When tiny island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis begin their qualifying run for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, they will be banking on the athleticism, raw power and potential goals of their favourite son: big Atiba Harris.
One of precious few overseas professionals in the Sugar Boyz squad, Harris began his football journey in England with Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United as a schoolboy, before returning home at the urging of his father to finish school. The powerful striker eventually landed in Cadiz, where be became the first St Kitts and Nevis player to kick a ball in Spain, and then moved on to the USA and its Major League Soccer.
About to start his first season with Los Angeles-based Chivas USA after two years with Real Salt Lake, Atiba - the first St Kitts man to play professional football in the States - is raring to make his robust approach count during the Islanders' opening date with minnows Belize.
"It's taken me a little while to get used to playing in the United States," Harris, 23, told FIFA.com. "Back where I come from on the Islands and also where I learned the game, in England, football is very physical.
"Some people think I am a dirty player here in the States, but I just like to use my strength and my body. Some of the things referees call in MLS don't warrant a second look in England or the Caribbean," he added with a chuckle.
More than your single-minded bruiser, Harris' speed and nose for goal have made him the focal point of a St. Kitts and Nevis side comprised mainly of local amateurs, US University prospects and a crop of English-based lower leaguers. And his seven goals in 22 internationals make him the big hope for more of the same in 2008.
"He is the face of professional football for St Kitts and Nevis," said head coach and former international Leonard Taylor, now in his third year at the helm of the Sugar Boyz. "He is a complete striker and he learned his trade here on the islands, so the other guys look up to him. Strong and determined, we will be relying on him a great deal."
Chivas USA boss and former USA star Preki, who played in England with Everton and Portsmouth during the 1990s, shares Leonard's high opinion of Harris. "He can hold up the ball and has great speed," he said, with just over two months to go before the start of the new MLS campaign. "We expect big things from him."
Although St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest nation in the Americas, with a population of just over 40,000 and an area of 101 square miles, they will be firm favourites in their two-legged first round CONCACAF qualifier with Belize, who are currently placed joint-201st out of 208 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Kitts and Nevis, by comparison, are a respectable 151st and recently split a pair of matches with Bermuda and Antigua and Barbuda.
As the English-speaking Central American underdogs were unable to provide a suitable ground for the first leg, the 6 February contest will be played in Guatemala City, with the return leg in Kitts' capital of Basseterre on 26 February.
"I'm not writing off Belize, but I am confident we should beat them," said young Atiba, a veteran of the side that beat Barbados and the US Virgin Islands in 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany qualifying to reach the first group stage.
This time around, however, the islanders' road to the group stage is considerably trickier. If they do get past Belize, they will be meeting up with, historically speaking, the strongest team in North, Central America and the Caribbean. "If we beat Belize, well, then we run into the cul-de-sac that is Mexico," said coach Leonard.
"I think we could upset them," shouted an enthusiastic Harris, who was a member of the team that lost 13-0 to a considerably under-strength Mexico over two legs in the group-stage qualifiers for Germany 2006. "When we met ahead of the 2006 World Cup, we didn't have our foreign-based players and I was really young then."
"If they want to send their youth team or their reserves this time around, that's fine," Harris warns. "But they're going to lose. Things are changing in the Caribbean and we won't be taken lightly."
With a reputation for raw talent and pure power, the boys from St Kitts and Nevis - and their star forward Harris - sound ready for a fight.