Category: Caribbean



This article, by Natalia Guerrero, originally appeared on the BBC Mundo (the Spanish-language BBC) site on 10 June 2013; all credit should be given to her. The original article can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2013/06/130609_cultura_haiti_espana_cronica_miami_ng.shtml.

24 hours before their game against Spain, Haiti’s national football team still doesn’t have a kit or anywhere to train. It’s raining non-stop in Miami and Haiti’s limited resources mean they’re unable to hire somewhere undercover to practice.

Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, had sent their team to this American city to face Spain – the world champions – for the first time in their history. The incentives for setting up the clash included the presence of the Spanish superstars, the agreement that, for every spectator attending the game, $1 would be donated to Haiti, and moreover, the chance to see a classic David versus Goliath encounter.

However, the feeling of jubilation enjoyed by almost all of the 37,000 fans at the Sun Life stadium when the Haitian forward Donald Guerrier scored his country’s only goal against Spain contrasted with the team’s reality for the rest of the week. BBC Mundo accompanied the lonely Haitian team on their journey to play the world’s favourite team.

Extra Shirt

It’s 3:30 on Friday evening – the day before the game –  and the kit is due to arrive at the hotel where the team are staying. The Colombian Miguel Trujillo, the Haiti Football Federation’s exclusive agent, is feeling stressed. He doesn’t want the players or the coaching staff to arrive at the press conference without a shirt to wear. “They have to be equal to Spain. Haiti is beginning a new era in which it won’t lack the basics. We’re not inferior to anyone,” affirms the agent.

Miguel Trujillo presents the new shirt to one of the Haitian players (Photo: BBC)

However, Trujillo has had to jump through all kinds of hoops to make sure the eleven boxes of kit arrive on time.  They come from Colombia because Saeta, a sports clothes manufacturer, agreed to sponsor Haiti with high-tech kit. Their contract with the Haitian Football Federation, according to Trujillo, will last 4 years, in which time the company will invest close to $1 million; their shirts will be sold online and through the Federation.

But according to defender Judelain Aveska, the most exciting part of the agreement is that the players are now able to exchange shirts with their opponents at the end of a game – something that was previously unthinkable: if they’d given their shirt away in the past, they wouldn’t have had a shirt to wear in the next game.

A Turbulent Week

That Friday, Haitian officials had managed to secure the use of a playing field on the outskirts of Miami. Training lasted less than ten minutes. The players began to form two circles, but while they filled the field with their singing and laughter, it began to hail, and they were forced to take shelter. After two hours of waiting hopelessly for the weather to clear up, Blake Cantero – the team’s technical director, of Cuban origin – was concerned; his team were unable to train, partly because of the rain and partly because they’d only arrived the day before.

“We are Cubans, they don’t give us the Visa easily,” he told us, to explain the delay, adding that the side’s fitness coach – also Cuban – hadn’t received his Visa in time for the match. Cantero asked the players to board the bus and assured us that he would get them to jog along the corridors of the hotel, because “they can’t arrive like this tomorrow.”

The two Cubans have been in charge of Haiti’s national team for little over a year; their presence in the team is based on an agreement between the football federations of the two countries which is understood as a Cuban mission in Haiti. Each one has been allocated a monthly salary of $1,000 – all the Haitian Federation can afford given it has just one sponsor. To put that in perspective, their wage is roughly 158 times less than what Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque earned in 2012.

Life After Death

The earthquake in 2010, which devastated the country and caused more than 200,000 deaths, instilled in the players a renewed sense  of responsibility for their country. This has resulted in an improvement in the FIFA World Rankings: Haiti has gone up 18 places in the last two years and are now ranked 63rd – above countries with economic conditions much more favourable for sport, and with more experience in international competition.

“After the earthquake, something very strong happened in the players – a positive reaction to the tragedy. We understood that we were playing not only for ourselves…now we have a concrete way of obtaining money for our country,” says midfielder Jean-Marc Alexandre.

The whole stadium celebrated Haiti’s goal against the world champions (Photo: BBC)

One of the first examples of that “concrete” method of helping their country occurred just a few days after the earthquake. The team travelled to Germany for a game; the money raised by the match was donated to the Haitian government. Almost half a million dollars were raised – money which was invested in the reconstruction of the Football Federation’s Headquarters (which had disappeared with the tragedy)  and in the building and improvement of football facilities.

