Antigua, Guyana in historic qualifiers

United States’ Landon Donovan (10) is tripped up by Scotland’s Scott Brown, right, during the first half of an exhibition soccer match, Saturday, May 26, 2012, in Jacksonville, Fla. United States won 5-1.
AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey

Among the three English-speaking Caribbean teams kicking off tonight’s CONCACAF semi-final qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, only Jamaica, World Cup finalist in 1998, has experience at this semi-final stage — Antigua and Barbuda and Guyana are in unchartered waters.

Led by captain and most capped player, George Dublin, Antigua and Barbuda finished atop its quarterfinal group with five wins from its six games, including the decisive 1-0 win at home in St. John’s versus Caribbean power Haiti that propelled the Antiguans to today’s semifinal stage. It ended a run in which Antigua and Barbuda scored the most goals among all qualifiers as top striker Pete Byers led all scorers in region with eight goals.

Dublin recalls that memorable day in St. John’s last fall. “There was something truly indescribable about that day,” said Dublin. “There was a passion in the air, the nation was electric on the night and I have never seen or felt anything like it.”

Antigua and Barbuda will take on Group A foe USA tonight at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida; the USA recently defeated Scotland, 5-1, in the first of three warm-up matches, but lost to Brazil, 4-1, in Maryland last Wednesday night and played to a goalless draw with hosts Canada last Sunday. Antigua and Barbuda will host Jamaica on Tuesday, June 12, in its second Group A game; Guatemala is the other team in the group and will host the USA on Tuesday.

Antigua’s recent success was sparked by the introduction of the Antigua Barracudas, a professional team in the USL (United Soccer Leagues), the third division league in U.S. soccer. The Barracudas easily could be considered the national team since most of the players are on the national squad and Englishman Tom Curtis coaches both. Curtis recently called on eight England-based players, including Reading standout Mikele Leigertwood, to reinforce Antigua and Barbuda for this semifinal round.

Antigua and Barbuda reached the eight-team biennial finals of the Caribbean championships in 2008 and 2010, but it has never won the regional title or qualified for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship tournament for CONCACAF nations. The country’s success beyond the Caribbean region is nominal.

Guyana Set To Go

Guyana, ranked 99th by FIFA, won its group by upsetting regional power and former World Cup participant Trinidad and Tobago at home in Georgetown, 2-1; interestingly, Guyana’s is coached by Jamaal Shabazz, a native of Trinidad and Tobago. The Guyanese racked up four wins from six group games; Bermuda and Barbados were also in the group.

Shabazz is on a mission: “I’ve done a hundred FIFA courses, and the things I’ve learned have filled me with the belief that a Caribbean coach can take a team from the region all the way to a major competition,” said Shabazz. “Before, the idea was always to get someone in from Europe or South America, but this is my chance now to change all that and open the way for my colleagues.”

Guyana will face hosts and Group B competitor Mexico in the daunting Azteca Stadium, where the host nation has lost only one World Cup qualifier in its history. Mexico last Saturday, defeated Brazil, 2-0, in Houston. The Guyanese will host Costa Rica on Tuesday.

In his mission to qualify for the World Cup, Shabazz and Guyana has enlisted foreign help. “We’ve got six lads in England who’ve got Guyanese parents and have decided to support the cause, among them our skipper Chris Nurse,” said the coach. “We’ve also got Leon Cort, who is with Charlton Athletic, and a few other footballers playing in the USA’s second tier and in Trinidad and Tobago.

Among those other players enlisted by Guyana is 26-year-old winger Ricky Shakes from English lower division club Ebbsfleet United; Shakes and Cort were the scorers in the defeat of Trinidad and Tobago to reach this semi-final round. “We bring experience and organization from the Premier League, League One and Two,” said Shakes about his fellow Englishmen. Cort’s older brother Carl is on board as well; he is a former English Premier League player with Wimbledon and Newcastle.

Shakes credits the coach with much of Guyana’s success so far. “He is an organized man,” said Shakes about Shabazz.

Jamaica Ready

Jamaica, Caribbean champions the past two years, will be a team to be reckoned because of its experience. Three CONCACAF World Cup berths are at stake. Jamaica, ranked 29th by FIFA, played well to reach the quarter-finals of last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup before faltering against the U.S.

The team has an infusion of new players brought in by head coach and former national midfielder Theodore Whitmore. Included in the new guard is speedy winger Dane Richards, who plays for the New York Red Bulls in MLS, and Watford (England) players Nyron Nosworthy and Adrian Mariappa. The familiar faces include forward Luton Shelton and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. Jamaica hosts Guatemala tonight; Costa Rica hosts El Salvador in the other Group B match-up.

Said Whitmore, “We haven’t won anything yet. We have laid the foundations and now we have to execute and take advantage… Brazil 2014 is there as our target.” In Group C tonight, Honduras hosts Panama and Cuba entertains Canada.

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