How a 31-year-old from Suffolk is transforming the Cayman Islands
Cayman Islands head coach Ben Pugh speaks with FIFA.com
The former Ipswich Town academy coach talks about his journey
He previews his team's upcoming World Cup qualifiers with Suriname and Canada
The Cayman Islands have never won a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match in their entire history.
But that could finally be changing in the near future thanks to a 31-year-old from Shotley, a small village outside Ipswich. Ben Pugh took over as the national team head coach and director of coaching for the Cayman Islands Football Association (CIFA) in July 2019. At the time, the team were hovering just over the very bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in 206th.
After six matches in League C in the Concacaf Nations League in 2019, the Cayman Islands, a group of islands with a total population of around 65,000 people, recorded four wins—a 3-2 victory over Barbados the most notable—all before Pugh turned 30. That successful campaign has seen them rise to 193rd in the latest release of the ranking.
But what’s behind this rise and who exactly is Ben Pugh?
After working at Ipswich Town for eight years in a variety of roles mainly focused on youth development, Pugh got an offer to coach a club in the Cayman Islands and it felt like the perfect time for him to take all of his learnings and experiences and put them to the test.
Success with the club saw him move on to be an assistant with the national team before moving into the top job in July 2019. He has helped write the philosophies and style of play for CIFA, which is being implemented throughout all age levels. His emphasis on youth is fully reflected in the national team, which is effectively a U-23 side with players as young as 16 and 17 training regularly with the first team.
“It’s been an excellent life and learning experience,” Pugh told FIFA.com. “Living in a different country comes with its own challenges, but it was a risk I was willing to take to try something a little bit different. I’ve had opportunities here that maybe I wouldn’t have had back home. We’ve travelled to places like the US Virgin Islands, Barbados and Sint Maarten. Playing teams like Barbados, Suriname and Canada is a really good challenge for me personally and for the team.
“I came with no real expectations, both of the island and of the football. I was open-minded and wanted to take it as is. When I got here I was pleasantly surprised. The island is a really good footballing place, from all levels from the Under-8s all the way up to the senior league.
"The standard of play was better than I thought it would be. There are good technical players here that want to progress and play overseas. The footballing culture showed with how we did in the Nations League. Nobody expected us to win any games and we won four. That’s something we can certainly build on for the future.”
The next challenge for Pugh and Co to build on comes in the form of four FIFA World Cup qualifiers to be played in March and June against Canada (73), Suriname (141), Bermuda (169) and Aruba (200). Their journey begins with tough tests against Suriname and Canada.
“They’re two excellent teams but it gives us the opportunity to play against outstanding players. Suriname have got 20 or so players across Europe. I think they may surprise a few people as well. It’s a fantastic challenge I’m looking forward to and I’m embracing.
"From our players’ point of view these are experiences that they will maybe not get again or that they will remember and treasure for the rest of their lives. Canada have a Champions League winner within their squad. It’s something we’re looking forward to as opposed to something we’re anxious about.
“I don’t think Caribbean football is documented well enough in terms of seeing what players can do. These games give our players the platform for people to have a look at them and maybe one or two will potentially get an opportunity to play football at a higher level off the back of them.”
The Cayman Islands have one full-time professional in their ranks. Elijah Seymour currently plies his trade in Romania with CS Tunari.
“We have a small pool of players to choose from but a big advantage is we can train regularly with them. We supplement that with a few players we have overseas.
"For the last four or five months we have been training two or three times a week. We tend to do evenings because most of our players have full-time jobs, and that comes with its challenges because a couple of them work in construction and work in the heat all day and we’re asking them to do a session. We have to adapt that slightly to meet the needs of the player and what’s best for them.”
For a team that is extremely unlikely to qualify for the World Cup and that is looking to qualify for a first-ever Concacaf Gold Cup, how does Pugh measure success?
“It’s about breaking down those small barriers. The island hadn’t won a game in nearly ten years before our Nations League run of wins. Making little steps forward is important. We’ve never won a World Cup qualifier, so hopefully we can get a result in one of these games and make a little bit of history there and continually keep moving forward.
“Can we qualify for a Gold Cup? Yes; it’s extremely difficult. It would be an incredible achievement, but it’s not impossible if we prepare properly. We have a three-year plan in place which started with the Nations League.
"If we can build a team around our younger players, in two or three years we’ll be in a far better place. Ticking those little boxes as we go, making little bits of history - they’re all steps to that bigger goal.”