The first round of group-stage action in North, Central America and the Caribbean was a festival of shocks as two Caribbean powers tumbled out to ignominiously early exits. While some stars faded, others like Antigua and Barbuda and Guyana set their sights on the heavens. Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama all did what was expected, booking their place in the next round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.

The surprises
 
A quick look at Groups B and F back in August would have led any sane observer of the CONCACAF scene to tap Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti for an easy road to the next round. But Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda had other ideas. The Trinidadians, participants at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and now coached by German tactician Otto Pfister, saw their campaign begin to unravel with a loss to lowly Bermuda. Guyana took full advantage with a 2-1 win on the penultimate matchday that took them through to the semi-final group stage at the expense of the star-studded Soca Warriors and their much-heralded captain Kenwyne Jones. This is the first time since the qualifiers for Spain 1982 that T&T have failed to reach the semi-final round.

Arguably an even greater triumph was pulled off by Antigua and Barbuda, a tiny Caribbean island chain of just under 90,000 people. Coached by young English ace Tom Curtis, and with a recent injection of some much-needed professionalism into the country’s football, the Boyz made easy meat of lesser lights Curacao and US Virgin Islands before edging mighty Haiti on the all-important penultimate day. The triumph was celebrated in St John’s with an enthusiasm and pride befitting the biggest day in the nation’s sporting history.

Group by group
El Salvador ran away with Group A, winning all of their games against Suriname, the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands.  Guyana’s Golden Jaguars were a cut above in Group B, where they shocked Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda and Barbados. Panama – semi-finalists from last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup – finished easily in first place in Group C, which contained only three teams after the Bahamas’ withdrawal early on.

Over in Group D, Canada were inspired by old pro Dwayne De Rosario as they bested an all-Caribbean trio of St. Kitts and Nevis, Puerto Rico and St. Lucia. Central America demi-powers Guatemala strolled through Group E with a perfect six wins from six, all-time top scorer Carlos Ruiz added attacking panache and experience. Group F was ruled by tiny Antigua and Barbuda, who despite being “big underdogs” according to coach Curtis, sent Caribbean giants Haiti packing.

Stars of the round
Peter ‘Big Pete’ Byers is Antigua and Barbuda’s all-time top scorer and his poaching skills were on display, as was the cool calm of captain George Dublin, as the little islanders shocked the competition. Guyana were led by the pace of England-born striker Ricky Shakes, while Panama’s long-serving strike duo of Blas Perez and Luis Tejada combined again to terrorise opposition defences.

Canada’s campaign was sparked by the know-how and leadership of Dwayne De Rosario and wily midfield orchestrations of Julian De Guzman as Guatemala’s goal-littered unbeaten run was down in large part to the cleverness and experience of Carlos ‘El Pescadito’ Ruiz.  El Salvador could point to young gun Mark Blanco and Eliseo Quintanilla for their easy passage through. 

What they said
“This is something you never look forward to and it is something that is always difficult to accept and understand. But it must be a lesson in life for all of us,” Trinidad and Tobago’s German coach Otto Pfister was philosophical after his team's surprise elimination.

“We can go on to become a power in the Caribbean. We can beat anyone on these islands,” Antigua and Barbuda’s top scorer Pete Byers on A&B’s triumph over relative giants Haiti to book a place in the next round.

“We are playing up to our abilities at the moment... I think we have a great chance to make it to the World Cup this time around,” Canada captain Dwayne De Rosario on the team’s current form and his hopes of a finals’ return for the Canucks.

“This is history for Guyana and we created it by showing what belief, determination and a will to accomplish something can do for our lives and our country. It was a moment we dreamed about and we worked together and made it happen,” Jamaal Shabazz after his Guyana team beat his birth-nation of Trinidad for a place in the next round.

“Our first goal was to advance, and we have done that. Now we will focus on the next test, where we will meet some interesting rivals. We have to keep winning,” El Salvador’s Mark Blanco looks ahead after a rampaging first group phase.

The number
26 -
The number of goals scored by surprise side Antigua and Barbuda en route to their first-ever appearance in the semi-final group stage of FIFA World Cup qualifying. With an average of more than four goals a game – and five more overall than closest chasers Guatemala – the big-name opponents in the next stage should fear these free-scoring Wadadli Boyz.

The next round
CONCACAF, third round groups (beginning June 2012)
Group A
USA
Jamaica
Guatemala
Antigua and Barbuda

Group B
Mexico
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Guyana

Group C
Honduras
Cuba
Panama
Canada