Down football memory lane

soccer1Much is being made of the fact that on yet another occasion Vincy Heat, the senior national men’s football team, has made it through to the second round of the preliminaries of the FIFA Football World Cup. We achieved this feat the very first time we contested the World Cup preliminaries for the mega event that was at the time scheduled for the USA in the summer of 1994.
First World Cup experience
This country’s first World Cup experience came after a long battle with the authorities at FIFA over a facility deemed appropriate for the standard of the game at the time.
FIFA had rejected the Victoria Park as inadequate for international football and so FIFA consistently denied the SVGFF full membership. FIFA had also rejected the Arnos Vale #1 playing field as inadequate because of the height of the cricket pitch viz-a-viz the surrounding playing area.
The SVGFF therefore had to fight to gain FIFA membership despite having shown that the small Eastern Caribbean nation possessed the football [prowess to stand alongside its Caribbean neighbours on the field of play.
Even as the SVGFF struggled with FIFA the national representative teams reflected the immense footballing talent resident in the country. Perhaps a high point in the national team’s performance whilst still outside FIFA was the second place finish in the Caribbean Football Union’s (CFU) competition of 1979.
Having eventually gained FIFA membership this country entered the 1994 World Cup preliminaries with Basil ‘Bung’ Cato as president and Elliott ‘Mori’ Millington as coach. The stage was set and in the first round the Vincentian team showed that the talent was there and much could be expected.
In 1992 the national team defeated Barbados 3 – 2 and drew with Grenada (0 – 0) and Netherlands Antilles (2 – 2) to get to the finals of the Shell Caribbean Cup played in Trinidad and Tobago. In the finals the team lost all three matches. They lost to Cuba (0 – 1), Guadeloupe (0 – 1) and Jamaica (0 – 2).
Playing in the first round of the World Cup preliminaries the team lost to St Lucia in that country (0 – 1) but bounced back to defeat the Lucians at Arnos Vale (3 – 1). Against Surinam in the South American country the team drew (0 – 0) but defeated te Surinamese at Arnos Vale (2 – 1) in the return encounter.
Once we qualified for the second round encounter Warner visited St Vincent and the Grenadines and persuaded Cato to schedule a friendly between St Vincent and the Grenadine sand Jamaica since they had both qualified for the next round but were in different groupings. They agreed to call the encounter the Columbus Cup. This announcement met with severe criticisms given the criticisms levelled by the ‘progressive’ elements in Vincentian society. The encounter was then renamed the Andre Kamperveen Cup, in honour of a former Caribbean leader in football from Surinam. Kamperveen had been among a group of politicians shot in prison in Surinam following the coup led by Desi Bouterse.
Having qualified for the second round of the preliminaries, everyone wanted to be associated with the sport and the team.
The team
Keen interest was shown by players who had long since left local shores and who would relish the opportunity to turn back the clock if only to don the national colours once more to share in the historic experience.
The second round featured St Vincent and the Grenadines coming up against Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico.
The captain of the team was Alphonsus ‘Twenty’ Browne who at the time boasted more than 50 caps with national teams.
Pete Morris, Keith ‘Slick’ Bonadie, Garfield ‘Sprag-I’ Cupid, Desmond Morris and Derek Dupont returned home from the US. They joined Gerry Crick, Rodney ‘Chang’ Jack, Kendal ‘Ken-I’ Velox, Curtis ‘Fame’ Joseph, Christopher ‘Brazilian’ Harry, Keith Ollivierre, Randy ‘Dreamers’ Patrick, Verbin Sutherland, Tyrone Prince, Dexter Browne, Percival SamuelFitzgerald ‘John Hinds’ King, Elton Johnson and Fitz Bramble.
Basil Cato was team manager with Elliott Millington as coach, Jorge Ramos and Technical Director and Gideon Labban as trainer. Julian Small, Tyrone ‘Tweety’ Spence and Paul O’Garro were members of the technical committee.
Millington preferred the services of Trinidadian coach, Everard ‘Gally’ Cummings but a seemingly longstanding feud between the latter and Austin ‘Jack’ Warner came in the way and the team ended up with Ramos of Surinam.
