“We’re all alone up here,” Mark Wade chuckled, a smile hiding some hard truth in his words about his island nation. He is Vice President of the FA in Bermuda, a small island 700 miles off the coast of North Carolina. Pull your atlas down off the shelf, or do a quick internet search for Bermuda, and there you will find it: a tiny dot of land alone in the middle of the North Atlantic. “It’s not easy for us,” Andrew Bascome, Bermuda’s national team coach chimed in to FIFA.com.
On the football map, Bermuda is clumped in the Caribbean section of the CONCACAF Zone, but the island of just under 65,000 falls well north of the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. To reach the likes of Trinidad and Tobago or Jamaica requires a flight to Miami first, and potentially, several layovers. Usually, it’s hours and hours of tiring travel. “We don’t play enough games,” added coach Bascome, 52, who piles rough ropes of dreadlock up under colourful swatches of cloth. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim to keep a high standard."
Next week, the Bermudans travel to Nassau to kick off their 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign against Bahamas. And far from using isolation and logistical woes as excuses, the coach, who took over the reins in 2012, aims to make big waves. “We want to get more in line with the modern game,” he said, pointing at a move away from the all-speed wingers and lumbering target-men that once dominated Caribbean football. “We’ll press high and move the ball quick.”
From pitch to touchline
Bascome knows Bermuda’s football better than most. He played for North Village Community Club, a rival of Dandy Town Hornets for island supremacy. He represented the national team at both senior and youth levels. Named the island’s top player when he was 18, a move to Dutch giants Ajax looked in the offing. But Bascome suffered a knee injury that stalled his career on the pitch. “That’s when I started taking coaching courses,” he said, enthusiasm welling in his voice when he talks about the tricks and methods he employs on the touchline. “I was hooked. I was amazed that you could teach this game, make players enjoy it more.”
When he talks about his hopes for his native Bermuda, Bascome sounds like a hybrid of Diego Simeone, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola - all the world’s feted and extravagantly paid managers. But, putting it all in context: Bermuda have never come close to reaching a World Cup. They have never reached a CONCACAF Gold Cup. They’ve never even reached the Caribbean Cup. But according to Bascome and his hand-picked backroom staff, now is the time.
“It’s the best Bermuda team I’ve ever seen,” said John Barry Nusum, top scorer from Bermuda’s previous qualifying campaign, and now Bascome’s assistant coach. The FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking backs up the enthusiasm pervading the island. The Bermudans moved up 11 places in the global pecking order thanks to some positive recent results, including a draw and a win against Grenada. Bermuda now sit 169th out of 209 nations.
The team is a combination of University players based in the USA, a handful of pros from England’s lower leagues and a steely backbone of local amateurs. “Bermuda has always produced talent, but it’s raw talent,” Bascome said, noting the lack of a lone shining star like previous Bermudan heroes Khano Smith and Manchester City hit-man Shaun Goater before him. “We’re a young team now.
Leaving the British behind
“We want to get away from the old English influence,” Bascome said of his home island, a British colony with the Union Jack on its flag. “Caribbean teams for so long were all about long balls into the box.” That has all changed now, Bascome insists. “We’ve got young players and they’ve grown up watching Barcelona on TV.”
Bascome's voice turns almost pious when discussing the core of amateur players in his squad, who play for nothing more than a love of Bermuda and love of football. “It’s not easy for the local boys. They’re on the training pitch at six in the morning and then they’re off to their jobs,” he said. “Most knock off work at four or five in the afternoon and they’re back under the floodlights at seven.”
The rivalry with Bahamas, Bermuda’s closest island neighbour, just under 1000 miles away, is described as “friendly.” The two delegations were seated side-by-side at the CONCACAF Draw in Miami, and Vice President Wade admitted: “the banter started early that night.”
Leg one of the home-away series is away in Nassau, which Bascome sees as an advantage. “We’ll keep it compact and make it hard for them to break us down,” he said of the Bahamas, who sit well below Bermuda in the rankings. “No disrespect intended, but we’ll go right at them.”
The second game, at home in Hamilton, represents a double-edged sword for Bermuda. “The fans here are crazy about football and their standards are quite high,” the coach said. “If we’re not playing the kind of football they like, they’ll let us know.” So, if boos rain down from the stands, the innovative Bascome, much like his home island amid the swelling waves of the blue Atlantic, will be all on his own.
Ambitious and courageous, though, this coach would not have it any other way. “I want good football as much as they do,” he says, trotting off to another training session.