Have boots, will travel
It is a long way in every sense from the tiny Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis to Indonesia, Asia’s third-most populace nation. That, however, is exactly the journey undertaken by veteran striker Keith Gumbs. The voyage has been a long and circuitous one, with stints across three continents and including clubs in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Greece, Trinidad and Tobago and of course in the land of his birth.
There were also various spells trialling in England and even with Palmeiras in Brazil for this footballing troubadour. Not that ‘Kayamba’, as he is affectionately known in his homeland, is simply another footballer plying his trade wherever a contract is on offer. Keith Gumbs just happens to be his nation's most decorated footballer, having played in three FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaigns, accruing well over 100 caps in the process.
Now at an age when most footballers are enjoying a well-deserved retirement, Gumbs - despite turning 38 last week - is still going strong. Indeed, further international matches await next month in the Caribbean Cup, where St. Kitts and Nevis will attempt the long road towards qualification for the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. There is also the small matter of Gumbs being the reigning Indonesia Super League Player of the Year thanks to a haul of 14 goals for Sriwijaya last term. No minor feat in a highly competitive league that draws some of Asia’s best domestic crowds.
Football and culture
The Keith Gumbs story began over two decades ago in the capital of the island nation, Basseterre, where he served local club Newtown with distinction for many years. Gumbs is said to be the most prolific goalscorer in the Caribbean, having scored almost 200 goals during his career in the region. A prolific strike-rate earned Gumbs the top scorer award for six consecutive years in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Then the travel bug kicked in. Having had numerous small tastes of the various flavours available overseas while representing his country, Gumbs departed the confines of Basseterre and has never looked back. After trying his luck in England, a stint in Greece was the first lengthy stop, before a return to the Caribbean and top Trinidad and Tobago club San Juan Jabloteh. Then came the move to Happy Valley in Hong Kong, and it was in Asia that Kayamba found his niche. Further successful stints followed with Sabah in Malaysia and a return to Hong Kong with Kitchee, before the move to Indonesia.
Such a transient lifestyle would tire many but not Gumbs, who finds integrating into new cultures, even ones so far removed from home, invigorating. “I have been travelling and enjoying it since I was 15 years old,” he explained. “Through football I have found very interesting people. I have learnt so much from my experiences and learnt things I could not have learnt in a classroom. It has made me appreciate life even more.”
Indonesia obviously appreciates Gumbs just as wholeheartedly, and he has enjoyed significant success since arriving in the city of Palembang in Sumatra three years ago. Two qualifications for the AFC Champions League and two cup wins are a testament to Gumbs’ influence, something he hopes to maintain as Sriwijaya captain during the upcoming Indonesia Super League campaign, which commences next month.
Located at the northern end of the Leeward Islands chain of the West Indies, the two islands which comprise St.Kitts and Nevis measure just 250 square kilometres and have a population of around 40,000. Gumbs, having earned the nation’s Medal of Honour, is unquestioned football royalty in his homeland, where football has become the national sport, even usurping cricket over recent years.
The country only featured in FIFA World Cup qualifying for the first time in 1996, with Gumbs scoring in their first outing, a 5-1 victory over St. Lucia. The qualifying campaign for Germany 2006 proved to be a zenith for St. Kitts and Nevis as they reached the second stage, where they were pitted against eventual qualifiers Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago. It also conversely proved a low point for Gumbs, who was inexplicably excluded from the team for a period. “That was a big disappointment to not play against Mexico and try and show the quality in our team," he recalled.
Not that the adventure is over yet, of course, with next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifiers on the horizon, where St.Kitts and Nevis face Barbados, Montserrat and host nation St. Vincent/Grenadines. And it seems that the influence of 'Kayamba' has paved the way for other local stars to advance in the beautiful game, most notably midfielder Atiba Harris, who is making his name with MLS side Chivas USA.
Gumbs, who cites his family as his most notable achievement to date, still has some roads to travel on his journey. The fit and still pacy striker has no immediate plans to retire, but is interested in turning to coaching when he finally hangs up his well-worn boots. And the anecdotes will surely be many and varied in the years to come when the conversation turns to the football journey of Keith 'Kayamba' Gumbs.