St. Lucia get the wind in their sails
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Though football dates back over a century, the professional game only got going in St. Lucia, a small island in the Caribbean Sea, just over 25 years ago. The St. Lucian national team have not exactly taken the world by storm over the last two and a half decades, but they have experienced a distinct upturn in fortunes as of late. Indeed, they currently sit 133rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for May, some eight places higher than in April.

One of the Windward Islands, so called after the prevailing trade winds that ships encounter in the region when sailing from Europe towards the Americas, St. Lucia made their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying debut in 1992 – just four years after becoming a FIFA member.

Their maiden outing would prove far from plain sailing, as they were knocked out of contention for USA 1994 in the first round, falling 3-2 on aggregate to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of this first step should not be underestimated: the country had officially raised anchor in the choppy seas of world football, ending a year they will never forget ranked 157th in the world.

Learning the ropes
Despite cutting their teeth in friendlies and various Caribbean competitions, St. Lucia foundered at the first time of asking on the road to France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002, Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, coming a cropper against stronger opposition and failing even to reach the first group stage of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying.

Brazil 2014, however, gave the country a second wind in the shape of a more favourable first-round draw against Aruba. The first leg was played in the Aruban capital of Oranjestad on 8 July 2011 and finished 4-2 to the hosts. However, St. Lucia turned things around in the home leg four days later, coming out on top by the same scoreline and forcing a penalty shoot-out, which they won in thrilling fashion (5-4) to seal a place in the second round.

Placed in Group D alongside Canada, Puerto Rico and St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia struggled and chalked up a disappointing record of five defeats and a draw, scoring a solitary goal (away against St. Kitts and Nevis). Gaining just a single point from the 18 available did nothing for their hopes of rising in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and they brought the curtain down on 2011 in 185th position, having hovered around this mark throughout the year.

With their World Cup dream once again over, St. Lucia focused on regional competitions, including the Windward Islands Tournament, revived in May 2013 after a 12-year hiatus following the inaugural edition. They went on to finish joint top of the four-team league-format competition on six points, together with Grenada, but missed out on the trophy on goal difference. Nevertheless, this good showing propelled Francis Lastic's men up to 140th in the ranking.

Left with a feeling of unfinished business, St. Lucia were desperate to go one better when the tournament came around again this past April and made no mistake. After opening their campaign with a 2-0 victory over Dominica, they edged past Granada and then rounded off with a goalless draw against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, finishing top of the pile on seven points, two ahead of the now-deposed Spice Boyz.

This triumph took St. Lucia up to the heady heights of 133rd in May's ranking, a reflection of the major headway they have made in recent times. Now they have their sights set on the group stage of CONCACAF qualifying for Russia 2018, where they will continue to push the boat out in a bid to bring more joy to the fans on the long voyage towards a place at the World Cup finals.