The Federation now boasts its own bus and a school for children in which they’re given training, education, food and free accommodation as a way of escaping their difficult environments.

“The ball is a little round thing and it’s for everyone”

Before the game, Judelain Aveska, a defender for Independiente de Rivadavia in the Argentine second tier, forms an imaginary sphere with his hands. I ask him if he thinks Haiti can beat Spain, and he tells me – in Spanish, with an Argentine accent – “the ball’s a little round thing, and it’s for everyone”.

His team-mate Jean-Marc Alexandre, a player for American side Orlando City, agrees that the two teams have the same possibilities: “We respect them, but it doesn’t mean we can’t beat them. We’re ready and excited to play,” he told BBC Mundo. Both players are Christians, and revealed that they often pray before a match. “Before I go out on the pitch, I pray that my opponent doesn’t get injured, because an injury can end your life,” says Jean-Marc

“We’re not aliens”

Despite losing 2-1 to Spain, the Haitian players are content at the final whistle. Fans gather in front of the team bus at the stadium exit to greet the Haitians as if they’d won, asking for autographs and pictures. Minutes later, in the press conference inside the stadium, goalscorer Donald Guerrier is sat between coach Cantero and a translator. He looks happy; he says his goal was dedicated to his son, born the previous day.

Although Guerrier has been patient with the journalists’ repetitive questions, this time he decides to answer more bluntly: asked how he feels, having scored against the best team in the world, he retorts: “I’m not an alien, I’m a human and my job is to score goals if the ball comes to me. On the pitch, we’re all equal.”

With that attitude, the Haitian team left later that day for Brazil, with another friendly lined up against Italy on Tuesday.

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He may have only won 11 caps for Antigua and Barbuda, but Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood has done as much as anyone to boost the tiny nation’s profile and appeal to European audiences.

Born in the London borough of Enfield in November 1982, Leigertwood began his career with capital-based team Wimbledon in 2001. 56 league appearances, as well as a brief loan spell at Leyton Orient, in his three years at the club showed experience and reliability beyond his years, Leigertwood’s spell at Wimbledon was hampered by the side’s financial woes.

Having entered administration in January 2003, the Wombles were forced to flog every first-team player capable of commanding a fee. Although he survived the fire-sale’s first throes, Leigertwood was eventually offloaded in January 2004, joining Crystal Palace for £155,000.

Battling injuries and relegation at Palace

The midfielder became Palace manager Iain Dowie’s first permanent signing for the club, and made ten appearances in the remainder of the 2003-04 Championship season as the Eagles flew into England’s top-flight via the play-offs. Although he was just 21 at the start of the next season – only Palace’s fourth in the Premier League – Leigertwood proceeded to feature in the majority of the club’s league fixtures in 2004-05, even scoring his first goal for the club against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2005 from close range.

Unfortunately, Palace were relegated on the last day of the season, missing out on survival by just a single point. Leigertwood remained at Selhurst Park for 2005-06, and enjoyed increased playing time – 30 appearances in all competitions represented his best return for Palace.

Following the Eagles’ 3-0 play-off defeat to Watford, Leigertwood found an offer from newly-promoted Sheffield United too hard to refuse. He signed on the dotted line at Bramall Lane for £600,000 – a fee only necessary as he was under 24 at the time. 21 league appearances in his debut season for The Blades followed, but, in a scarcely believable development, Leigertwood was once more relegated from the top-flight on the last day of the season – by one goal. It was a relegation Sheffield United fiercely contended, the club infuriated by West Ham’s controversial purchase of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano – the former player scoring the goal that kept The Hammers up at United’s expense.

Despite looking set to remain at Bramall Lane for the 2007-08 campaign, Leigertwood would play just two games of the new season before joining second-tier rivals Queens Park Rangers for £900,000. Although this move looked to be a backward one in some aspects – QPR would finish just six points clear of relegation, while Sheffield United were four points shy of the play-offs – the transfer resulted in more playing time for Leigertwood. The midfielder would play in at least 87% of QPR’s league fixtures for the next three seasons, maturing into a reliable holding player capable at both ends of the pitch: Leigertwood netted 12 times during his stay at Loftus Road, the most he has scored for any one club.

