Field of dreams gets reality check

CIFA hopeful of progress on soccer center of excellence

 When world soccer chief Sepp Blatter visited the Cayman Islands in 2009 for the groundbreaking ceremony of a new center of excellence, Cayman Islands football officials outlined lofty goals for a state-of-the-art facility. 

“I want it to be the premier location of the whole region and attract players from across the world,” Jeff Webb, then president of the Cayman Islands Football Association, told reporters at the event to open new administrative offices and announce plans for the development of three football pitches, dormitories and a gymnasium. 

Five years later, and in spite of a reported $1.8 million in spending, mostly through grants from world football’s governing body FIFA, the dream has yet to materialize.  

The 18-acre plot, donated to the association by government, is largely wetlands and has been plagued by drainage problems. Though the land was free, turning it into a usable football facility is proving a difficult and costly process. The one field that has been developed is not fit for football of any kind. 

CIFA says all that is about to change. The organization has secured another $500,000 from FIFA’s GOAL project to lay artificial turf. 

President Bruce Blake said last month that the dream of a world-class center of excellence remains alive. He said FIFA selected Dutch firm Edel Grass to lay the turf, while Island Paving was recruited to assist with construction, including raising the level of the field. 

Much of the money that has been spent at the site so far has been used for fill in an effort to turn low-lying wetlands into developable land. 

“The majority of the work so far has been fill,” said Mr. Blake. He added that much more work would be required over a number of years to develop the site, some of which is swamp, into dormitories and soccer pitches. Efforts to develop a natural turf pitch at the site proved futile, with saltwater killing the grass, leaving a patchy brown surface. 

“We couldn’t get the grass to grow,” Mr. Blake acknowledged.  

Mark Scotland, CIFA’s youth development director, said the cost of maintaining the surface as a grass pitch in those conditions is prohibitive, and the decision was taken to make a new bid to FIFA for an Astroturf pitch. That funding was approved in March, and CIFA officials believe the pitch could be in place by May. 

“The next phase of the project involves raising the base to get it clear of the water table and installing the Astroturf,” Mr. Scotland said. He acknowledged there have been setbacks, but said the difficulties are down to the quality of the land and the realities of operating as a nonprofit organization in the Cayman Islands. 

He said despite the site’s apparent lack of suitability for football and the amount of work required to make it usable, it is still the best and cheapest option to develop the center of excellence. 

Mr. Blake added that the plans have been adapted and now ultimately include two floodlit Astroturf pitches, dormitories and two beach soccer pitches. “Once we realized the situation with the swamp, we had to adjust the plans accordingly,” he said. The current funding is just for one pitch, and the other pieces of the puzzle may take several years to fall into place. 

“That’s the reality of being a nonprofit organization,” said Mr. Scotland. He said CIFA would continue to apply for funding through FIFA’s GOAL project, with the long-term aim of having a facility that can be used by Cayman’s national teams as well as visiting squads. Mr. Blake said the pitches would also help address a general shortage of playing fields in Cayman. He said the facility would help Cayman football move forward. 

“This is for all of our national teams to have one location and also our national team staff, where we can develop our national teams. And I think it’s only when we can get a project like this off the ground where we will see a long-term improvement in our national teams,” he said. 

CIFA-Swamp

Much of the 18-acre site is wetlands, making it difficult to develop. – PHOTOS: JAMES WHITTAKER
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