“We’re scared of no one,” said Peter Byers from his sun-splashed home in Antigua and Barbuda. Occasionally over-confidence and unrealistic statements comes out of some of the lesser corners of the Caribbean Sea, but when the Antiguan speaks of his side’s chances, it all sounds somehow believable. There is a weight behind the whimsical lilt of his island accent, a confidence that comes with goals and results. “We give our all, we fight and we do our best,” says the man nicknamed 'Big Pete.'
Antigua and Barbuda, a former British colony whose entire population of just under 85,000 wouldn’t be able to fill Mexico’s Azteca Stadium, are on the crest of a wave. The Wadadi Boyz, nicknamed after a colourful local dance, are tied for first place in their group after two games of FIFA World Cup qualifying. Hulking striker Byers, who dyes his hair red as a show of national pride, is a major reason for the team’s surprising position.
“It’s a great feeling playing for my country,” he recently told FIFA.com. “It means everything to me.” Byers, who made his first appearance for his national team at the age of 16, has scored no fewer than five goals in the Antiguans’ first two games, an 8-1 win on the road in the US Virgin Islands and a 5-2 triumph over Curacao at home in St John’s. “I love to score goals for my country; it’s a cool thing and it fills me with pride,” added Byers, who is in second place in the top scorer’s race in these early stages of CONCACAF qualifying, and third globally.
“These are only the first early steps,” said Byers, now 26 and playing in his third qualifying campaign. “But we are off to a flying start and we can have no complaints. We need to keep it up, though, because it would be too easy just to sit back and feel happy with what we’ve done so far. There’s still a long way to go.”
One reason for the team’s marked improvement is their new coach, 38-year-old Englishman Tom Curtis. A former defensive midfielder with stints at Portsmouth and Derby County, the young, eager tactician is head coach of the national team as well as the country’s pre-eminent club power, Antigua Barracuda FC, who play in the third tier of the professional hierarchy of the United States. Eight of the Antiguan starting 11 who lined up against USVI and Curacao come from Barracudas, with Byers himself splitting time between the club and the nascent Los Angeles Blues of the same USL league.
“This [national] team has been together for a while now,” said Byers. “It’s a much better team than in past years. Our coach keeps us focused and organised. He’s a man who knows how to defend and he’s got us fighting.”
Byers has had spells with Montreal Impact and Trinidadian outfit San Juan Jabloteh, was targeted by MLS side San Jose Earthquakes after scoring an astonishing 73 goals in 71 games with his first club, SAP. The burly striker’s professional experience and nose for goal are one of the primary reasons that Antigua and Barbuda are on the up, although he is eager to pass off some of the credit to his team-mates. “We play tough and hard,” he said, before unveiling the secret to the team’s recent success. “We like to play the long ball over the top because we have some speedy strikers,” (himself and Barracuda mate Gayson Gregory chief among them).
After two more games against the Virgin Islands and Curacao, Byers and co will run into a much stiffer test in the form of Haiti, FIFA World Cup finalists in 1974 and one of the powers of the Caribbean zone. “We can beat Haiti,” he said, an edge of assurance in his voice. “They will have to come to our turf in St. John’s and we will not make it easy for them.”
Byers is confident that now could just be the time for his unlikely underdogs from the sun-soaked Leeward Islands, whose biggest triumph to date was a fourth-place finish in the 1998 Caribbean Cup. “We can become a power in the Caribbean,” he concluded, a seriousness and slowness to his words. “We can beat anyone in these islands.”