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Tiny Montserrat hopes to make its way to the Gold Cup

Emerald Isle’s national soccer team encapsulates a Caribbean tale of immigration, natural disaster and renewed hope

When I played for the youth national soccer team on the island of Montserrat in the 1970s, we marked our own fields. We practiced hard after school each afternoon and twice a day during summer vacation. But we never had the resources or coaching to compete with the bigger islands. There were too many shutout losses to count.

How things have changed. FIFA, the game’s international governing body, has been putting money into poorer places like Montserrat. Here, a $1.5 million annual subsidy goes a long way. The island doesn’t have a local football league, but all the members of the national team, dubbed the Emerald Boys, play professionally in the lower tiers of the English Football League. And the island has first-class accommodations for visiting teams.

On Friday, our homeland of barely 5,000 people faces Trinidad and Tobago (population 1.4 million) for a place in the Gold Cup, which determines the champion of North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Whatever happens at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the boys in green have already won.

One of Montserrat’s most senior players, forward Spencer Weir-Daley, has played for more than a dozen teams in the U.K. Now, he and his teammates are living their dream and mine. “I believe this could be the beginning of something special with the caliber of players that we have,” said Weir-Daley from his hotel in South Florida. “We could change the narrative.”

Andrew J. Skerritt played for the youth national soccer team on the island of Montserrat in the 1970s.

This is a story of triumph, about dreams deferred and revived. It’s about how one island whose history is laced with loss – both manmade and natural – from slavery, colonialism and immigration to hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, and how those who remained at home, despite the hardships and uncertainty, turned their losses into gains, their weakness into strengths.

There’s even a song, “The Emerald Boys Anthem,” by Montserrat native Jadine “Soca Deva” Greenaway, celebrating them.

“Dis one here’s for de Emerald Boys/ Everyone just scream out goal!/ Goal 664 to the whole wide world/ Everyone just scream out goal!

“I was thinking about how proud I was of those boys. I am not a sports fan. I don’t know anything about football,” Greenaway said of the inspiration for the song. “All you have to say is ‘Montserrat.’ I started paying attention.”

There’s a certain irony to the Emerald Boys’ flirtation with glory. If Montserrat defeats T&T, the Montserrat Football Association (MFA) can thank a Trinidadian. Disgraced FIFA and Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football executive Jack Warner’s support of infrastructure development on the island in the wake of the 1995 volcano eruption sowed the seeds for success more than two decades later.

In a way, the Montserrat football story has come full circle. During the 1970s, the most skillful players on the island were the boys born in England who had moved back to the islands with their Montserratian parents. We called them English, or Englishman. Their names – Theo Langlais, Gwyllyn Hoyte, Julian White and Tony Bramble – evoke images of dribbling skill and powerful shots on goal. Today a new crop of “Englishman” wears the green instead of the red and white of St. George.

These players are descendants of Montserrat immigrants who had sailed to the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s. The grandchildren of the Windrush generation have returned as winners. The 35-year-old Weir-Daley, for instance, qualified to play for Montserrat by virtue of his grandfather, who emigrated from the island in the 1950s.

Competitive sports are as integral to island boyhoods as the ripe mangos and coconuts that fall from the trees. So is losing. Not since 1953 has the island’s cricket team won the annual inter-island cricket tournament. Football has a shorter but similar trajectory of futility.

“I believe this could be the beginning of something special with the caliber of players that we have. We could change the narrative.”

Forward Spencer Weir-Daley

“When we went on the field, we already lost in our mind,” said John Wilson Jr., who played with the men’s national team until the early ’90s. The former central defender and national team captain recalls when the team traveled to St. Lucia in the mid-’80s and lost by two goals. “We were celebrating. We had only lost 3-1.”

The eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in 1995 precipitated a more profound sense of loss, destroying the capital city of Plymouth and forcing more than half of the island’s residents to leave over the next few years. But even as families fled to London or New York or Boston, some residents, like Vincent Cassell, stayed around. Cassell took the helm of the Montserrat Football Association.

While the name FIFA spells corruption in some quarters, for the association, it meant salvation. Cassell and others successfully pitched Warner a proposal for a top-class, 1,000-seat stadium to be funded under the FIFA Goal Project. A 32-room, two-story dormitory at the stadium houses visiting and home teams, thanks to $500,000 from FIFA.

FIFA funding paid for coaches and youth training programs. Local players got scouted by British teams. Some got what earlier generations of football players could only dream of: academic and football scholarships to attend college and join football academies in the U.K.

“Without FIFA, there’s no football in Montserrat,” Cassell told The Guardian newspaper some years ago. The stadium was built in 2002, the same year the national team made international headlines for playing Bhutan in the “Other Final,” a matchup of the two lowest-ranked FIFA teams held hours before the World Cup final between Brazil and Germany.

Crenston Buffonge, now a government minister in Montserrat, flew halfway around the world for that game, which Bhutan won 4-0.

“Knowing where we came from post-volcanic eruption and now to see team moving up in the ranking is indeed a wonderful feeling and accomplishment,” said Buffonge in praising the team’s progress. “The only way from here is up.” The men’s team is currently ranked 180th in the world, two spots behind Puerto Rico and one above Cuba.

Soccer nationalism is different from political nationalism. It’s not uncommon for players to be eligible for two, three or four national teams, depending on where they were born, where they grew up, where they live and their parents and grandparents’ nation of origin. Brazil, with its abundant talent, exports players who excel in other nation’s colors. Like the Montserrat team, this year’s Jamaican squad is bolstered by West Ham striker Michail Antonio and other British-born players from the English Football League.

Despite the overseas reinforcements, the Emerald Boys hadn’t won an international match in more than four years until one Sunday night in October 2018 when Weir-Daley curled a shot into the upper corner of the net in the 74th minute of a Nations League contest against Belize, a team ranked 45 places above the lowly 205th-place Emerald Boys.

Weir-Daley, who plays professionally for Spalding United, is a grandson of James Daley, who migrated to England in the 1950s. Weir-Daley once played for his boyhood club, former European football powerhouse Nottingham Forest. That was nothing like the joy of his first international goal.

Weir-Daley was also eligible to play for Ireland and the U.S. But he was focused on his career in domestic football, and had given up any dream of playing internationally until he received an email from the MFA in 2015. Was he interested in being part of the setup? By then, Weir-Daley had learned about the other British-based players who had signed on to the Montserrat renaissance project.

Weir-Daley made his international debut in 2015 in an unsuccessful two-leg World Cup qualifying round against Curacao. But even after the team began to win, bad luck continued to stalk the program.

In 2019, the Emerald Boys won three games in their group and placed 10th in the 34-team Nations League. They were on the verge of qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup, when Guyana was awarded a 3-0 default victory after it was beaten by Barbados, which used an ineligible player. That scoreline pushed the Emerald Boys to 11th and left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players.

“We’ve got unfinished business where the Gold Cup is concerned. We just felt we had the Gold Cup taken away from us,” Weir-Daley said. “This really means a lot to us. We didn’t think we’d get another chance. To get to the Gold Cup is like getting to the World Cup for us.”

It would be so for me, too – a dream deferred, a dream fulfilled.

Andrew J. Skerritt lives and works in Tallahassee, Fla. Follow him on twitter and Instagram @andrewjskerritt