Millington was astute and honest enough to admit that the coaching requirements for the second round battles in which the team would be engaged necessitated additional help and so he recommended Cummings. There is hardly anyone who would have placed Ramos anywhere near the competency of Cummings. St Vincent and the Grenadines paid the penalty for the decision that was accepted.
Cato requested the services of a trainer from the athletics association and Labban was selected. Given his understanding of the requirements of the game in the 1990s Labban immediately set to work preparing the players for what was an awesome undertaking against three strong Central American teams.
Unfortunately for the SVGFF, it did not take long before the players started complaining about the rigorous nature of the training offered by Labban. They noted that he was treating them as if they were track and field athletes. There was simply too much running. The long-term consequences of the complaints meant that the team was not fully conditioned and thus paid a heavy price in the latter stages of every game played in the second round of the preliminaries.
Interestingly in respect of the players’ failure to get themselves fully conditioned for the 90 minutes of the game is still the team’s major weakness in 2015, 23 years later.
While Ramos worked consistently on improving the ball work of the players they remained deficient in terms of overall fitness and game strategies.
The Vincentian team faltered badly in the second round preliminaries of the World Cup of 1994. At the end of the six games played the team ended up with a total of some 28 goals having been scored against them. The most devastating loss came against Mexico in Mexico City, played in the middle of the day. The team came away with more than a handful of goals, 0 – 11. To add to the insult one of the dailies in Mexico City featured a goal a page in its edition of the following day.
The players’ lack of fitness and inability to cope with the high altitude saw many of them falling almost like flies hastening to the sidelines to be provided with oxygen.
One of the most embarrassing event was when playing Costa Rica at Arnos Vale. During the game a heavy downpour came in the first half leaving the field very soggy and all of the players decidedly wet.
When the teams came off for the second half of the game the Costa Rican team had on an entire change of clothing and appropriate shoes for the changed conditions on the field of play. The hapless Vincentian team came out in their drenched clothing and inappropriate shoes, for the most part. The second half of the game was a major embarrassment for St Vincent and the Grenadines before an enthusiastic home crowd with players slipping all over the field.
The competition also revealed the fact that several of those who had still been with the sport had long since passed their prime and really ought not to have been on the team.
The SVGFF had been able in 1992 to garner immense benefit from a World Cup Support Committee that was headed by members of the local business community. The Committee was very well structured and organised such that a tremendous amount of funds were raised to facilitate the team’s preparation and travel.
Other shortcomings
The SVGFF had its first experience in many aspects of the game of football with the foray into the World Cup preliminaries of 1992.
Cato was invited to New York where the draw for the second round of the competition was made. While there those of us at home learnt that he had accepted the paltry sum of $1500 USD as the value of the television rights for the games in which the team would be involved in the second round preliminaries. When he returned home and faced immense criticisms Cato responded that this was a first time experience for the country and that he had no precedent by which to make a judgement regarding the true value of the television rights.
Of course, given the startling revelations regarding CONCACAF leaders and television rights deals we are now all given to understanding how the game was being played away from the competition arena.
Then there were the paltry contractual agreements between the National Sports Council and CONCACAF regarding the value placed on perimeter boards at Arnos Vale. Here again the inexperience of the local authorities served to significantly undervalue the worth of the display boards.
As we are currently doing, in 1992 we simply restricted our friendlies in preparation for the second round preliminaries to playing fellow Caribbean teams. This may well have had to do with finance.
Lessons learnt
One is not sure just what lessons the SVGFF may have learnt from the first World Cup experience.
Over the past several years CONCACAF had moved to a stage where the body convinced its member federations that it was best placed to negotiate the sale of their television rights and delivered to each what the leadership thought was appropriate. Today we are hearing about the allegations of corruption that may well have characterised this aspect of the game in the region. Member federations may not have known the extent to which they may have been duped. Interestingly though, the leaders of the game in the different islands sat idly by, satisfied with receiving the pittances thrown at them for fear of losing everything, and in the process, failed to engage themselves sin critical analysis of what was taking place around them.
What has changed in the sport since then? Your guess is as good or perhaps better than mine.