Caribbean Football‘s Nathan Carr looks at St Kitts and Nevis’ World Cup qualifying preparation and speaks to two players, captain Atiba Harris and winger Zeph Thomas…
It’s that time again: when those smaller nations all over the world can dream of making it to global football’s showpiece event – the World Cup. The CONCACAF qualifying cycle for 2018 commences with the first round in March and will last for 33 months. One such team harbouring hopes of making it out of the first round and going onto have a successful campaign is St Kitts and Nevis.
Affectionately nicknamed as “The Sugar Boyz”, the Caribbean twin-island were drawn against the Turks & Caicos Islands in the confederation’s preliminary draw conducted in Miami in mid-January, which determined the region’s first and second rounds, while the other three phases will be decided later in July in St Petersburg. They will host the first leg in the capital Basseterre on Monday 23rd before travelling to Providenciales for the second leg three days later, and spirits are high among the camp ahead of the match-up.
The country’s captain Atiba Harris, currently contracted to FC Dallas in Major League Soccer said, “It’s always a great feeling surrounding the World Cup draw. I’m excited and looking forward to the start of the campaign. As a nation, we’ll love to go as far as possible but at this present time, our main focus is on doing well and getting a positive result against Turks & Caicos.”
St Kitts are tipped as favourites for the clash given the gulf in quality of personnel, and their head-to-head record speaks for itself; St Kitts hammered Turks & Caicos 14-0 back in 2002 World Cup qualifying. Harris insists that his team cannot let complacency creep in, though. “We need to score multiple goals in the first leg without conceding,” he explained. “That would be the ideal scenario for us and as of now, that’s the plan.”
St Kitts have been training with locally based players in recent weeks, as the overseas-based members of the group will fly out to join up with the squad in the coming days. There are sometimes lingering fears over culture clashes between locals and the diaspora in the Caribbean, but The Sugar Boyz are hardly low on team cohesion, as Harris points out, “We have a good squad of players and the team unity is first class. I think we’ve showed that we can score goals and be disciplined defensively.” The group is comprised of both local players plying their trade in the country’s domestic divisions and also those born abroad to St Kittian parents.
There’s a strong core of British-based individuals such as Romaine Sawyers (Walsall), Tesfa Robinson (Chasetown) and Zeph Thomas (Boston United). 26-year-old Thomas, born and raised in Bradford, England, realised his eligibility for the former British colony through his grandfather and made contact with the national federation about representing them. Ex-international Des Hazel, also born in Bradford and a member of the federation at the time, reviewed some footage of Thomas in action and decided to call him up for 2012 Caribbean Cup qualifiers. Thomas has been a key component of the national setup ever since. The winger said, “I feel the team can beat anybody and we have come a long way after losing out on one goal in the Caribbean Cup [2014 edition]. We have a great squad and all the lads are really focused and ready to go on a real run.”
Thomas makes reference to the Caribbean Cup, the region’s main international competition held every two years, which saw St Kitts miss out on qualification to the finals because of inferior goal difference. They were pipped to the post by French Guiana in October last year, but fans were encouraged by their performance levels in both the first and second round. Although the team were unable to advance to the tournament’s climax in November, they still showed signs of progression which bodes well heading into World Cup qualifying.
St Kitts’ best ever World Cup campaign was in 2006, impressively beating US Virgin Islands and Barbados to reach the third stage, where they more than met their match in a group consisting of Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago and St Vincent & the Grenadines. But what was so special about that side nine years ago? “I was a youngster breaking into that team and it was a fantastic experience,” Harris recalls. “Team chemistry and bonding played a huge role with the local and overseas players coming together over a period of time. Everyone was willing to go that extra mile for their teammate.” As Harris touches on, that sense of team bonding is essential for smaller nations and their chances of success. You only have to look at Haiti in 1974, Jamaica in 1998 and Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 – three Caribbean countries to have made the World Cup finals through a combination of skill and hard work.
But it all starts with the trip north west in just a week’s time for St Kitts. Thomas agrees with his skipper that getting on the front foot early on is going to be important: “The game plan is the same as every game: to go out and win and do the country proud. I feel we can beat anyone but we have to be focused and disciplined.” They certainly possess enough weapons in their armoury to cause damage to the Turks & Caicos defence. Thomas is a quick and intelligent midfielder who boasts a fierce long shot, while Sawyers, formerly on the books of West Bromwich Albion, is performing consistently in League One. In the Caribbean Cup, the team’s offensive options were boosted by the arrival of young Leicester City striker Harry Panayiotou, born to a St Kittian mother and a Cypriot father. The highly rated 20-year-old is expected to play a key role in World Cup qualifying with his raw speed and predatory instincts bound to cause any back-line problems. On paper, anyway, St Kitts have enough to get out of the first round. Should they do so, they’ll face Central American side Nicaragua in another two-legged playoff. The squad will be truly tested.
There’s no denying that St Kitts and Nevis are a team making steady progress. Achieving qualification for the World Cup finals is some way off yet, but it’s entirely conceivable that they could make the third round of 2018 qualifying. With the squad set to be strengthened leading up to kick off and confidence high, the Caribbean twin-island home to just over 50,000 inhabitants is hoping to raise a few eyebrows in this World Cup campaign.