Who is Deon McCaulay?
It is a question many football fans were asking after seeing the name at the top of the scorers’ table for 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. Many may not know the man himself and even more may not be able to find his home nation of Belize on a map, but one fact remains: He edged out Dutch ace Robin van Persie and Uruguay’s ruthless Luis Suarez - not to mention Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - as the globe’s top marksman on the road to Brazil 2014.
“I mean, it feels really good to have my name up there with those big, no, those huge names from all the big countries,” McCaulay told FIFA.com in a recent interview. “Not a lot of people know me and not a lot of people probably know much about Belize, so it’s a nice thing.”
It should be clarified that McCaulay’s 11 goals came in the early, and often chaotic, rounds of qualifying in the CONCACAF zone. The Belize City-born striker, lean and with a sharp turn of pace, scored four goals over two legs against Montserrat, an island in the Caribbean who’s population declined by two-thirds since a giant volcano erupted in 1995. Even so, his hat-trick in the first leg – the first game played by any nation en route to Brazil 2014 – hinted at a player who knew his way to goal. “What a feeling,” he said after the contest. “Scoring three goals in a World Cup qualifier is a truly special thing.”
The feeling did not last, however, and Belize finished a full 11 points off group leaders and next-door neighbours Guatemala in the next round. McCaulay managed to score seven more goals to clearly indicate himself as his country’s top-player and most recognisable sportsman. At 26, he’s already scored 16 goals in 28 appearances, tops in Belize's national team history, and helped his side reach their first-ever CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2013 where they finished bottom of a group with USA, Costa Rica and Cuba. “We’re climbing big hurdles,” he said. “Reaching the Gold Cup through Central America is no small thing.”
Now he’s set for another first, a professional club debut in the United States with North American Soccer League outfit Atlanta Silverbacks in the second tier of the country’s professional pyramid. “I’ve had my eye on Deon for a long time,” said Silverbacks’ technical director and former USA scoring sensation Eric Wynalda, hoping to see his team improve on their runner-up finish of last season behind the New York Cosmos. “His talent, speed, explosiveness and knack for scoring goals is exactly what we need.”
While his current paymasters are brimming with enthusiasm over their new striker, McCaulay himself is a little more circumspect. “My career’s been up and down so far, I would say,” he admitted, pointing out that he’s played for six different clubs in Belize, including Belmopan Bandits and Kremandala, before earning his chance abroad in the relative glamour of Honduras and Deportes Savio.
He scored just four times in 25 appearances for the unfashionable club. “And even that was just one year,” he said. “Then it was back to Belize,” he said, his tone rueful, where opportunities are limited and the football is decidedly amateur - semi-professional in the best circumstances. “I’ve done well with the national team, but we don’t play very many games and my dream was always to play outside of Belize. I’ve been waiting for my big break.”
Flying an obscure flag
Even by CONCACAF standards, Belize is an outlier. Tucked into the northeast corner of Central America and sharing a border with Guatemala and Mexico, the country once known as British Honduras is mostly jungle and coastal marshland. Currently 142nd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the national team is a fair distance off neighbours Honduras and Costa Rica in terms of global recognition. “Football is the biggest sport in Belize, for sure,” McCaulay said, his accent more Caribbean than Central American. “Everybody watches it; everybody talks about it. When I was a kid I would play anywhere I could – with a club, in the streets, in the churchyard. Anywhere. That’s the way it is.”
But McCaulay, who had a recent trial with Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and was linked briefly with a move to Greece, admits to difficulties getting noticed. “People know me in Belize, but to get known outside is not easy. No one really looks at Belize for players.”
McCaulay, his country’s top prospect, is hoping his time in USA can catapult him to bigger things, to maybe getting himself a little closer to those names that sit just beneath his in the FIFA.com global qualifying statistics. “This is my chance to climb higher. I want to score goals and win championships and that will get me noticed. It’s something I think about every day.”
Though he’s a long way from home, Belize – no matter how small or hard to find on a map – is always close to his heart. “Day after day, I represent Belize,” he said, before his voice turned the cold of a professional-in-the-making. “But I also need to perform for my club, for myself. It’s a combination, a balance, I need to keep.”