With the help of FIFA’s Win-Win Programme, the inaugural season of the Dominican Republic’s first professional league was held between March and August 2015, marking a milestone for football development in the country.

By defeating Atlantico FC 3-1 in a thrilling match on 9 August, Atletico Pantoja were crowned champions of the Dominican Republic’s first-ever professional league. As the final whistle blew, a roar erupted from the 11,000-strong crowd, the sun beating down on elated faces as the celebrations began. Their joy served as a tribute to both the achievement of the new title holders from Santo Domingo and a campaign full of thrilling, high-quality matches. “Organising this professional league and completing the first season is Dominican football’s greatest highlight so far,” said Yaneri Martinez of the Dominican Football Federation.

The residents of this island nation have been eagerly anticipating this moment for years. After its establishment in 2002, the amateur Liga Mayor paved the way for a clear structure of referees, coaches and players and was a crucial step in introducing the country’s first professional league. Federation president Osiris Guzman’s proposals for the sustainable development of the sport took the form of a ten-year plan set out in conjunction with FIFA, while the implementation of the Win-Win Programme in autumn 2014 signified the final step towards professionalising Dominican football.

While the Dominican Republic can boast a keen interest in sport stretching back over many years, baseball and basketball have so far enjoyed the greatest popularity. Nevertheless, research carried out as part of the Win-Win Programme showed just how deeply rooted football is in the hearts of the island’s population. “More than 90 per cent of respondents expressed a desire for a professional football league,” explained Javier Lozano, who has been supporting the realisation of the project in his capacity as a FIFA advisor.

Rush for league places
The Dominican people’s wish soon became a reality. Within just a few months, the legal, competitive, marketing and communications, management and financial considerations required to start the first season were in place. The federation received 30 licence applications from clubs keen to be part of this historic moment in the nation’s footballing history.

Ten teams made the cut to battle it out for the trophy between March and August this year. The inaugural campaign was full of captivating matches and close results, with Atletico Pantoja, Atlantico FC, Bauger FC, Moca FC, Cibao FC, Univ. O&M FC, Barcelona Atletico, Atletico Vega Real, At. San Cristobal and Delfines del Este competing for the title at nine different venues. The average attendance rocketed from 250 during the league’s amateur days to more than 2,000 in the new professional era, with a total of 209,636 football fans heading to the stadium for matches over the course of the campaign.

Excitement reached fever pitch when Atletico Pantoja finally secured top spot on the league’s final day. Founded by Argentinian migrants, the club entered the title race as favourites, and while the higher level of investment placed additional pressure on the team, they ultimately lived up to the nation’s expectations.

A positive start
This promising new league stands on a firm financial footing, having secured name sponsorship for the first three seasons before a ball had been kicked and with four out of five games televised every week. Yaneri Martinez is particularly pleased that the match schedule played out exactly as planned, paying testament to the punctuality and professionalism of all those involved.

All in all, the league’s inaugural season has been an overwhelmingly positive one. “We’re on the right track,” said Javier Lozano, adding that the experience has proven that the concept is viable, the football on offer is entertaining and that spectators have acclimatised to the new league schedule. Despite this encouragement, the FIFA advisor is still keen to strive for perfection by improving infrastructure and renovating several venues.

The Federation has also set itself several goals such as improving player quality and attracting new sponsors. Demand also remains high among clubs, with many already submitting new licence applications for next season as the league’s appeal continues to grow, while there have also been calls for the establishment of a second division.

The revenues generated from this initial campaign are already benefiting the clubs and their youth development work. FIFA recently began supporting the country’s escuelas de talentos or “talent school” programme, as Yaneri Martinez explained: “The aim of this programme is to nurture talented footballers, support their development as they progress through each age group and thus give them the opportunity to become professionals in the league.” There is no doubt that football has arrived in the Dominican Republic.