For some nations, moving up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to position number 171 would be of little significance. But for all those working to help the beautiful game grow in the Dominican Republic, the news is encouraging, particularly for those dreaming of one day seeing their beloved Quisqueyanos at the finals of a FIFA World Cup™.
The President of the Dominican Football Federation (DFF), Osiris Guzmán, has said on numerous occasions: "If Haiti can reach the World Cup, then we can too." It was thus in 2004, after the national team had crashed out of the qualifiers for Germany 2006 at the hands of eventual finalists Trinidad and Tobago, that Guzmán laid the foundation stone of a ten-year plan aimed at qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Teething troublesOne of the main problems with football in the Caribbean nation is that it is a relatively new sport and still to flourish at grassroots level. With the DFF founded as recently as 1953 and only affiliated to FIFA in 1959, it was not until 1965 that football reached the schools and playing grounds of the Dominican Republic, thanks in the main to the efforts of Fortunato Quispe Mendoza. From an infrastructure standpoint, it was also Mendoza who established the various playing categories and set up the country's first division championship.
In spite of these efforts, today football remains the country's fifth most popular sport. As well as being a relatively new discipline for the Dominicans, efforts to nurture the sport have not been helped by the lack of success of the national team, who have still to qualify for any tournament of significance at either senior or youth level, and a national league that struggles to attract a viewing audience or fan base.
The sport that enjoys huge popular appeal is baseball, unsurprising given that more than a hundred Dominican peloteros are presently lighting up the Big Leagues in the USA. After that comes basketball, volleyball, athletics, and only then football. "Although that's the reality," says Guzmán, "in Venezuela, another country with a huge baseball culture, football has made inroads. I believe it will happen here too."
Support and encouraging signs
Local officials, working tirelessly to accelerate the growth of football in the Dominican Republic, have found an ally and helping hand in FIFA. In 2005, under the auspices of FIFA's Com-Unity Programme, delegates agreed on the need for better marketing and communication initiatives to develop the sport. Speaking at the time, Guzmán said: "This (programme) will mark a watershed in the history of our football."
Early signs of progress can be seen in the development of the national U-20 side, who have just qualified for the second phase of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in Canada next year. Particularly impressive have been Kerbi Rodríguez and Jonathan Fana, two talented youngsters with bright futures. Unfortunately, the team's success has generated little interest in the local media.
Current national team coach Ljubomir Crnokrak is also aware of what the sport is up against. "It's clear that we lack financial resources, but these youngsters have real quality. The potential for Dominican football is enormous. Yet for all of that, the papers give us no coverage. Even one or two lines a week would be an additional motivation for the players," said the Croat.
Despite a lack of friendlies, the Quisqueyanos are confidently looking ahead to the Copa Caribe Digicel 2007, which serves as the qualifying tournament for the CONCACAF Gold Cup USA 2007. In their first-round Group C games, scheduled for 26-30 September, the team will take on Bermuda (160th in the rankings), the British Virgin Islands (167th) and the US Virgin Islands (193rd). To keep their qualifying dreams alive, they must finish among the top two. Long term, though, their goal remains a historic first appearance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.