Atiba Harris gets stopped when he walks the streets in Basseterre. People put arms around the man and snap selfies. “It’s a friendly place,” Harris told FIFA.com, eager to deflect the adulation he receives. But he’s the best footballer ever to hail from St. Kitts and Nevis. The tall, lean striker who wears an easy smile is a favourite football son.
Harris left the two-island nation, with a population of under 60,000, when he was just 17. When he went to play in Spain, it was his first time away from home, away from the parish of St Peter’s near Monkey Hill. He was the first – and still the only – Kittitian to play professionally in Spain. “I didn’t know anybody,” he said of his spell in Cadiz, admitting to missing the openness and good humour that suffuse his home.
“Everyone’s happy here,” said Harris, who now splits his time between Dallas, Texas, where he lines up for FC Dallas, and his native Basseterre. “I try to get back down at least once a year,” added the man who, unsurprisingly, captains his national team, the Sugar Boyz.
Home and away
While an icon on his home islands in the Caribbean, Harris is a journeyman in Major League Soccer, where he’s bounced around from club to club since 2005. He’s played for six teams in nine seasons, often as a utility man off the bench. His versatility makes him useful. Harris has the speed and sense to play out wide or up front as a No9. He’s a proper professional, but he’s no star in MLS. While he’s lived in six of its cities, Harris doesn’t get recognized much on the streets of America.
Currently in his second stint with FC Dallas, Harris is having a renaissance. He had his most successful season at the Texan club in 2009 when they reached their first MLS Cup. And when he was let go by San Jose Earthquakes last year, he was brought back to Dallas. Now 30, Harris has grabbed a starting role in the side that currently sit second in the Western Conference. He’s started five of six games in the young season, earning the faith of coach Oscar Pareja and shaking off the after-effects of a knee injury that saw him miss an entire season in 2011.
“I’m happy in Dallas,” he said, talking of his home away from home. “My family is happy there and we’re scoring and winning games.”
While Dallas may be the place where Harris earns his daily bread, St. Kitts and Nevis is his home. It’s the place where his heart finds peace. “St. Kitts is like a family,” said the skipper, who made his national team debut at the tender age of 15. “It’s different here. People smile more. You run into friends from when you were a kid.”
Last time Harris was home, in late March, he helped his national team progress to the next round of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying with a commanding performance in a 6-2 win over neighbours Turks and Caicos Islands. But, ever the professional, he had gripes at the end. “The result was good for us,” said Harris, who scored the opening goal. “But we should have scored more and I don’t like that we conceded the two. I’m not too happy with that.”
Harris, who flew back to Dallas before the second leg (also won 6-2 – aggregate 12-4), clearly takes his responsibilities as captain of his country seriously. It’s unlikely that St. Kitts, who’ve never reached a World Cup or even a CONCACAF Gold Cup, will run too deep into the qualifying stages. But that’s not the point.
“When you’re playing for your country, especially when you’re captain, you’re not playing for money,” said Harris, who is first cousin to former England international Micah Richards. “You’re representing your mom and your dad, your grandma and granddad. There’s urgency. It’s all closer to your heart.”
And much like any other family, expectations are high at home. “In the stadium down here you can hear every shout,” he said with a chuckle. “You feel pressure. The people expect goals, no matter what,” added Harris. “They want us to entertain them and to win, no matter who we play – Turks and Caicos or USA.”
The next challenge for little St. Kitts and Nevis is a date with El Salvador in June. The Central Americans are giants by comparison, sitting 27 places above the Sugar Boyz in the world ranking and having played in the World Cup finals of 1970 and 1982. They recently stretched Argentina in a friendly too, losing only 2-0 to the 2014 World Cup runners-up. But when you’re playing for family, anything’s possible, according to captain Harris. “This is blood down here,” he said, pride welling. “You can’t let your family down."