Little St. Vincent and the Grenadines are slowly building a reputation for themselves in the Caribbean. Being compared by some to traditional powers like Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Haiti, Vincey Heat are currently looking forward to their entrance into the qualifying stages for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™ after earning a well-deserved bye through the first phase.
Last time out, in the qualifiers for Germany 2006, the island chain - with a population of just over 100,000 - made serious headway as they beat off Nicaragua to reach the first group stage. Once there, they defeated Lesser Antillean neighbours St. Kitts and Nevis twice and stretched T&T on two occasions before eventually being outclassed by the mighty Mexico.
"We are keen to show the world and the so-called powers in CONCACAF that what we did last time was no fluke," wingback Wesley John, who plays his club ball with Felgueiras in Portugal's second division, told FIFA.com. "We have some very good footballers and we are determined to show that we can perform well consistently."
*Hendrickson loss * It is not just empty bluster from the forward-thinking defender, who scored seven goals for his club this year and has four overall for his national team. "I can tell you that we have a very strong youth program, better than most in the Caribbean. I and a lot of my team-mates have been playing together since U-16 level and it makes a huge difference," he said.
One stumbling block for the 1995 Caribbean Cup runners-up will be the absence of 123-time-capped former captain Ezra 'EZ' Hendrickson. The lanky Columbus Crew centre-back announced his international retirement in January at the age of 36. Even so, confidence is no problem for John and Co. "Ezra is a big loss," he admitted. "But we will just have to pull together as a team and try to plug the hole he leaves."
With over 80 caps himself, John, 31, is among the most experienced players in the squad, and should be a crucial cog as the team head into a difficult opening test with North American powers and Mexico 1986 participants Canada (ranked 62nd in the world to St Vincent's 145th).
We know we are the underdogs in this game as Canada have many players playing in big leagues all over the world, but we have been improving a lot lately and we will not be fearing them
," said the fullback, who began his career with Trinidadian outfit Joe Public. "They might want to be fearing us!"
A win over the Canucks would be a major coup for the ambitious islanders, who reached the eight-team Caribbean Cup finals last year only to lose out in the group stages. John sees the fact that the first leg will be played at home as a boost for their hopes.
"Our fans always make a lot of noise and atmosphere when we play at home," he said. "Even though we're not fancied to win I think we are in good shape to get a result in the first leg and then make it count in the second up in Canada. This could be our time."
Currently playing a series of friendly matches in preparation for their opening tilt with the Canadians, Stewart John Hall's men are looking strong, even with the loss of the talismanic Hendrickson and a pair of slim defeats by Barbados and Grenada in recent months.
In goal is the iconic Melvin Andrews who, at 34, has amassed 144 caps. Defender Wesley Charles plays for Galway United in the Republic of Ireland and will partner John and Andrews in a formidable rearguard that also includes Malaysia-based Cornelius Bernard Huggins. His team-mate with Kedah in Alor Setar, Marlon Alex James, will be hunting the goals alongside Shendel Samuel in attack, while Jamal Ballantyne handles the playmaking duties.
The right mix
The team, an intriguing mix of overseas professionals and local players, has John so excited that he sees a future of true respectability right around the corner. "I think in the next ten to 15 years, people will be mentioning us in the same breath as Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Haiti...maybe even with Mexico and the USA. We're that good."
His hypothesis is certainly backed up by St. Vincent's famous 2-1 win over Jamaica in their notorious fortress, known as 'The Office', in Kingston two years ago in Caribbean Cup qualifying.
Could Canada be next to feel the Vincey Heat?