Cuba trip helped Scholars learn

Scholars International are not
Cayman’s most successful football team over the past 30 years for nothing;
always striving to reach the highest standards, they have a terrific work ethic
and spare no expense in trying to fulfil their ambitions.

Last season unbeaten in their first
eight league matches, Scholars went on to win the Premier League comfortably
after a wobbly spell. As defending champions this season teams will play even
harder which is why they went to Cuba last week for an intensive training camp,
partly funded by the $7,500 they received from the Cayman Islands Football
Association for winning the league. Three matches and rigorous daily training
sessions ensured they are already fitter than most even though their first
competitive match isn’t until 28 September against double cup champions George
Town for the Community Shield.

Head coach Colin ‘Dougie’ Rowe was
in charge, ably assisted by Bertram Rivers and Oratio Small. They stayed at Islazul
Las Terrazas complex, 20 miles north of Havana city centre. Reasonably priced,
basic but clean, it was ideal for the squad who after all had not gone for
partying and lazing on the beach. No real complaints from the players although
the food always lacked seasoning and there wasn’t even a bottle of hot pepper
sauce to spice it up. Ketchup was the closest the restaurant came to
tantalising the taste buds. 

In the first game, against a Cuba
select side, Scholars were two down before they got into their rhythm.
Captained by Cayman national team midfielder Chris Douglas, they had to rely on
Rowe to keep goal because regular stopper Jermaine ‘Whacky Dip’ Brown had not
been able to make the trip. Scholars gritted their teeth, changed their
formation to suit and came back well to win through goals by a Mario Watler
penalty, Eric Brown and Roy Forbes.

The second game was against another
Cuba select and Rowe was in goal again. The hosts were stronger this time and
along with some ridiculous refereeing decisions aided by a lack of linesmen,
they were three up by half time. Their second goal came when Oneil Taylor was
adjudged to have handled when he controlled the ball perfectly high on his
chest. The third was a clear offside. Scholars knew they were up against it
early in the game when they heard the Cuban coach shout at the referee not to
give any more unfavourable decisions against his side!

The Cubans scored early in the
second half again to make it 4-0. By now Scholars had worked out their
opponents’ formation and their superior fitness, organisation, control and
strength was starting to count. Just when it looked as if Scholars were about
to come back strongly the referee ended the game, even though there was at
least 10 minutes to go. Despite protests, he refused to resume the game. Their
coach smiled broadly.

In the final game Scholars had
little time to warm up. Once again, the bus had arrived late to take them to
the match. Scholars were slow to settle against club side Real Playa at the
Eduardo Saborit Stadium. Taylor went in goal this time and with a couple of
Scholars players injured there were few subs to call upon. The Cubans played
down the flanks a lot to good effect, similar to the other side and were
rewarded with a goal mid-way through the first half. Lanky centre-forward
Daniel Luis Saez, 16, who will be playing for the Cuban national Under-17 side
soon, finished a neat move from the right.

Scholars once again fought back,
putting Real Playas under constant pressure. That paid off in the 60th minute
when they got a penalty from a handball. Forbes smacked it in. Scholars had
more chances in the closing minutes but couldn’t quite find the net. 

Overall, it was a good learning
curve for Scholars who are used to playing on flat artificial pitches but had
to adapt to patchy, natural grass on uneven surfaces. Besides getting fitter,
the players also got a chance to bond with new members of the squad and get
focused for the challenges ahead.