Many nautical miles -- and wildly different attitudes -- separate the Old World British Isles and the cool swagger of sun-soaked Antigua and Barbuda. Clash as they do, one thing they have in common is a passion for football. New Antiguan national team coach, Tom Curtis, has one foot in old England and another in the sweltering West Indies.
“It’s not England, that’s for sure,” said the coach, 38, who took the Antigua and Barbuda reins in March after a journeyman playing career in England and first steps into coaching there in the University system. “There are differences all around you,” he added of the multi-island chain, once a colony of the British Empire, with an estimated population of just 85,000. “The expectations are different, the way the game is played is different.”
Curtis for club and country
The young coach was brought in with one simple task: transform Antigua and Barbuda into a footballing hotbed in the Caribbean. A tall order, but Curtis is clearly on the islands to work on more than his tan. After four rounds, Antigua and Barbuda sit shockingly atop Group F in CONCACAF’s first group stage of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. They have won all of their games and have scored a global high of 24 goals, an average of six per match. Not bad for a country who lost its first official international 11-1 to Trinidad and Tobago in 1972.
“We can become a power in the Caribbean,” says Curtis, who played as a defensive midfielder for such clubs as Chesterfield and Portsmouth. It is a sentiment shared by Pete ‘Big Pete’ Byers, Antigua and Barbuda’s all-time top scorer and team leader alongside the likes of England-based Keiran Murtagh, Gayson Gregory and Tamarley Thomas. “We can beat anyone on these islands,” he said. “Our coach [Curtis] is a man who knows what he’s doing and he’s got us fighting and believing.”
As if rebuilding a low-ranked backwater national team from the ground up isn’t enough work for Curtis, it’s only half of his new job. He’s also head coach of the country’s only professional team, Antigua Barracuda. Far from dragging him in too many directions, the two hats Curtis wears have made the national team stronger as it gives much-needed discipline, familiarity and steel.
“It makes sense for me to coach both teams as most of the players in the national team also play for Barracuda,” admitted an undaunted Curtis to FIFA.com. “We travel together and are very disciplined. The players are used to my strategies and my approach, and all of this can only help the national team.”
Eight of the 11 starters from Antigua and Barbuda’s last qualifier, a 10-0 drubbing of the US Virgin Islands, were members of the Barracuda professional side, a team with a dream and a taxing travel schedule. Playing in only their first season, the St. John’s-based team are one of precious few professional outfits in the Caribbean who play their football off the islands, in the third tier of the professional system in the USA. “It’s a complicated situation: being based here but competing away in the US,” said the coach, who takes Barracuda on grueling road trips, some as far as 5000-plus miles to Los Angeles, during an abbreviated, six-month season. “It’s a grind, but it’s one of the reasons we’re so tight and so strong as a national team as well. We come up against hardships and we have to handle them.”
Memories of ’96 fuel Haitian hopes
This hard-drilled national team from Antigua and Barbuda are now set to face their sternest test yet. Big wins over makeweights USVI and Curacao are one thing, but next week they face Haiti, a FIFA World Cup finalist from 1974 and a top team in the Caribbean. “Haiti are the favourites and there is no denying that,” said Curtis. “We will be the underdogs, but we’ve been scoring a lot of goals and playing fast, attacking football and I think we can pull it off.”
Curtis’s cautious confidence has the weight of history behind it. Playing for unfancied club Chesterfield in 1996, he was part of one of the greatest FA Cup shock runs in history. He and his lowly Spireites roared to the semi-final of the world’s most-famous Cup competition with a shock win over then-Premier Leaguers Nottingham Forrest, so he knows something about what it takes to slay a giant. “In 1996 we had a good team, but what we had more of was a sense of togetherness and a belief in ourselves – and this is something we have here in Antigua and Barbuda right now. It could just be our time.”