“There was something truly indescribable about that day,” said George Dublin, the veteran Antigua and Barbuda defender’s voice drifting back a few weeks to what he calls his greatest football achievement. “There was a passion in the air, the nation was electric on the night and I have never seen or felt anything like it.”
The night Dublin describes so slowly, as if savouring the flavours of a great meal, ended in a 1-0 win over Caribbean giants and group favourites Haiti. With that result, Antigua and Barbuda – a nation of under 80,000 people – booked their place in the penultimate round of CONCACAF qualifying for Brazil 2014. “The fans were our lifeblood that night,” continued Dublin, team captain and his country’s most-capped player. “The fans were pumped up, singing and chanting. People came up to us on the street in the days and weeks before the game to give us support.”
In keeping with Antigua’s upstart status on the international football scene, the match was played in a cricket stadium. Nearly ten thousand people packed into the ground hoping to witness the crowning moment in a fairytale run in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying.
We’ve put our tiny country on the map – we have to be the smallest country left in qualifying.
When the final whistle blew and Haiti’s players slumped to the grass in defeat, the Antigua fans, Dublin, the coaching staff, the ball boys in St John’s, all seemed stunned, not fully comprehending. “It was already a great day when the game started,” Dublin added to FIFA.com, reflecting on the team’s run of five wins from six to finish top of their section as top-scorers across the whole of CONCACAF. “When it was over, we didn’t even know how to feel – it was that good.”
Historically, Antigua and Barbuda lack pedigree; their first official international, in 1972, ended in an 11-1 beating by Trinidad and Tobago. They’re usually mired in the lower reaches of the world ranking and have never qualified for CONCACAF’s biennial cup of nations, the Gold Cup. George Dublin, 34, has been ever-present through all the toil and grind. He’s played in 15 FIFA World Cup qualifiers through four cycles and was a member of the team that reached the 2008 and 2010 Caribbean Cups.
A calm, unhurried defender, and a former Trinidadian champion with Joe Public, Dublin has that quiet, unassuming air of a natural defender, an ability to read the game, build from the back and hold things tight under stress. After his stints abroad, Dublin returned home, seemingly resigned to the strictly amateur pitches of his homeland. That all changed earlier this year, with the establishment of Antigua Barracuda, the country’s first fully professional club and a massive boon to Antigua and Barbuda’s footballing fortunes. “Barracuda is the best thing ever to happen to football here,” said Dublin, one of eight Barracudas in the national team starting eleven against Haiti.
Barracuda play their football in the USA’s third professional tier. It’s not the most glamorous league, but it means the world to Antigua and Barbuda. “It’s professional,” said Dublin, noting the not-so-good old days when he and his mates on the islands would work an eight hour shift and then train, exhaustedly, for two or three hours before the sun went down. “Now football is our full-time job, our trade. The difference it’s making is unbelievable.
“We’ve always had good footballers here, but now we have a real team,” he went on, pointing to club and country team-mates like Pete ‘Big Pete’ Byers, scorer of eight goals in qualifying who recently claimed: “Antigua can be a real power in the Caribbean.” It doesn’t hurt the Antigua and Barbuda cause that both teams are coached by young English tactician Tom Curtis. “Having the same coach for both teams is an amazing advantage for us,” Dublin said. Our style, our system, our focus is the same all the time.”
The Antiguan party looks likely to end in the next phase of qualifying, uncharted territory for them. There they will meet up with regional big guns USA, Jamaica and Guatemala, who won all of their qualifying games to date. Even so, Dublin and co fail to see themselves as whipping boys in the group. “They said we couldn’t do what we did, but here we are,” said Dublin, who rates Antigua and Barbuda’s “basic, direct football” as their greatest asset. “We need to do the same things we’ve done and we’ll give them all a run for their money.”
Dublin’s enthusiasm is infectious. “We’ve put our tiny country on the map – we have to be the smallest country left in qualifying,” he enthused, before returning quietly to that win against Haiti, that special night: “I sometimes still can’t believe we did what we did, and it makes me want more. Why not the next round? Why not wearing and Antigua and Barbuda jersey at the World Cup in Brazil?”