- Turks and Caicos Islands buoyed by new Concacaf World Cup qualifying format
- Defender Jepthe Francois speaks with Concacaf.com
- "Not too many people get to represent their country in a World Cup qualifier"
With the advent of the Concacaf Nations League (CNL), teams from around the Caribbean have experienced improvement at many levels and one of those, Turks and Caicos Islands, are eager to return to the field with the start of the region's qualifying competition for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
"We can’t wait," Turks and Caicos Islands defender Jepthe Francois told Concacaf.com. "We are really excited to start playing again and being together; travelling again and just being back on that platform means so much. We honestly can’t wait.
“It’s really special to play a World Cup qualifier because there are not too many people that get to have that opportunity to represent their country in a World Cup qualifier. I’m grateful and privileged to be able to do that. It’s really important to me and it means a lot."
In their history, Turks and Caicos Islands have been involved in five different Concacaf World Cup qualifying cycles, all ending with a first-round elimination after a home and away leg.
But Concacaf’s new single game, round-robin format for the first round of World Cup qualifying for Qatar 2022 will offer a chance to give Francois and his team-mates a crack at some of the bigger teams in the region.
“It’s really motivating to think that you have that broad exposure," said Francois. "We’re from a small island, we’re really not on the map, not really known globally for soccer and stuff, so being able to play on that platform against quality teams is really good."
If there is one certainty when it comes to the national team, though, it is a strong bond felt between all the members of the squad.
“The atmosphere is great, there is a lot of positive energy," said Francois. "There is a lot of motivation. The guys lift each other. We really help each other when one of us is slowing down or lagging or lacking in some areas, and we try to lift each other up.
"It’s great to have that energy again, playing the sport that we love together, representing the country that we love. It’s really nice and a great feeling."
That brotherhood was on full display in November 2018 during week 3 of Concacaf Nations League qualifying (CNLQ). After suffering two defeats against Cuba and Guyana, Turks and Caicos Islands looked set to cruise to three points with a 2-0 lead over St. Vincent and the Grenadines heading into the final ten minutes.
Yet Vincy Heat turned the tables and scored two late goals to pull level. But with just minutes to spare, Turks and Caicos Islands struck back with Francois netting the winning goal in the 89th minute for a momentum-shifting 3-2 triumph.
He said: “Obviously in that game, I remember my winning goal, but in that game, we went into it with the motivation of saying, ‘Hey, enough is enough. It’s time for us to put on some grown-man pants and give it our all and play hard, play for each other.’
"At the end of the game we got tired legs and that’s what caused us to concede the two goals. But we dug deep and in the final moment I got lucky enough to score a last-minute goal and we got the three points."
For the 21-year-old, it was his first goal with the national team and a moment he’ll never forget.
“It was an amazing feeling," said Francois. "I could feel all the energy from the crowd. It was so overwhelming. When I first made the header and it hit the post and it came off, I said, ‘Oh my God', but when I got the cross and tapped it in, everything was just amazing. I loved the energy. It was just perfect."
It was fitting that Billy Forbes kept the play alive for Francois’s match-winner. As the all-time leading scorer in Turks and Caicos Islands national-team history, Forbes is respected for the leadership he brings to Francois and the other younger players.
“Billy is really competitive," said Francois. "He has motivated us to push ourselves and go to the next level. He pushes us and keeps us going even if we want to give up. He is really important.
Turks and Caicos Islands completed CNLQ with four points and continued that momentum into League C of the 2019/20 CNL, finishing Group D with two wins and two losses. The ability to have regular competition through the CNL is a notion warmly welcomed by Francois and he hopes it stays intact for years to come.
“I think the Nations League was a great idea," he said. "It gives us a lot of exposure and it shows that the Caribbean has lots of talent and young athletes that are ready to go to the next level.
"I think it’s a great initiative and that helps young athletes like myself give us exposure to the world, so that we can make a career and living out of the sport and have a greater future. I hope it continues for a long time."