“They said we couldn’t do what we did, but here we are,” Antigua and Barbuda captain George Dublin told FIFA.com on the eve of the biggest game in his small country’s history, a massive date with USA. “We’ll give them a run for their money.”
The Antiguans made a fairytale run through the preliminary qualifying rounds in CONCACAF for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, breathing much-needed life into an oft-times predictable region. Previously unheralded, the intrepid Wadadli Boys ousted Haiti with a fast-paced, free-scoring style, and finished top of their group. Now they join the big boys in the penultimate stage, facing the mighty Americans, one of the region’s true powers on 8 June.
Antigua and Barbuda is tough to find on even the most detailed maps, tucked away in the Leeward Islands with a population of around 80,000 – well under the capacity of the LA Coliseum and New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. “We put our country on the map,” said team top-scorer, ‘Big' Pete Byers. “But it would be too easy to feel happy with what we’ve done up to now. There’s a long way to go.”
It is difficult to stress just how unlikely an Antigua and Barbuda win over the US, four-time CONCACAF champions and nine-time FIFA World Cup participants, ranked 29th in the world, would be. The islanders have never faced a team as organised, accomplished, deep or talented as the Stars and Stripes, who recently dismantled Scotland 5-1 in a friendly. But football is played on a pitch, not on paper.
“We are scared of no one,” said Byers, resisting assertions that his team’s dream is set for a rude end. “We give our all and fight the whole way. We are speedy and like to play direct, over the top, and we are organised.”
They will need all that speed and organisation when they line up against the US in Tampa, Florida. American coach Jurgen Klinsmann is eager to get his qualifying campaign going properly after an up-and-down start to his stint Stateside. “Now qualifying is here and the job is simple: get the points you need to get you through,” said the former Germany and Inter Milan playing legend.
Club and country unite
The statement has ominous overtones for Antigua coach Tom Curtis, but his side have been punching well above their weight in the most successful year of their footballing history. And having to battle through six games of the preliminary rounds will mean the team might well be able to surprise the Americans with their cohesiveness.
“We are the underdogs, there is no denying that,” said Curtis, a former professional in England and an ambitious tactician. “I am optimistic that we’ll give a really good account of ourselves and certainly compete with one of the best squads in the world [US]. So I am very positive.”
Curtis is also coach of Antigua Barracuda FC, who, incidentally, play their club football in the United States’ third professional tier. There’s an advantage in the coach wearing two hats, as he named 17 members of his club in his 25-man national team traveling party to Florida. “Obviously the players will be used to my approach,” laughed Curtis, who also tapped eight England-based players, including Reading standout Mikele Leigertwood. “We travel together and train together all the time.”
Dublin, a cultured and experienced defender at 34 years of age, is in full agreement with his club and national boss: “Having the same coach is a huge advantage. Our style, our system and our focus are the same all the time.”
“Teams in our region are getting and better all the time; it won’t be easy,” Landon Donovan, USA veteran and one of the top players ever to come out of the CONCACAF zone told FIFA.com recently. Judging by the infectious confidence evident in the Antiguan camp, the Americans might be in for a long day. Burly marksman Byers has the final word: “We can beat anyone.”