Cayman’s international soccer programme is going through a renaissance. After playing only one match in five years, the national squad face Montserrat in a Nations League match Friday evening in what will be their sixth international encounter in as many months. The Under-17 national team will be in action in a World Cup qualifier in Florida on the same day.
After years of making headlines for the wrong reasons, Cayman Islands Football Association chief Alfredo Whittaker believes the island is ready to make a big impression on the pitch.
Despite a lack of funding, Whittaker says he has enlisted the support of the islands’ clubs and a small army of volunteers to revive the national programmes.
The CONCACAF Nations League programme of international matches has given the senior national team a full slate of internationals to prepare for.
After defeats to regional powerhouses Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Cayman drew with St. Lucia in its last game in the competition.
The visit of Montserrat, which despite its tiny population has posted some good recent results, represents a chance to go for a first win, says Whittaker.
“We have a big expectation,” he said.
“The team is training well and we have a good selection of players. The players have more and more confidence and we are playing for a good result.”
The match kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Ed Bush Stadium in West Bay. Whittaker hopes to see a packed crowd for the game.
“The people of Cayman love football, they want to see the national team playing,” he said.
“Once we start to win games, they are going to want to come out and support, and we will see a full house.”
The CONCACAF Nations League tournament has breathed new life into international football in the region. Even if Cayman loses to Montserrat and finishes bottom of its group, it will be in the draw for the next phase of the competition. All teams from the first phase will be ranked from 1-34 and placed into three leagues for the next stage of the competition.
“The tournament effectively never ends,” said Whittaker.
“The top teams play the other top teams and the bottom ones play against each other. We get to play some really competitive games.”
A year ago, Whittaker said Cayman’s national programmes were not functioning. Only the Under-15 girls team and the Under-20 boys team were training regularly.
Now, he said, teams in all age groups are in almost constant training.
“The idea is that when we go to tournaments we don’t just go as a beating stick,” he added.
He said this had been made possible with the support of the clubs and their coaches, who assist the national programme.
The Under-17s have won two out of two matches in Florida, where they are attempting to progress for the next phase of the World Cup qualifiers. They play St. Vincent Friday. Once that tournament is over, they will begin training with the Under-20 national squad.
Director of Football Alex Gonzales believes Cayman, currently ranked 203 in the world, has enough talent to begin moving up the ladder of nations. He said it was important to get kids into consistent programmes at a young age.
“We have good talent, but we have to work better with the younger age groups,” he said. “We do need to get them in earlier.”
“Previously, we have established teams for one tournament and then stopped. Now, as soon as one process finishes the next one starts,” he added.
Whittaker believes the association deserves credit for what it has done to re-establish the national programmes over the past few years. After the financial scandals of recent years, he insists it is time to focus on football.
“If you look around the world, all the associations in the world, including Germany [and] Brazil, [were] involved in some sort of scandal. We need to clear this out. End it there and move on. It has to be about the sports,” he said.
He hopes government will support the sport again, but said it does not have to be in the form of a financial contribution.
“At no point in my conversations with government have I asked them to give me one dollar,” he said. “There [are] many ways they can help football in Cayman.”
He said the national team programmes were important, but his main goal is to encourage participation.
“My hope is to have 3,000 kids playing football, to have the Centre of Excellence field split into four, and filled with people playing every day.”
The Cayman v Montserrat CONCACAF Nations League match kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Ed Bush Stadium. Entry is $10.