Ironically, having helped stabilise Rangers and establish them as one of the Championship’s better clubs, Leigertwood fell out of favour in 2010-11, the season the side won promotion to the Premier League. Being farmed out to Reading in November 2010, around the time of his twenty-eighth birthday, proved to be a blessing in disguise: forming a central midfield partnership with Jem Karacan, Leigertwood soon proved so invaluable that his loan was extended to the end of the season.

Ultimately, The Royals missed out on following QPR to the Premier League with a play-off final defeat to Swansea in which Mikele played the full 90 minutes. It would be the 2011-12 season, however, in which Leigertwood would really make a name for himself at Reading. Joining the club permanently in August 2011, he became an indispensable fixture in Brian McDermott’s starting XI, playing 41 of Reading’s 46 league games.

“The Premier League’s that way, Mikele!” Leigertwood has enjoyed success at Reading

With Leigertwood’s permanent services, Reading conceded ten fewer goals than in 2010-11, but it was not just his defensive abilities that shone through. Vital strikes against promotion rivals Southampton, Leicester, Blackpool and West Ham helped his side to the league’s summit, but Leigertwood’s finest moment in a Reading shirt was still to come.

On 17 April 2012, the table-toppers had the chance to secure promotion to the Premier League against Nottingham Forest with three games remaining. A predictably tense match ensued, with only a win being enough to warrant Reading’s planned promotion party. The 80 minute mark came and went with the match still goalless, prompting even the most optimistic fan to prepare themselves for one more nervous game. Promotion banners were folded away, pessimists headed for the exits.

However, one man had other ideas. Just nine minutes remained when Leigertwood pounced to fire home Ian Harte’s free-kick, prompting scenes of pandemonium and jubilation around the Madjeski Stadium. A mass pitch invasion followed; Leigertwood, having been, as BBC Sport called him, “the hero”, was carried off by hordes of grateful supporters. He later told cameras he was “delighted” to have scored the winner and the goal that clinched promotion, calling the amazing scenes at full-time “a crazy situation” and laughing “I got picked up in the air…people were trying to take my boots off me!”

The lynchpin of a team who’s average age is just 24, the 2012-13 season will be Leigertwood’s third in the Premier League. Expect him to play a big role. While his previous career has seen him move clubs frequently, Mikele seems to have found his home at the Madjeski.

Leigertwood was first approached to play for Antigua and Barbuda in June 2008 by then-national team coach Willie Donachie. A former Manchester City left-back himself, Donachie was attempting to bring some much-needed quality to the country’s squad by calling up players of Antiguan or Barbudan descent.

Although he was forced to turn down Donachie’s initial approach due to the team’s fixtures clashing with a wedding he had to attend, Leigertwood was eager to be involved in international football and soon afterwards took advantage of four-match Football League ban during his time at QPR to link up with Antigua’s 2008 Caribbean Championship squad.

Making history with Antigua and Barbuda

Making his debut in a 3-2 loss to Trinidad & Tobago, Leigertwood made sure he was on the winning side on his second appearance by scoring the opener in a 2-1 defeat of Guyana. With the midfielder’s help, Antigua and Barbuda progressed to the finals of the competition after finishing as runners-up of Group H, clinching their spot in Jamaica with a thrilling 4-3 win over St Kitts & Nevis.

Drawn in a tough group containing Cuba, Guadeloupe (both of whom would reach the semi-finals) and Haiti, the squad struggled to compete without Leigertwood, whose league commitments in England had ruled him out of the finals, held in December. Antigua and Barbuda picked up two points in their three games, earning creditable draws against Haiti and Guadeloupe, but were sent home early.

Leigertwood returned to international action in November 2010, helping the Benna Boys reach that year’s Caribbean Championship by playing in a qualification win over Suriname and defending well to earn valuable draws against Dominica and Cuba. Once more, however, he was unable to play in the tournament proper, and once more Antigua and Barbuda were eliminated in the group stage.

