It won’t have the frenetic atmosphere of Johannesburg’s Soccer City on 11 July of last year when Spain were crowned world champions. It won’t have 84,490 fans in the stadium and an estimated TV audience of over 700 million. On 15 June, when Caribbean minnows Montserrat take on Central American upstarts Belize, there will be few spectators, few reporters, and no TV cameras. But it’s the beginning: this game marks the first official match of the qualifying rounds for FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™, and hope springs eternal for both sides as they begin the unlikely road to Rio.
The first leg of the two-game series will take place at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad as “home” side Montserrat – a volcano and hurricane-plagued island near Antigua in the Lesser Antilles section of Caribbean Sea – have no appropriate venue to stage the event. The return match will be played in Belmopan, Belize on Sunday 19 June.
Both sides are monumental outsiders to reach Brazil 2014. Montserrat have only ever won two games since their first international in 1991 and in 2002 they even earned the dubious, and unofficial, distinction as the worst team in the world when they were beaten by the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Currently tied for last place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the islanders’ highest-ever position, attained in 2006, was 198th, only a marginal boost from their current position.
To be fair, football is low on Montserrat’s list of priorities. From hurricanes and earth tremors to volcanic eruptions, this isle spanning just 102 square km has repeatedly endured large-scale natural disasters. Most devastating was the 1995 reawakening of La Soufrière volcano, previously dormant for over 20,000 years, which dropped the population from 11,000 to 4,000 as people fled the island.
Belize, for their part, might be considered giants in the world game by comparison to Montserrat. Located in the north-eastern corner of Central America, south of Mexico and east of Guatemala, the country formerly known as British Honduras reached the comparatively dizzying heights of 172nd in the world pecking order and occupy 26th spot in their CONCACAF zone compared to Montserrat’s dead last of 35th. A draw against Nicaragua in this year’s Central American Cup was an impressive result.
Belize, who have never reached past the preliminary regional rounds of FIFA World Cup qualifying, even have a few professional players in their ranks. Veteran goalkeeper Shane Orio, a burly and mature net-minder, is currently No1 between the sticks at Honduran club giants CD Marathon. Two of Orio’s team-mates, both named Elroy (Kuylen and Smith) are also based in Honduras alongside Deon McCauley. The rest of the so-called Jaguars, led by colourful Honduran-born coach Jose de la Paz, are locally based amateurs and semi-pros, short on top-level experience, much like their intrepid opponents from Montserrat. “We are an experienced side,” Orio told FIFA.com. “We are very confident that we will win this series although we know next to nothing about the team from Montserrat."
Hope springs eternal for all
After the seismic activities of 1995, Montserrat’s players – like most of the country’s population – became refugees, turning up on USA and English soil and in neighbouring countries in the Caribbean. As a result, putting together a team to pull on the olive-coloured uniforms is a triumph in and of itself. “I am proud to play for my country,” midfielder Clifford Joseph told FIFA.com, summing up the hope that exists in the team. He will be led by captain and interim coach Kenny Dyer, 46 years young, who guided the team in a recent trio of Caribbean Cup qualifiers in which they lost to modest opposition by a combined score of 16-0.
“Our chances are very good,” added Dyer. “They [Belize] have more experience than us, but we are a quality side especially with the inclusion of some players who play abroad, in the UK and the Australian league."
The two-legged contest is part of five pre-qualifiers to cull the contenders in North, Central America and Caribbean before the FIFA World Cup official draw in Rio on 30 July. Anguilla take on the Dominican Republic, the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands will square off, Aruba meet St Lucia, and the Bahamas take on Turks and Caicos. And while it would take something near a miracle for any of these bright-eyed hopefuls to line up amid the festival of flags at Brazil 2014, they are among the contenders and should not be forgotten.