A crossroads in the Caribbean
© AFP

The Caribbean Sea and its polka-dot pattern of tiny islands and archipelagos is a crossroads of cultures, languages and styles. Football influences in the region, which expands from the Bahamas in the north to Trinidad and Tobago near the coast of South America, vary from Africa's western coast to Spain, the Netherlands, England and France.

The on-field cocktail that emerges from their colonial days is cool, technical, muscular, individualistic and bubbling with passion and wit. Join FIFA.com for a look at the warm, inviting waters of the Caribbean and its love affair with the round ball.

The countries of the Caribbean are hampered by their tiny populations, undeveloped economies and natural threats of every kind. In an extreme example, Montserrat had two-thirds of its population forced out by the Soufriere Hills Volcano eruption in 1995. Even so, a squad of England-based refugees turned up for their FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™ qualifier last month. A predictable 7-1 loss followed at the hands of Suriname, ancestral home to some of the Netherlands' biggest stars like Clarence Seedorf, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit.

On the world stage
Even with fate seemingly against them, the Caribbean islands (currently 23 are affiliated members of FIFA) have managed to send four teams to the FIFA World Cup finals. Cuba were first, stepping into the breach after the withdrawal of Mexico and the US to reach the quarter-finals at France 1938. Next up, colourful Haiti, the world's first black Republic formed after a slave revolt, made their debut at West Germany 1974. For six minutes, Emmanuel 'Manno' Sannon's goal against Italy in Munich looked like springing a shock defeat of Italy who had not conceded in 13 games. The Haitians lost 3-1 in the end, but Sannon,whose death earlier this year was marked by a day of mourning in Port au Prince, became a hero and a beacon for the Caribbean.

Jamaica represented the region in 1998 in France with a collection of England-based players whose roots reached back to the island home of football-lover Bob Marley. They beat Japan en route to a first-round exit. Trinidad and Tobago followed suit with their debut at a world finals in Germany in 2006. Led by legendary Dutch boss Leo Beenhakker, the Soca Warriors managed a draw with Sweden and even stretched England, eventually succumbing to two late goals.

"He'll always be welcome on our shores," Trinidad goalkeeper Shaka Hislop told FIFA.com about Beenhakker's achievements on the islands, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a FIFA World Cup. "Everyone knows back home that, even though he's Dutch, he's Trinidadian at heart."

In the Old World
The honorary islander, who currently coaches Poland, is not the only bridge from the Caribbean to Europe. A dazzling array of household names on the Old Continent trace their lineage back to the Caribbean, including French stars Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and William Gallas. Dwight Yorke of Sunderland (ex of Manchester United) played in the holding midfield role for Trinidad in Germany in 2006.

Ricardo Gardner was born in St. Andrew Parish, Jamaica, made his full debut for local club Harbour View at age 14, and is now a stalwart in the Bolton Wanderer's backline. Jason Roberts of Blackburn is the most-capped player in Grenada's national team and Marlon Harewood and Emmerson Boyce are both eligible to line up for Barbados against the USA in qualifying this June.

France star of the recent past, Jocelyn Angloma, returned after retirement to his birthplace of Abymes, Guadeloupe. Unable to keep himself off the pitch, he helped guide the tiny island and overseas department of France to their first CONCACAF Gold Cup in the summer of 2007. And far from playing the role of respectful minnows, they roared to the semi-finals in an amazing run. "I've had a lot of good things happen to me in my career," Angloma, who scored a pair of crucial goals, told FIFA.com. "But to come home and help the national team do something like this is a dream come true."

Unfortunately for his team-mates, Guadeloupe are not eligible to participate in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers currently underway as they are a functioning part of the French government. But there are a good number of Caribbean hopefuls making their mark in the early rounds of qualifying.

African aims
With the first-leg of CONCACAF qualifying over, 14 Caribbean sides remain in contention. The biggest surprise thus far has come from Netherlands Antilles, who beat Nicaragua 3-0 on aggregate with a squad made up of European-based professionals of Antillean extraction. They face Caribbean champions Haiti in the next round. Even the smaller islands like Grenada and Barbados have managed to secure the services of professionals abroad and look like making their own mark.

The usual suspects in the sub-region will be tough to beat, however. Jamaica are led by Rene Simoes, the Brazilian who brought them to their only world finals. Trinidad are coached by Colombian tactician Francisco 'Pacho' Maturana and hoping to get past the current labour dispute forcing a rift between the FA and first-team players.

A haven for underdogs and a crossroads between the the old and new worlds, the Caribbean is mad about its football and looks likely to keep contributing to the development of the world game for years to come.