The midfielder’s last five national team appearances have all come in 2014 World Cup qualifiers, enjoying slender wins over Curaçao and Haiti, as well as suffering a 2-1 loss to the latter team in November 2011, before returning to the side last month. Although a 3-1 loss to the USA and a goalless draw with Jamaica may not look particularly inspiring results, the Benna Boys have run two of North America’s best teams very close – a position that may not have been achieved without Leigertwood’s experience and leadership.

An article on Reading’s official website expressed the club’s pride in Leigertwood having “ma[de] history for his country” by leading Antigua and Barbuda to the next round of World Cup qualifying, going down in the nation’s footballing history for being part of the country’s squad to do so.

Ironically, Leigertwood’s relative fame means his off-field actions have helped Antigua and Barbuda just as much as his on-field performances. Since Mikele accepted an invitation to represent the country, fellow English-born footballers including Macclesfield’s Kieran Murtagh, Wycombe’s Marvin McCoy, ex-Oldham forward Josh Parker, and, most notably, Leigertwood’s former Championship colleague Dexter Blackstock, have all agreed to join Antigua’s squad.

Blackstock – a Nottingham Forest forward who has scored over 75 goals in England’s professional leagues and cups – will bring goalscoring prowess to the tiny, overachieving country with a population of just 89,000. The other players recruited from the English leagues will not be available all year round, but will make Antigua and Barbuda’s squad more solid and professional.

Having significantly improved a squad that previously only consisted of locally-based players, Mikele Leigertwood has paved the way for European-born footballers to represent Antigua and Barbuda internationally. His role in the team’s upturn in fortunes should never be underestimated, and, when Leigertwood and his new recruits are all available, Antigua will be able to field a team with six England-based professionals – forming a side that will be a force to be reckoned with.

 

Image: Leigertwood at Crystal Palace – http://www.holmesdale.net; Leigertwood at Reading – http://www.getreading.co.uk; Playing for Antigua and Barbuda – http://www.zimbio.com

 


Despite only racking up 10 caps for Grenada at international level, Reading forward Jason Roberts has become one of the Caribbean’s most successful Europe-based footballers in a 17-year career spent solely in England.

Born in London in January 1978 to a Grenadian father and a French Guianese mother, Roberts’ eventual success in football will have come as little surprise to his family –  Jason has three uncles who all played at international level: Cyrille Regis won 5 caps for England, David Regis earned 25 for the USA, and Otis Roberts represented Grenada on two occasions, while yet another uncle, John Regis, won silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a sprinter.

Roberts captains Wigan during the most successful spell of his career

However, Jason’s path to footballing stardom was not as straightforward as some may imagine. Despite trials with the academies of London clubs Chelsea, Tottenham and Watford, at the age of 16 – when many other future stars were comfortably bedded in with big-name teams – Roberts was working as an export clerk and considering quitting football altogether.

Thankfully for Roberts, and the forward’s future clubs, uncle Cyrille eventually arranged a trial at Isthmian League side Hayes FC in 1995. Jason may well have finally taken his first steps towards the Football League by earning the contract that came as a result of his trial, but the terms were certainly not glamourous  – Roberts was paid just £15 per week, a wage comparable to that of 1930s footballers.

Making his debut at the tender age of 17, in a league more physical than divisions higher up the footballing pyramid, Roberts showed remarkable talent and maturity to net 16 times in 50 league appearances. Five goals in Hayes’ opening three games of the 1997-98 season led, unsurprisingly, to Midlands giants Wolverhampton Wanderers, then of the second division, offering £250,000 – a then-record fee for a non-league player.

Still a teenager with no previous Football League experience, Roberts predictably found himself farmed out on loan to Southern sides Torquay United and Bristol City soon after joining Wolves. Arriving at Plainmoor in December 1997, Roberts transformed Torquay from fourth division cannon-fodder to promotion candidates, scoring 6 times in 14 games and forming a great partnership with fellow Caribbean forward Rodney Jack as the club embarked on an 8-game winning streak.

Ultimately, the end of Roberts’ loan spell ended United’s chance of automatic promotion, and the side had to settle for the play-offs, eventually losing in the final to Colchester in what would prove to be Jack’s final game for the club. Roberts, meanwhile, scored once in his three games at Rovers, but it was the Robins’ city rivals Bristol Rovers who stumped up £250,000 for the frontman’s services.

