Montserrat's mighty spirit

The people of Montserrat have bigger things to worry about than football. A mean-spirited volcano that puffs poisonous ash into the air daily, the constant threat of violent hurricanes and a rapidly dwindling population are just a few of the problems that plague the tiny British overseas territory in the Caribbean.

Since the initial eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in 1995 that destroyed the capital city of Plymouth, the country has lost two-thirds of its population.

The less-than 5,000 that remain display an impossibly cheery disposition and optimistic resistance to the forces threatening to destroy their society (the volcano is still active and still erupting). Montserrat's is a culture on the verge of oblivion, but its citizens face their looming, localised apocalypse with a cool and refreshing sense of Caribbean humour.

Considering the circumstances, the island's approach to their upcoming one-off FIFA World Cup™ qualifier is nothing short of heroic.

"We have had some unsteady moments here in Montserrat," said FA development officer and national team general manager Claude Hogan in a clear understatement. "Since 1995 we have lost a huge chunk of our population because of the volcano."

The fate of the national team, traditionally one of the weakest in the world, mimics what has happened on a larger scale in Montserrat over the last decade. Many key players joined the mass exodus abroad to England, the USA or neighbouring islands in the Caribbean.

"Most of our players are over in England as refugees," assistant coach Cecil Lake admitted to FIFA.com. "We still have a few players left here on the island but most had to leave.

"We maintain a database, though, so we know pretty much where everyone one is!" exclaimed the former goalkeeper, who conceded four goals in the 2002 loss at Bhutan famously highlighted in the documentary film The Other Final. That defeat saw Montserrat lay claim to the dubious - and unofficial - title of 'worst team in the world'.

The vengeful volcano scattered Montserratians in all directions. Only a handful of the national team's players are among the remaining few thousand. With essentially two separate teams, the FA requires two training bases for the team ahead of their 26 March one-off qualifier with Suriname in Trinidad. Ottley Laborde, a police officer and former player, coaches the lads on the island while Darryl Brade handles the duties in England.

"Most of our players are living, playing and working in Birmingham, London and other English cities," Lake said. "But even though we have been uprooted and moved around, I must admit that our team looks pretty strong at the moment."

Professional pairing
Among the contingent of England-based players is a pair of actual professionals, a real rarity in the primarily amateur side. Junior Mendes, born in England but of Montserratian descent, scored for Conference-leading Aldershot Town at the weekend and has also played at Notts County. Hednesford Town midfielder Wayne Dyer will also bring some much-needed professionalism to the team.

"The volcano affected all of us in serious ways," Lake added in a moment of rare sombreness. "Our people got scattered across the world and our team suffered too," he said, before brightening up. "But we like to look at the bright side. Now we have more players to choose from, all learning the game and playing in different cultures and different parts of the world."

One of the players who remains on the island is Clifford Joseph, an all-rounder who was born in Dominica but qualifies for Montserrat through his mother. "He can play any position," Joseph's coach remarked proudly. "We even had him in the goal during a Caribbean Cup qualifier!"

"I am proud to play for the national team," the midfielder, fullback or striker enthused in an interview with FIFA.com. "Sometimes me and the other guys are training on our own here, but when we get together with the English guys we look pretty good I must say, pretty organised and a decent footballing team."

As you talk to the people of Montserrat, their endearing devotion to enjoying life, no matter how hard, becomes almost infectious. So too does their unshakable optimism. "This is a one-off game and anything can happen," Joseph concluded. "Why shouldn't we believe we believe can win?

Cynics might point to their 20-0 aggregate loss to Bermuda in qualifying for Germany 2006, in which Joseph played, as a possible example. But winning and losing are truly secondary concerns in Montserrat.

Hogan best summed up the feeling in the camp: "It's a victory just to be able to mobilise a team to play in a World Cup qualifier. It means we are still here... Montserrat is still alive."