Few football-playing nations have deserved the accolade “giant-killers” more than St. Kitts and Nevis. No matter who they beat on the football field, it is a safe bet that the twin-island federation will have been playing opponents from a bigger country.
by Garry Steckles
St. Kitts and Nevis, with a combined population of around 50,000, is one of the smallest nations in the world. A favoured holiday haunt of the rich and famous, life on these Eastern Caribbean islands is lived mostly in the slow lane, but that is fine by locals and visitors alike.
The Goal Project
When it comes to sport however, St. Kitts and Nevis take things seriously. St. Kitts, the bigger island, is home to Kim Collins, the sprinter who stunned the sporting universe in Paris a few months ago by winning the world 100 metres title, while little sister Nevis has produced several cricketers who have played for the world-conquering West Indies side. And when it comes to football, the St. Kitts and Nevis national team has a long history of stunning achievement.
A couple of years ago, St. Kitts and Nevis won the LIFA (Leeward Islands Football Association) championship, beating Antigua — a bigger and richer neighbouring island with whom they have a long-standing and not always cordial sporting rivalry — in the final.
In recent years, they have also defeated Trinidad & Tobago (population of around a million and a hair’s breadth away from making it to the FIFA World Cup™ finals in 1990), Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Caribbean nations that count their populations in millions rather than thousands, as well as Barbados, another neighbour with a massive advantage in both population and resources. They have also held powerful Jamaica and Cuba to draws.
Their achievements catapulted St. Kitts and Nevis a whopping 30 places up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, but Antigua, the LIFA championship organisers, were ejected from FIFA in 2003 because of the “chaotic” situation surrounding football administration there, and the championship was scrapped, thereby depriving St. Kitts and Nevis of the majority of their matches. It was to be a period of inactivity in which their hard earned gains in the world table evaporated. As frustrating as that experience may have been (and with Antigua back in the FIFA fold it is hopefully a thing of the past), it did not curb the enthusiasm for football and progress in St. Kitts and Nevis.
The national team is due to play some crucial World Cup qualifying matches this year. Drawn against the U.S. Virgin Islands, the winners will do battle with Barbados for the right to advance to the third regional stage.Looking towards the future, St. Kitts recently announced plans for a football academy, one of the most significant steps in the development of the game on these islands since British sailors introduced it back in the 1920s.
nder the watchful eye of English Technical Director Eric Winstanley, a football veteran whose career stretches back to 1960, the academy is home to 25 young players aged between 17 and 20. As well as teaching football, the academy offers a computer literacy programme as well as training in etiquette.
Winstanley moved to St. Kitts in 2001 after coaching stints in Zanzibar and his native Barnsley. He is fully committed to the academy, and is highly enthusiastic about the islands’ prospects for the future. But like most people in St. Kitts and Nevis, Winstanley was disappointed by the Under-23 side’s recent trouncing by the United States in an Olympic qualifier.
“It was disappointing, but we have to play more matches of that nature if we want to get to that level ourselves. Our lads had never played against professionals of that quality — several members of the U.S. team play for MLS clubs. And the support we got locally was fantastic. The fans were terrific, both in St Kitts and in Maryland for the second leg. Kittitians and Nevisians living there made sure the boys had warm clothes and made them feel at home.”
HOUSE OF FOOTBALL
They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and after the Maryland game, four members of the team were offered sports scholarships in the USA. International exposure and professional contracts abroad for local players are among the primary objectives of football administrators in St. Kitts and Nevis, who are already looking forward to the day when more local players make it to the international stage. Only three of the national team’s top players are currently in professional leagues overseas: Atiba Harris, a dynamic young forward, is playing for Cadiz in Spain’s first division; Keith “Kayamba” Gumbs, generally regarded as the national team’s leading player in recent years, is now playing at the top level in Malaysia after a successful stint in Hong Kong; and George “Yellowman” Isaac is one of the most feared strikers in the Trinidad & Tobago professional league, playing for W Connections.
he islands have also been short-listed for a coveted FIFA Goal Programme grant of USD 400,000, which would help to finance two playing fields, two training fields, a gym and facilities for classroom situations.
As L. Spencer Amory, the long-serving General Secretary of the SKNFA, explained: “We will now have our own house for football and training and we hope to impact the development of St. Kitts and Nevis sports tourism and the marketing of St. Kitts and Nevis as a warm-weather training destination for teams worldwide.”
Amory and his fellow SKNFA officials are now negotiating with the St. Kitts Government regarding a land donation for the project. “The money’s ready and waiting,” says Amory. “We just need the land.”
32 CLUBS IN THREE DIVISIONS
Meanwhile, the association is raising funds itself through marketing ventures and encouraging its 32 clubs, spread over three divisions, to do the same. Corporate funding, too, is another priority: “We want to encourage local businesses to play a bigger part,” says Amory, who also points out that international friendlies are costly to stage and often lose money. “The question of financing is absolutely critical,” he says. “Jamaica and Trinidad have major corporate funding, which means they get to play more friendly internationals on top of the formal competitions, they have more facilities, and so forth.”
The domestic league has been also restructured to climax in playoffs in all three divisions, a move that has been a great success, while St. Kitts’ annual football festival in June and July has attracted an intriguing variety of teams, ranging from the Olympic squads of Canada, Japan and Chinese Taipei to English League clubs (Bradford City, Oldham Athletic) and national teams such as Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados.
FIFA MEMBER SINCE 1992
The players and officials who made the game so popular also continue to receive deep gratitude and respect. Veterans still reminisce about the players of yesteryear, particularly about the stars of the legendary national team that dominated the entire Eastern Caribbean region during the late Forties and much of the Fifties.
Names like George McMahon, a sporting phenomenon who excelled at virtually every athletic activity, St. Clair Illidge, a flamboyant winger blessed with blinding speed (he was also St. Kitts’ leading sprinter) and a lethal shot with either foot, and Arthur Thompson, Illidge’s partner in football mayhem on the opposite wing, are still spoken with reverence.
Organised football in St. Kitts and Nevis dates back to 1932, when the local association was formed. Landmark dates in its history are 1984, when it joined the Leeward Islands Football Association, 1978, when it joined the Caribbean Football Union, and, most significant of all, 1992, when it became a member of FIFA and CONCACAF.