The Preliminary Draw for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany must have sparked a strong sense of déjà vu in the Cayman Islands. For the third time in a row, the Caribbean-island nation south has been paired with significantly larger eastern neighbours Cuba.
The Cayman Islanders have unhappy memories of previous encounters between the two sides. In the France 98 qualifiers, they fell 6-0 aggregate to the Cubans despite hosting both legs of the tie, and in the run-up to Asia's first finals they lost 4-0 in Havana but held on for an encouraging scoreless draw in the second leg.
The Cayman's Brazilian-born coach Marcos Aurelio Tinoco recently told FIFAworldcup.com: "We have to be better this time than we have been in the past."
The 38 year-old Brazilian boss has been at the Cayman helm since 2003 and describes his major problem as recruiting players: "We're just a tiny island with around 30,000 inhabitants, so it's a real challenge finding players for the national side."
The islands do boast a fully functioning league, but most of the players come from overseas and remain frustratingly out of the coach's reach.
"In Brazil most youngsters begin playing club football at the age of 12. They want to make it to the top and put in plenty of effort because it's hugely competitive," the South American explains. "We don't have many players to choose from here on the Cayman Islands. Most of my players have an easy time of it because there's not much competition. Many only start playing for real at the age of 18."
But football on the island is on an upward trend. Tinoco trains daily with his team and is working hard to get his players into shape for the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
"My players aren't professionals," Tinoco says. "We train in the evening and after work, and once a week we manage two training sessions," he explains. The Brazilian has been stressing fitness, as he feels like this is the area where his side are most in need of improvement. "Cuba are an athletic team, so if we don't want to sink without trace we have to improve our fitness. That's my focus; fitness is 70 percent of the job."
Defender and captain Thomas Elliot is the star of the Cayman Islands side and Tinoco also has two promising youths in his squad -- 18 year-old left-sided midfielder Leon Whittaker and U-23 Olympic team captain John Kelly. Two others are currently at college in the United States, and negotiations are underway to release the pair for the qualifying double-header against Cuba. "But as things stand, it looks as though the lads won't be coming," Tinoco laments.
Cayman Islands out to spring surprise
Tinoco admires and respects the Cubans. "They've done a lot for football in the Caribbean," the Brazilian remarks, adding that the underdogs nonetheless refuse to be overawed by Cuba's historic successes (such as reaching the 1938 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals in France).
"Cuba are expected to beat us easily," continues Tinoco. "And that can only work in our favour as the pressure's all on them. It's a fantastic challenge for us," he says, eagerly looking ahead to the all-Caribbean duel.