Aruba's hard road home

As they go into their second-leg qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda on 26 March, Aruba's dreams of progressing deep into North, Central American and Caribbean Zone qualifying seem to be done and dusted already.

An independent country in the Caribbean but part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, Aruba has not won a competitive match since 2000 and do not look like breaking that painful trend any time soon after struggling manfully in their first leg with the Antiguans; a comprehensive 3-0 loss.

The gulf in class and professionalism between the two teams was obvious to all in the Oranjestad national stadium on 6 February as the home side tried desperately, and without success, to gain a foothold in the series.

After conceding goals from George Dublin and Gayson Gregory, two Antiguan professionals who ply their trade day-in and day-out in Trinidad and Tobago, the amateur Arubans suffered the further indignity of incurring a self-inflicted wound when Dario Sierra put through his own net five minutes from the interval.

Even though the result seemed to end the two-leg affair as a contest, captain Mauricio Escalona believes all is not lost. "Only one of the goals they scored was a legitimate earned goal," he told FIFA.com. They got an own goal and took advantage of a mistake at the back, but I don't feel that we played too badly."

The side is coached by Argentine tactician Marcelo Munoz, a former youth team player for Argentine clubs River Plate and Huracan. He took over the position in Aruba, ranked well near the bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, in 2003 after poking around the internet and learning the island paradise was in need of a coach.

"He (Munoz) is a good boss and he knows a lot about football," said Escalona, who plays for ten-time local club champions SV Racing Club Aruba in Oranjestad, currently fourth in the league table. "He has all of our spirits high and has us believing we can overhaul the deficit in the next leg."

The islanders train every night and they all, to their credit, are putting on a brave face ahead of their trip to St John's on 26 March. The country's biggest claim to fame in football is as birthplace to the father of current Valencia and Holland player Hedwiges Maduro, but the players are hoping to make a bigger mark by earning a first win in nearly a decade and maybe, just maybe, earning a spot in the next round.

Homeboys
All of the national team squad members come from the ten-team amateur league on the island, four from leaders SV Britannia of Piedra Plat and four more from third-place SV Deportivo Nacional. The rest are pulled from various teams in the so-called Division di Honor.

"The players are really up for this second leg," added the captain, who played seven years in the Netherlands' lower leagues. "No one's head dropped after the first game and if Antigua get a little complacent about things we just might be able to turn it around and achieve our dream.

Unlike some of their more competitive island neighbours like Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti and Jamaica, Aruba's dream is not as lofty as a place among the 32 participants at the finals in South Africa, but the rather more modest aim of a spot in the second round of preliminary qualifying. If they were to somehow overcome their heavy deficit, a two-leg date with Cuba would await.

"We need to keep manageable goals," Escalona, a ten-year veteran of the national side, added. "For us to play against Cuba in the next round would be like reaching the World Cup final. And we will do everything we can to achieve that goal."