The Emerald Boys are vying for a spot in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Photo courtesy of FIFA)
By Michael Lewis
Only hours prior to the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, Japan July 2002, another international soccer game was held 2,970 miles to the east in Thimphu, Bhutan.
While Brazil and Germany tussled for world supremacy, the other game, dubbed The Other Final had a different vibe. Host Bhutan and Montserrat played to avoid the ignominy of being considered the world’s worst soccer team.
Both teams were at the bottom of FIFA’s world rankings, the Asian side coming in at No. 202 with the Caribbean squad last at 203.
After his beloved Netherlands team failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Johan Kramer of Dutch communications agency KesselsKramer wondered what the worst team on the planet was. He managed to get the two lowest ranked teams to play. The Montserrat team traveled to the other side of the world to play for the honor of the British territory. His company produced the 2003 movie, The Other Final.
Bhutan prevailed and Montserrat, whether it was fair or not, was hailed as the worst soccer team on the planet.
That was almost two decades ago. While Montserrat is far from a Caribbean power, it has left its doormat status behind, rising to 183rd in the world and 26th in Concacaf.
In many ways, Montserrat has risen from the ashes, literally and figuratively.
A little background is needed about what is called the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean because its lush scenery resembles parts of Ireland.
Montserrat, A British Overseas Territory, is located in the Eastern Caribbean between the Virgin Islands, Barbados and near Guadeloupe. It is a small island that is 10 miles in length and seven miles in width.
In 1996, the Montserrat Football Association joined FIFA.
On June 25, 1997 the Soufrière Hills volcano, dormant for centuries, erupted. Lava, hot mud flows and ash left wide-spread devastation on the island that had housed 11,000 souls. The capital of Plymouth was destroyed as was the airport. Some two-thirds of the population left the Caribbean, many for England.
Slowly, but surely, life has returned to normal.
And so did the soccer team.
On Wednesday, the Emerald Boys travel to nearby Antigua and Barbados as it starts its quest for another chance at reaching the World Cup, Qatar 2022. In a group that includes El Salvador, Grenada, U.S. Virgin Island and Antigua, it is probably a longshot. But minnows of planet Earth have performed miracles before, such as Iceland qualifying for the 2016 European Championship (it reached the quarterfinals) and 2018 World Cup.
Montserrat is scheduled to host El Salvador Sunday, although both its qualifiers this week – vs. El Salvador Sunday – have been moved to Ergilio Hato Stadium in Willemstad, Curaçao due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, requests for interviews were not returned from the Montserrat Football Association.
But the tiny British overseas territory does have some fans in Tiago Pinto, co-founder of BOL, a Miami-based sports brand. Pinto and BOL have put their money where their is. BOL not only will outfit the national team with jerseys, but it will also do the same for youth and women’s teams and provide equipment as well to develop the sport on the island.
The new Montserrat shirt. (Photo courtesy of BOL)
Pinto was convinced Montserrat soccer will taste Concacaf success someday, which will put the team on the world stage.
He talked about when, not if, its national team will qualify for the World Cup.
“It represents so much for the island,” he said. “They brought the government representative so we could repeat our plans and said, ‘When they qualified to do the World Cup’ and we’re confident that they will. So, we put that in writing. When they qualify every single inhabitant [will receive] the same jersey as the players that will go to the World Cup. This is definitely a small nation that everybody needs to do their part, in order for them to get there. We believe it is a way of bringing everybody together. so you know when that happens and you know everybody’s in the island is watching the team you know we want to make sure that all the 4900 inhabitants, see themselves there as participants and the jersey symbolizes that.
“The reason that we gravitated towards Montserrat is this incredible story of such a resilient people with all the natural disasters of the ’90s,” Pinto said in a recent interview, “how they got their team together, to build the team off of that, with the whole diaspora going to the UK, and now the cycle coming back with the type of players that are able to utilize at the international level.”
