup is for everybody — even Antigua and Barbuda, the tiny island nation southeast of Puerto Rico that boasts sun, sand, scant soccer tradition and no more than a few dozen professional players.
et the Benna Boys, named after a genre of local folk music, are one of 12 remaining teams in contention for one of CONCACAF’s three or four berths to the ’14 World Cup. Last fall, they dominated a four-team group featuring favored Haiti, going 5-1-0 while scoring nearly five goals per game. Now, they’re in uncharted waters.
Antigua never has advanced this far in World Cup qualifying and never has played the U.S. In fact, the Benna Boys have gone up against just one non-Caribbean opponent the past decade.
But coach Tom Curtis has an ace in the hole, one that represents a modern twist on a strategy employed by another world soccer minnow three decades ago. That minnow was the United States.
In ’83, it had been more than 30 years since the U.S. had played in the World Cup. Anxious to end the drought, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the North American Soccer League partnered to form Team America, a professional club comprised of U.S.-eligible players that would compete in the NASL.
“The goal of Team America, obviously, is to play and win the World Cup,” the club claimed in its game program. Based in Washington, D.C. and wearing uniforms strikingly similar to the red-and-white hoops sported by the current U.S. national team, Team America finished 10-20 in ’83, missed the NASL playoffs and subsequently folded. Several members played a key role in the qualifiers for the ’86 World Cup, which the U.S. missed. None were involved when the U.S. finally made it through four years later.
Antigua has established more reasonable goals. Two years ago, the Antigua and Barbuda Football Association announced the formation of Antigua Barracuda, which played a series of exhibitions in ’10 before joining USL Pro, the American third division, last year. The club now employs the vast majority of the national team.
Curtis, a 39-year-old from southwest England, was hired in ’11 to coach both club and country. He knows a little bit about the underdog role. The long-time midfielder was part of a memorable FA Cup run in 1997, when third-division Chesterfield shocked the nation by advancing to the semifinals. He now is charged with molding a group of players, many of whom had no pro experience when the Barracuda were formed, into a team that can hold its own against giants.
“In terms of that FA Cup team we had a long time ago, although we were in the third division, we certainly had players who were capable of a much higher level,” Curtis told Sporting News. “We also had team spirit, organization and everybody worked hard for each other.
“If you’re going to be successful against a team with more quality and experience, you need to be well organized and you need to be together on the pitch and off. That’s something we’re trying to instill in Antigua’s players.”
For the past two-plus weeks, the national team has been training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Mark Bowers, who handles press operations for the national team and just about everything for the Barracuda, said IMG’s sports psychologists “have been working feverishly with our boys” to prepare them for Friday night, when they’ll face big-name talent before a crowd far larger than most of them have seen.
Curtis has been working on the rest for more than a year. The Barracuda went a respectable 9-13-2 in its inaugural USL Pro season and has the backing of the Antiguan government, the ABFA and several private investors. According to a recent report in the Antigua Observer, the federation is putting $9 million toward the qualification effort. The Barracuda account for a significant chunk. Bowers joked this week that Barcelona is the only other club in the world that is so important to its country’s national team.
“Prior to (the Barracuda), everybody played (amateur) club football,” Bowers said “You’d work until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Imagine you did a full day of construction work and then at 4 o’clock you’d get off the truck and go straight to practice or straight to a (local) Premier League game. Regardless of how talented you are, you are blunting your skills because you’re not able to dedicate the time you need.”
Midfielder Tamorley Thomas had been playing for Greenbay Hoppers in the Antiguan league before signing with the Barracuda last year. He scored six goals for the national team in ’11. Speedy 20-year-old flank midfielder Quinton Griffith played for a club called Golden Stars before joining up with the Barracuda. He now is a national team regular.
Peter Byers, the Benna Boys’ leading scorer, spent time with the Montreal Impact prior to their ascension to MLS and returned to Antigua one year ago. And so on.
“In the national team, we’ve got a squad of 25 in our camp at IMG. Seven of those guys are from the UK. We’ve done a great deal of research in terms of identifying these players from around the UK. We could’ve played the whole team with outside players,” Curtis said, highlighting Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood, who will play in the English Premier League next season.
“But we felt it was important that the backbone of the team is formed by locally-based players,” Curtis added. “Foreign players can augment the squad, not only in terms of quality but in terms of personality, but we really thought long and hard about who fits in with our team ethos and team dynamic.
“We’re really big on togetherness and people working for each other.”
Forging that unity, the kind Curtis found necessary to slay the assorted Goliaths on the way to the FA Cup semifinals, is a day-to-day process.
“Players here aren’t used to living the professional life on and off the pitch, and there are certain issues and challenges taking them out of their community teams and sticking them in a pro environment,” he said.
Bowers, a native Antiguan, said, “Everywhere we go, we dress as a team. We eat together — do everything together. We do team-building exercises. Time is a big issue. People talk about the Caribbean and how laid back we are, so when the coach says, ‘Practice is at 1 o’clock,’ if you’re not there at 1, you get fined. … Football is a serious business. There’s big money in football for players and administrators alike. It’s important that you get it right.”
The Barracuda have struggled at the start of the ’12 USL season, going 2-6-0. The national team has stumbled a bit as well, losing in exhibitions to three Caribbean rivals before defeating St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 2-1, in early April.
The British reinforcements should offer the Benna Boys a bit extra heading into Friday night’s showdown, but that won’t change the prevailing dynamic. The last time the U.S. faced a team representing a country of fewer than 100,000 people was ’93, when it blasted the Cayman Islands, 8-1.
“Caribbean football is certainly very raw, very physical,” Curtis said. “We have powerful players who are hugely enthusiastic, and what we’ve had to do as a staff is harness those qualities and combine them with organization and discipline and character, and those are traits we’re going to have to rely on when we play the might of the U.S.
“My expectation for the game is that the players do themselves justice. We have players who haven’t been on this stage before. I want them to look themselves in the mirror and know they’ve done their absolute best.”