Typically, Roberts didn’t disappoint, reaching 16 and 22 goals respectively in his two seasons at Rovers. Unsurprisingly, his prolific strike rate in the lower leagues had caught the attention of bigger clubs, and following Rovers’ failure to win promotion in 2000, Roberts handed in a transfer request. If he was looking to move, it worked – West Bromwich Albion, then of the Championship, paid a club record £2 million (since eclipsed) to bring Roberts to The Hawthorns.

Settling into the higher division like a duck to water, Roberts netted 15 times in his first season to fire the Baggies to the play-offs, leaving the club three games away from reaching the Premier League. Though Albion were beaten by Bolton in the semi-finals, the club secured promotion the following season, finishing second only to Manchester City. Cruelly, Roberts was injured for much of the campaign, and it would be the beginning of the end of his Albion career.

Just three goals in 31 games in his first Premier League season caused West Brom to loan Roberts to fellow top-flight side Portsmouth in 2003-04. Unfortunately, one goal in ten appearances at Fratton Park seemed to suggest the Premier League was one step to high, and in January 2004, Roberts moved to Wigan Athletic of the second division.

Thankfully, a return to the Championship helped Roberts find his shooting boots: a goal 35 seconds into his debut, and eight goals in 14 appearances, fired Wigan to seventh place, agonisingly missing out on the play-offs by two points. However, even better was to come – Roberts scored 21 league goals in 2004-05 as Wigan were promoted to the Premier League, with Jason finishing as the Championship’s second-top scorer.

This time, Roberts took advantage of the promotion and established himself as a Premier League goalscorer, making Wigan history in the process: his penalty against Sunderland in August 2005 was Wigan’s first-ever top-flight goal, and helped the club to its first Premier League victory. In January, Roberts’ last-minute goal at Highbury sent Wigan to the League Cup final at the expense of Arsenal. At Wembley, they were convincingly beaten 4-0 by Manchester United, but Roberts played the full 90 minutes and had firmly established himself as a top-flight footballer.

Although Wigan had done remarkably well to finish ninth in their first season in the Premier League, Roberts’ ambition caused him to join sixth-placed Blackburn Rovers, who boasted the carrot of UEFA Cup football. A period of relative calm – unusual in Roberts’ career – followed, with the striker’s six-year stay at Ewood Park by far his longest spell at any one club.

Roberts (left) celebrates one of seven international goals for Grenada

Having said that, Roberts arguably enjoyed more success off the pitch than on it while at Blackburn: in 2007 he founded the Jason Roberts Foundation, aiming to “provide a range of sporting opportunities for children and young people in the UK and Grenada”, and three years later he was awarded an MBE for his services to sport in both Grenada and London. On the pitch, he failed to reach double figures in any of his six seasons at Ewood Park, and in 2011-12, with the club facing relegation from the Premier League,  Roberts joined Championship side Reading on a one-and-a-half year deal.

At 34, Roberts’ experience of numerous promotion campaigns and top-flight credentials proved invaluable to Reading as the side cruised to the Premier League, winning the Championship and securing the title in late April. Six league goals in 17 games represented a return to form for Roberts, and tellingly, equalled his tally for Blackburn in the previous two seasons combined.

Although his international career ended in 2008, Roberts’ ten caps for Grenada, accumulated over a nine-year spell, provide cherished memories for the veteran – he described making his Spice Boys bow in 1999, aged 19 as “the proudest moment of my career”. Despite admitting that he would have rather represented England given the chance, Roberts has expressed his delight at making his debut alongside uncle Otis, and saw his international career as “a chance to put something back into the country”.

7 goals for Grenada, including strikes against Costa Rica and the United States, as well as a brace in a 10-0 demolition of the US Virgin Islands, made Roberts by far the island’s best and most famous player, but his club career in England limited the number of appearances he could make. Roberts acknowledged his celebrity status in the country in 2005, saying “I do get recognised all the time when I go over [to Grenada].” He travels to the island every summer to track the progress of his eponymous Foundation’s work.

Rather than dreaming of Premier League glory or FA Cup silverware, Roberts has said “It is my dream before I retire, maybe it is just pie in the sky I don’t know, but it is my dream to take Grenada to the World Cup finals.” While that looks unlikely, Roberts’ role in putting Grenada on the map, and promoting sports on the island, means that he will go down in the country’s history regardless of whether or not he achieves his dream.