Pinto added: “It’s got to have the same level of men’s and women’s, adult and youth and a bonus structure as they evolved to make sure that you know everybody has skin in the game for the growth of the game.”
The MFA has accepted that support.
“The MFA Inc. is very pleased to be collaborating with BOL in this venture, in promoting our National Football team and Montserrat in general,” MFA president Vincent Cassell said in a statement on a BOL press release. “The theme ‘rising from the ashes’ resonates strongly with our Emerald Boys, as our aim is to continue improving our world standing as we fight as hard as possible to qualify for the World Cup. We are excited to see our supporters at home and abroad wearing our jersey with pride.”
It has been an uphill battle for Montserrat, but the team has made progress.
During 2006 World Cup qualifying, the Emerald Boys were routed by host Bermuda, 13-0, in the first of two legs in Hamilton, Bermuda Feb. 29, 2004. They needed to outscore the Bermudans in the return match to stay alive in the first match at the Blakes Estate Stadium (now called Blakes International Football Complex) in Lookout, Montserrat Sunday March 21.
“I expected the team to play a lot better than in Bermuda,” Antigua-born head coach William Lewis told Radio Montserrat in March 2004. “We are in our conditions – the conditions we love. We are home. We have the crowd support and expect them to go and try to win. I know we can do it.”
Lewis’ side didn’t do it.
The Bermudans scored in the 15th minute as they increased their lead to 4-0 at the half en route 7-0 triumph. John Barry Nusum, son of former New York Arrows and Rochester Lancers defender John Nusum was the Bermuda scoring hero, netting five goals in those two games (the younger Nusum, born in Mineola, N.Y., was a Furman University standout, playing in the United Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League for several years).
That was 17 years ago, and progress has been made since then.
Montserrat missed out on qualifying for the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup in the United States by goal differential.
Today’s squad is coached by former Scottish international Willie Donachie, who played for the Portland Timbers in the old North American Soccer League and who once managed Millwall in England.
“I think the team is of League One standard in England,” Donachie said in a November 2018 interview with the Daily Mail.
“They are strong, aggressive and know the game. We are trying to add to the squad.
“There are Montserratians in England because of the volcano that caused many families to leave. It’s my job to seek them out.”
It hasn’t been easy finding the right players.
“I respect all footballers because what they have to do is compete every day, every game and they have to be creative as well,” Donachie said. “They have to be part warrior/part artist. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of character.
“The Montserrat players have jobs and they go to work before playing. You have to love the game to do that.”
Montserrat forward Lyle Taylor plays for Nottingham Forest. (Photo courtesy of BOL)
Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor, 30, is probably the best-known player. He can play for the national side through his grandparents, who were born on the Caribbean island. Several other English-based players, many of which from the lower leagues (Nottingham Forest competes in the English Championship), have been recruited by the team.
The national side has not played since a 1-0 away win over St. Lucia Nov. 19, 2019, so there might be a lot of rust to shake off against Antigua and El Salvador. The same might be for its foes as well.
Regardless, Montserrat will need to jump through several hoops – perhaps some flaming ones – just to reach the Concacaf Octagonal, the final qualifying round that kicks off in November. The team needs to finish first in Group A to advance to the second round. It must win a playoff there before reaching the final eight, which will battle for three automatic berths for Qatar and will tussle for a fourth spot in an intercontinental playoff.
The Emerald Boys might have a better opportunity in four years for the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico. Those three teams will qualify as hosts, so they will not be as many roadblocks for the other nations and minnows of Concacaf as three berths will be available.
Pinto only sees the upside of reaching what many observers felt is a near impossible dream.
“I have that feeling, working with them, that nothing is left to chance,” he said. “They’re working hard for it. It’s not easy, but they’re not waiting for a strike of good luck to make it happen. You might need also the strike of good luck but there’s, but there’s work that needs to get done in order to put yourself in that position.”
Right now, Montserrat is trying to position itself to make some history, step by step.
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