We look at football in the US Virgin Islands
COVID-19 pandemic is being seized as an opportunity
National coach Gilberto Damiano explains more
The COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc globally for over a year now, and sport has certainly not been spared by the virus. Most stadiums still remain empty or are just partially filled, with tournaments and qualifiers either postponed or cancelled altogether.
While most places ground to a halt, the US Virgin Islands took their football fate into their own hands and made a virtue out of necessity. "There are always two ways of looking at things. Either you wait it out and hope that things somehow improve, or you roll up your sleeves and do something about it," said the country’s national team coach Gilberto Damiano to FIFA.com.
"We began things back in March 2020 when we had to go into lockdown. We sat down together and worked out what we could do, and came up with a three-part plan, each stage lasting two years."
"This involves analysing every area to become more professional, including administration and social media. We are looking at other national associations and trying to adapt things."
Analysis of the first phase and planning further adaptations.
"This is about full-scale implementation and reaping the harvest that we sowed in the previous four years."
"This job for me is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life,” says Damiano, a veritable globetrotter who took over the reins of the Dashing Eagles in 2019. “I’m working in a place where everyone knows one another, and the effect of that is enormous. When you actually put something in place that makes things better, people notice it straight away. You can’t put a price on the gratitude and often it’s a lot nicer than working in a big club somewhere in another part of the world."
Damiano was born in Brazil, then emigrated to the UK in 2001, working with a number of teams after that, as a coach with Cardiff City and also in Italy. "The beauty of football is its mix of cultures. I have futsal roots from my time in Brazil, I appreciate the Italian mentality when it comes to defending and English football, which seems to be coming on every year,” he says.
The 44-year-old now spends most of his time in London, and prior to the pandemic, he went to the US Virgin Islands at least once a month. These days, almost all communication is via video. He makes an online call to his team at least six times a week to work on the players’ fitness and tactical understanding, in addition to all sorts of meetings with the local coaches. "I’ve learnt so much over the past months,” he explains. "Our players are based in France, Australia, USA, Antigua and the US Virgin Islands. We now have more coaches on site and we’re on the right track."
Damiano intends to leave behind a legacy for the US Virgin Islands. "At some point, someone else will be sitting here at my desk and will hopefully be grateful for what we’ve achieved,” he says. “It’s all about the people. I love it. Football is not the most popular sport on the US Virgin Islands, so the main thing that we’re trying to do is to reach young people and get them interested – they can achieve something with us not just as players but as coaches or volunteers. The sky’s the limit."
Three main islands: Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas
50 or so other smaller islands
Located in the Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico
Population: c. 110,000
US Virgin Islands Soccer Federation (USVISF) founded in 1987
Joined FIFA in 1998
Football on US Virgin Islands: Gilberto Damiano
Football on US Virgin Islands: Gilberto Damiano
Things may not be easy for this tiny Caribbean nation, but they are making the best of things, in particular thanks to support from FIFA.
"FIFA is the key to football’s success on the US Virgin Islands,” the coach says. “The support that we have received from FIFA is amazing. It’s the only way that we can drive change here. FIFA believes in the same things as we do – put people first and give them opportunities to let them grow. Football is the best way of doing that. I am really grateful to be part of the process and to have FIFA alongside us."
As well as the enormous amounts of development work, play will finally be getting under way at the end of March in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. The country’s first opponents in Concacaf Group A will be Antigua and Barbuda, whom they face on 27 March. El Salvador, Montserrat and Grenada make up the rest of the group.
"We need to establish what our goals are," Damiano explains. “We want to go into every match with the belief that we can win. We want to go toe-to-toe with the opposition. There are no easy groups when it comes to qualifying for a World Cup. Everyone wants to win because each individual is representing their home country. We have a good mix of young and experienced players. Qualifying will be a good test regarding what we’re doing here. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead."
"J.C. Mack has played in New Zealand and is now in Australia. He’s a great attacker who can win a game for you all on his own."
"We have three goalkeepers in Lionel Brown, Carlos Quezada and Erik Mozzo who are all ready to represent their country."
"Our centre-backs are much along the lines of modern defenders. They can defend and clear the ball where necessary, but they can also string some good passes together."
"Up front we have Mack along with a bunch of young and hungry players."
"Overall, we have a very flexible team that can play in different formations, depending on who we’re up against."