Past performances in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying gave little reason for optimism among football fans in Belize. However, with a win (their first-ever in qualifying) over considerably higher-ranked St. Kitts & Nevis last month and a likely date with mighty Mexico shaping up, this former English colony on the Caribbean coast of Central America are allowing themselves to dream a little.
Deon McCauley, a young striker currently of local side Defence Force but being courted by clubs abroads, beat his marker in only the seventh minute of the 6 February encounter to poke home Belize's third goal in three attempts at qualifying for world football's grand showpiece. The game, which took place in Guatemala City due to lack of proper facilities in Belize, then became a virtual walkover for the nation formerly known as British Honduras, and one that highlighted the massive improvements in their football over the last decade.
"I can't really express how good it felt to play in a World Cup qualifier for my country," the 20-year-old McCauley told FIFA.com. "And to score made it feel that much more special."
The speedy forward went on to score once more in a comprehensive 3-1 win in which Harrison Roches was also on target. "We kept the ball well and played well," added McCauley, who last year had spells on trial with clubs in neighbouring Costa Rica. "Maybe we should have scored more goals but now we'll just have to go and get some more in the second leg."
The return encounter on 26 March is bound to be considerably more difficult for the Belizeans, on the road in St Kitts' capital of Basseterre. Even so, Guatemalan coach Palmiro Salas's men are in high spirits and know that the groundwork has been laid for a future of unparalleled success. As opposed to four years ago when they were crushed 8-0 over two legs by Canada, Belize, who only established their FA in 1980, now have players making their way in the professional game abroad as well as a host of tealented youngsters forged in the country's recently established U-17 and U-21 national sides.
Old heads and young guns
One of the trio of foreign-based players in the national team is goalkeeper and captain Shane Moody-Orio, number-one for Costa Rican outfit Puntarenas.
"After the win against Kitts and Nevis we all took a little time to celebrate and be happy," the lanky keeper told FIFA.com. "But after that, I took to my role as captain and made sure all of the youngsters knew that we now have a responsibility to finish the job."
One of the most experienced players in the side, Orio, 28, not only protects the goals but, along with his fellow pros, is also charged with the job of keeping the younger players from falling prey to common pitfalls.
"Me and the other two full-timers [Harrison Roches and defender Elroy Smith, both of Honduran side Deportes Savio] have to pass our knowledge of the professional game on to the guys who are based at home and know only semi-pro football," he said. "But most of them don't need much instruction. We may have a young team but we have a lot of experience and a lot of these young players have been playing together for a good amount of time in the youth teams."
Young or old, experienced or neophyte, the prospect of a date with Mexico in the next round is a mouth-watering one for the Jaguars of Belize.
"It would be a dream come true," remarked young McCauley before Orio, ever the captain and motivator, put the possible encounter in perspective. "It would be a special day for all of us to meet Mexico. It would be a chance for the world to see that we have talented players and it would be a chance for all of Belize to be proud."
The captain also had the final word about the differences between this year's sparkling Belize and the sides who struggled to compete in the recent past. "A few years ago maybe we just went out to make the numbers. But now, we truly believe!"