St. Kitts and Nevis stand out in the anonymous cluster of Caribbean islands that makes up the lower reaches of the CONCACAF zone. Tucked away on the dividing line between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the tiny dual-island nation are riding a wave of homespun enthusiasm, attacking football and budding professionalism.
“When you’re playing for your country, you’re playing for blood,” the team’s captain Atiba Harris told FIFA.com. Having left the island at 17, Harris, who can fill in at full-back, winger and striker, now 31, is the leader of the side and the most famous sportsman ever to emerge from the islands of just over 60,000 inhabitants. “You’re representing your mom and your dad, your grandma and granddad. There’s urgency. It’s close to your heart.”
Harris never spurns an opportunity to return to the capital of Basseterre, near the Parish of St. Peter’s and Monkey Hill where he grew up. In the space of a decade he is lined up for no fewer than six Major League Soccer sides and currently calls FC Dallas home, returning to the club after an earlier stint in 2009. Cousin of former English international Micah Richards, his presence was crucial in a pair of March wins that not only saw the Sugar Boyz move into the second round of the 2017 Caribbean Cup qualifying stages, but also ride a rocket up the FIFA/Coca-Cola world ranking.
In wins over Aruba and Antigua and Barbuda, Jacques Passy’s side scored three goals and conceded none. The stinginess at the back addressed a consistent problem that Harris is not shy talking about. “We concede too many goals. Always.” he remarked about a problem common to teams in the fatter end of the CONCACAF triangle, sides who generally play only rarely.
“He is the face of professional football for St. Kitts and Nevis," said former national team coach and player Leonard Taylor of Harris, who has been the idol of Kittian football since making his debut back in 2003. "He is a complete player and he learned his trade here on the islands, so the other guys look up to him.” Harris is indeed a guide to the younger boys like Henry Panayiotou, on loan from English Premier League leaders Leicester City and Walsall’s Romaine Sawyers, who represent a new generation of Sugar Boyz eager to make a name abroad.
Eyes on and turns abroad
The recent upturn in fortunes has the tiny islanders higher in the global ranking ladder than ever before. They’re now 11th in CONCACAF, ahead of both Canada and El Salvador. The jump of 29 points means they’re the fifth-ranked Caribbean country, behind only giants like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. And 92nd is the high-water mark for the country, who went out of Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying after a goal-littered pair of games with El Salvador. They scored an outrageous 15 goals in the space of their four qualifying ties, but they were unable to keep the ball out – a problem Harris and Co are hoping has been sorted since.
The pair of results move St. Kitts and Nevis into the second round of qualifying for the 2017 Caribbean Cup, where they will play St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname in June. On offer for at least four of the 24 participating nations are places in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament St Kitts have never reached before. Their best achievement to date is a second-place finish in the 1997 Caribbean Cup.
As for why St Kitts are suddenly making their move in the region, the man to ask is Harris, the iconic captain. “The talent’s always been here on these islands. But now the players are getting opportunities and taking them,” he said of the trend he largely started more than a decade ago. “They’re making use of a bigger stage and people are paying attention.”