St. Kitts and Nevis is one of those dreamy island paradises in the Caribbean Sea, known for its white sands, crystal blue water and slow, shuffling pace of life. However, in terms of football, the nation of just over 50,000 residents is ramping up, eagerly attempting to raise its profile in the CONCACAF region.
At the tail end of last year, the dual-island nation, tucked away in a corner of the Leeward Islands, pulled off a sensation in the first group stage of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The primarily amateur side managed a 0-0 draw with group giants Canada at their Warner Park in Basseterre. It was celebrated as a victory and only partially dampened by the 4-0 loss they suffered four days later in the reverse fixture in Toronto.
You can’t take teams like St Kitts and Nevis lightly anymore.
It wasn’t the only high-point in the Sugar Boyz’ campaign, either, as they earned seven points from six games thanks to a pair of draws – one against the ever-improving Puerto Rico and a win over minnows St. Lucia. In all, it wasn’t enough to see them through to the next stage, set to begin this June, but it represented a significant boost in the country’s international profile. The fact that they were still in with a shout on the last day of qualifiers suggests an impressive jump in quality and competiveness.
“You can’t take teams like St Kitts and Nevis lightly anymore,” Canada veteran Dwayne De Rosario told FIFA.com after his Canucks were held to a draw by the islanders, who previously shocked the CONCACAF zone by reaching the second round of qualifying on the road to Germany 2006. “They’re athletic and powerful and getting better all the time.”
New high within reach
St Kitts and Nevis have moved seven places up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking since the start of the year. They are currently 109th and just one point off their best-ever global ranking, achieved in 2004. They are just behind Bermuda in the CONCACAF ranking and three points behind Bolivia overall. The team, coached by Lester Morris are intent on continuing the trend of upward mobility, and even managed another win after being eliminated, besting Antigua and Barbuda – who are still alive in qualifying for Brazil 2014 – 1-0 in their only friendly of 2012.
St Kitts and Nevis played their first game as a national team as recently as 1979, a slim 2-1 loss to Caribbean giants Jamaica. Since then they have improved at a rapid rate compared to some of their comparably-sized neighbours, finishing runners-up at the Caribbean Cup in 1997 and fourth place in 1993.
The country’s highest-profile player is Atiba Harris, a stalwart of Major League Soccer, who now lines up for the league’s Vancouver Whitecaps. “He is the face of professional football for St Kitts and Nevis," said former national team coach and player Leonard Taylor. "He is a complete striker and he learned his trade here on the islands, so the other guys look up to him. He is strong and determined.”
With a hard-working and combative cast of part-timers backing up Harris, St Kitts and Nevis are a side to watch, on an unlikely climb.