Belize needed a new hero against the Cayman Islands. The biggest name in the nation’s football, jet-heeled striker Deon McCaulay, was absent. So the job fell to an unlikely campaigner.

The humble Elroy Kuylen, a sturdy veteran, stepped reluctantly into the shock of the spotlight. “When you’re chasing history, someone has to step up,” the 31-year-old midfield grafter told FIFA.com about Belize’s unsteady start to 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying.

Belize are outsiders compared to Central American neighbours Costa Rica and Honduras – and even Panama. But these minnows are on the march, steadily improving their football and climbing the CONCACAF pyramid on both club and country fronts. Their biggest star, McCaulay, wasn’t called up for the games against the Caymans, left instead in Atlanta, Georgia where he plays with the Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League, USA’s second professional tier.

No Deon, no goals
“Oh man, did we miss Deon,” said Kuylen, who played two years in Honduras before landing at local club giants Belmopan Bandits. “If we get him through five times, you know he’ll score at least two. That’s a guarantee."

McCaulay scored 11 goals in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers to finish top of the global strikers’ table above Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. “You can’t teach his kind of composure,” Kuylen said, a clear respect for his country's all-time top scorer.

McCaulay is held in high esteem, but there was nothing he could do all those miles away in the USA. Without him, the goals dried up. The Caymans slammed the door shut and earned a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Belmopan. Jitters set in among McCaulay’s replacements in the frontline. Jarett Davis and Daniel Jimenez carved out chances, but never looked like scoring.

“The Caymans played defence the whole time,” said Kuylen, with a gentle voice and calm manner. “We created so many chances, but without Deon we couldn’t finish.” In the second leg, in George Town, Kuylen knew his side needed a goal. “That would probably be enough,” he said.

Kuylen is a midfielder without flash. “He’s a hard worker,” said Brazil-born Belize coach Jorge Nunez. “He’ll push until there’s nothing left.” He’s also the team’s free-kick specialist. He stays behind after training and curls his best efforts toward the corners. When Belize went down 1-0 after five minutes, the idea of set-pieces began to gather like a storm cloud in the midfielder’s mind.

“I practice them all the time; you can believe that,” said Kuylen, who hails from Orange Walk Town in the sugar-producing heart of Belize. "I take all the free-kicks for my club and for the national team too. My coaches make sure there’s time for me to take at least 30 or 40 after practice so I’ll be ready when the time comes.”

When the time did come, the pressure was on. Belize were on the verge of going out at the first hurdle; they were scoreless in 110 minutes of football. Kuylen stood over the ball 23 yards out on the right side of the box. He breathed deeply, remembering the twilight dead-ball sessions in Belmopan, by himself after training. How the balls curled, one after the other, into the net. He blocked out the noise of the cocky Cayman crowd.

“When the ball went in, I could breathe again,” he said of his wicked curler that went over the wall and low into the corner. Only his second goal for the national team, it sent Belize through to the next round on the slimmest margin of away goals. “I felt a wave of relief wash over me.”

Belize’s time
An outlier in Central America, the country formerly known as British Honduras has stepped up their game since putting their toes in the water of international competition in the middle 1990s. They are now a low-level contender, not to be taken lightly. An appearance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup of 2013 is a signal of that progress.

“History motivates us right now,” said Kuylen, part of a golden generation that includes goalkeeper Shane Orio and free-scoring McCaulay. “History lasts forever, you know, and we want to make it. We want to open doors for the young boys coming behind. It’s our time now in Belize,” he added sombrely, remembering when his country were easy-beats, walkovers.

Belize next face a stern test in the form of the Dominican Republic, another side on the up in the lower reaches of the CONCACAF pyramid. McCaulay will be back, a relief to all in the team. “We’re working on our system for the Dominican series,” Kuylen said, coyly.

That system will likely include feeding the ball through the channels to the clinical McCaulay. But quiet hero Kuylen will keep practicing his free-kicks in the fading sun of the Belmopan twilight, just in case.