Though Nassau's native dances swing to the peculiar tones of Rake n' Scrape music, the upwardly mobile Bahamas national team - nicknamed after the popular local music - is swaying to a new samba rhythm under Brazilian coach Neider dos Santos. The tactician, whose wanderlust has taken him to locations such as Botafogo in Brazil, Simba Sports Club in Tanzania, Korea Republic and Guyana, is currently overseeing a massive upswing in the fortunes of Bahamian football.
"My first order of business was to build on the back of the country's youth," said Dos Santos, in the Bahamas' top job for a little over a year and in complete control of the youth set-up. "The youth and Olympic (U-23) teams I took over now make up the vast majority of our senior team ahead of our first World Cup qualifier with the British Virgin Islands."
Building on the heady improvements made by predecessor Gary White, who coached the team for seven years from 1999 to 2006, Dos Santos' youth policy looks like a gamble that could just pay off. The U-23s reached the second round of Caribbean qualifying for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 with a shocker of a win over the mighty Jamaica. In the process, they earned praise from many in the region - including the Jamaican press - for their high work rate and cool close control.
It is precisely this increased level of professionalism and
focus on individual style in a team of primarily part-timers and
American-based scholar-athletes that the Brazilian boss, who began
his coaching odyssey in 1990, takes so much pride in. "Our
goal is to play football the way the world loves, like in my
beloved Brazil," the South American tactician told
"I can't deny where I come from and in Brazil we play football with a smile. People enjoy watching it and people enjoy playing it. "I have instilled an ethic in the Bahamas team here. Now we keep the ball on the ground and make short passes with style and grace. The players love to play like this."
The new ethic is just the latest step in a process of steady improvement on the archipelago of over 700 islands and 300,000 people. In 2006 alone, Bahamas rocketed up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking by 55 places thanks to two wins in CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifying over Cayman Islands and the highly rated St. Kitts and Nevis.
2006 also saw the Rake n' Scrape boys reach the second round of Caribbean Cup qualifying for the first time in their history. All of this upward mobility is not to be underestimated considering the country could not even make up the numbers for FIFA World Cup™ qualifying as recently as 1998.
With no professional players in the squad, Dos Santos is banking on a good number of youngsters who ply their trade in the USA's university system. A clutch will be American-based students when qualifying rolls around with a home opener against minnows British Virgin Islands on 26 March (the second leg will be played four days later).
"We are a strictly amateur side with many of our players playing on scholarship in the USA," said the coach. "This is not a professional level, but in many cases it can be a much higher standard than the amateur leagues here on the Caribbean Islands."
The coach has singled out a few players by name that may well trouble BVI in the opening series. Goalkeeper Dwayne Whylly is the undisputed No1 having proven his dependability - not to mention his staggering intellect - at Yale University. Diminutive Lesley St. Fleur will be hoping to poach at the other end of the pitch and the aptly named Happy Hall will be keen to bring joy with his creativity and nose for goal.
Despite all the improvements in Bahamian football, though, Dos
Santos stresses the importance of keeping grounded. "The
British Virgin Islands is the name on our brain right now.
Everything we do is in preparation for the first leg against
them," the boss said.
"We just need to be prepared to do battle and to give ourselves every opportunity to do well and move to the next step. You can't make mistakes in World Cup qualifying, because you will find yourself out."
If Bahamas manage to do what is expected and get past the first round, they will be staring down at a tough test against one of the Caribbean's true giants: Jamaica.
"We will not conquer the world overnight," Dos Santos concluded with a chuckle. "We have to keep grounded. If we get past BVI, then we can worry about how good Jamaica is."