“Now we know what we’re up against,” insisted Tom Curtis, the young coach of Caribbean minnows Antigua and Barbuda, who stretched USA and drew with Jamaica in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying earlier this summer. “We’d never been at this level before, but now there are no more surprises. If we’re bang on our game, we can get results.”
A tiny island cluster of around 80,000 people in the sun-soaked Leeward Islands, Antigua and Barbuda have next to no international profile. But the ambitious Wadadli Boyz are not overawed and they’re raising eyebrows all over the region. Speedy and compact, they were a tough nut for four-time CONCACAF champions USA to crack back in June in Florida. After going down 2-0, Curtis brought on ace striker Pete ‘Big Pete’ Byers, who scored sensationally to set up a tense finish. The David-Goliath affair eventually ended 3-1 for the States, but Klinsmann and Co knew they’d been in a game.
Most coaches would have been happy to be competitive, given the gulf in class, international ranking and overall pedigree. But not Curtis, who as a player in 1996, reached the FA Cup semi-final in a shock run with Chesterfield. “Competing well was just part of the plan,” Curtis told FIFA.com. “We wanted to be organised and make it difficult for the them to play against us. But our goal isn’t just to compete, it’s to get results. I feel we could have gotten more from the game, and that’s just what we’ll aim to do when they come to play us here in the return leg.”
The Antiguans home ground wasn’t even built for football, but the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium was rocking four days later when Curtis’s cries for results were answered. “We were much better against Jamaica,” the 38-year-old Englishman said of the goalless draw against their Caribbean neighbours, who participated at France 1998. “We were stronger and more aggressive. We kept the ball and it was a step up from the US game.”
Curtis, who also coaches club side Antigua Barracuda, where the vast majority of his national team play in the USA’s third professional tier, is not a man to be content with a cosmetic draw. “We should have won that game,” he said. “We made more chances than they did. You could tell the fans were disappointed, and that’s a good thing. They believe and so do we.”
The nearly 10,000 fans who attended the Jamaica draw represented a record attendance for a football match in St John, Antigua and Barbuda’s capital, and the game had the feel of a cup final. “A lot of Jamaicans live here in Antigua, so both teams had their backers,” said Curtis. “The support was amazing and the atmosphere was really inspiring.”
Decisive Guatemalan double-header
Up next for Curtis and his men are a pair of clashes with Guatemala, who they are tied with at the foot of Group A. With only the top two teams from each section moving on to the final hexagonal round, the games are vitally important for both sides. First up is a visit to the intimidating Estadio Mateo Flores – where the Guatemalans managed a draw with USA – before a trip back to the Viv Richards Cricket Ground four days later.
“We’ve worked on making the right kind of preparations – hotels and training facilities,” said Curtis, eager to show his upstart side and their FA aren’t some fly-by-night operation, naïve to the peculiar challenges of away matches in the CONCACAF zone. “The logistics are important, and we’ve done everything we can to make it so the players only have to worry about showing up and playing football.”
With 17 members of the team coming from the Barracuda side that finished their season disappointingly in last place at the weekend, the Antiguans will be fighting fit for the upcoming contests. As expected, Curtis won’t be happy with competitive performances to keep up appearances. “We want to get through the next two games in shape to reach the final round,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a win and a draw or a win and win, but we’re aiming to reach that final round, nothing less.”