Images: Roberts at Wigan – http://www.freewebs.com; Roberts scoring for Grenada – http://jasonroberts30.com/


St Vincent and the Grenadines may not be known as a footballing hotspot, even within the Caribbean Football Union, but the country’s former star player Rodney Jack has played a major role in boosting the island’s reputation by endearing himself to fans of several English lower-league clubs.

Born in Kingstown in St Vincent in 1972, Jack began his career playing for local teams Hairoun Lions and Lambada FC in the early 1990s. It was soon after joining Lambada, in fact, that Jack would get his chance to play in Europe – the team’s manager, exiled Torquay fan Keith Millard, brought his Lambada side over to play a friendly against Torquay in August 1995. Jack’s searing pace and assured finishing quickly impressed United chairman Mike Bateson, who pulled out all the stops to sign the young forward.

Understandably, given Torquay’s lowly league standing and the physicality of fourth division English football, Jack took time to settle, but the Gulls were soon rewarded for their patience. Rodney finished the following season as the club’s top scorer, with his direct style and impressive speed proving a handful for flat-footed opposition defenders more suited to coping with aerial and physical threats.

It was one of League Two’s unlikeliest transfers of all time, but Jack proved to be a perfect match for Torquay

However, Jack saved his best performances in a yellow shirt for Torquay’s 1997-98 play-off semi-final tie against Scarborough. Leading 3-1 from the first leg, in which Jack had netted once, United needed their Caribbean corker to provide an outlet in the home leg at Plainmoor as Scarborough piled on the pressure. The striker duly scored twice in the space of seven minutes after outpacing the entire Scarborough defence to seal the tie and send Torquay to Wembley. Unfortunately, Jack was unable to inspire a famous win as the Gulls went down 1-0 to Colchester, although the Vincentian did have a goal ruled out for offside.

It would prove to be Jack’s final appearance for Torquay as he joined then-first division side Crewe Alexandra for £650,000 – a record fee for both clubs. Jack’s fine service in his three years at Plainmoor have not been forgotten: in 2009, the player was named as Torquay’s 48th-best player of all time in the club’s “50 Golden Greats” list.

Although he stayed at Crewe for five years, the longest spell of his career with one club, Jack was unable to match his scoring form at Torquay – he netted 33 goals in 163 league games for his new club, compared to 27 strikes in 93 appearances for the Yellows. Nonetheless, Jack still managed to contribute some vital, and often spectacular goals.

Jack’s speed rendered him unplayable in his prime

He left Gresty Road in 2003 for Rushden & Diamonds, and despite Jack’s 12 goals in 45 games in his only season at the club, Rushden were relegated from League One following manager Brian Talbot’s defection to Oldham Athletic. Escaping Rushden’s financial troubles, Jack followed Talbot to Boundary Park, but his one-season stay in Lancashire was blighted by injuries – he played just ten games all season.

Another brief spell followed, this time at Irish outfit Waterford United, before Jack received a hero’s welcome on his return to Crewe in 2006. However, the club’s reluctance to award Jack with any more than a one-year deal showed that he was no longer the same player – 1 goal in 30 games in 2006-07 represented a shadow of the his previous goalscoring form.

Recent years have seen the Vincentian take in a five-game spell at Southport in 2008, before Jack finally resettled at non-league side Nantwich Town. His advancing years, combined with a slight loss of pace, mean that Jack is no longer a regular goalscorer or major handful for defences, but his ability is clear to see – in 2010-11, at the age of 39, Jack was named Nantwich’s Player of the Year. His experience and performances provoked manager Jimmy Quinn to claim “He can be important for us [as an impact player], but I also think he could do a job on the coaching side”.

Regardless of whether the 45-cap international chooses to accept Quinn’s offer, Rodney Jack has permanently etched his name into both Caribbean and English football folklore. He is an inspiration to young footballers in a country that rarely boasts European-based players, and his success on the continent is yet to be replicated by any of his compatriots.

Watch Jack’s pace tear apart the Scarborough defence in Torquay’s 1998 play-off semi-final: