TAMPA – To appreciate the magnitude of Antigua and Barbuda’s challenge against the U.S. men’s national soccer team in a World Cup qualifying match here Friday, consider this:
Three-quarters of the population from the tourist speck in the Leeward Islands could fit into Raymond James Stadium, the 66,000-seat venue hosting the semifinal-round opener. The nation’s land mass is six times smaller than Tampa’s Hillsborough County.
From a soccer standpoint, Antigua and Barbuda has 2,200 registered players; the United States has 4.2 million. Many U.S. players work for first-division clubs in major European countries. Most Antiguans are employed by Antigua Barracuda FC, a two-year-old operation toiling in the third division of the U.S. pro system.
This isn’t David vs. Goliath. It’s David vs. Goliath and his two snarling brothers.
“Playing the U.S., it’s certainly a different level,” said Tom Curtis, an Englishman who coaches both Antigua Barracuda and the national team. “We hope to compete and do ourselves justice.”
Antigua and Barbuda is among dozens of tiny countries with big dreams of reaching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Many have already been eliminated, purged in a web of regional competitions that began in June 2011 and won’t conclude until November 2013.
Even in CONCACAF, a middling soccer circuit encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda has little chance of earning one of the three automatic berths in the 2014 tournament. The United States and Mexico are the neighborhood bullies, with Honduras and Costa Rica elbowing their way into the top tier.
Only four Caribbean nations have ever gone to the World Cup: Trinidad and Tobago (2006), Jamaica (1998), Haiti (1974) and Cuba (1938).
Antigua’s immediate goal is to reach the next stage of qualifying, a six-nation final round next year. To accomplish that, the Benna Boys (benna is a local music genre) must finish first or second in this four-team group featuring the United States, Jamaica and Guatemala.
“We carry the hopes of all the small islands in our region — St. Kitts, St. Lucia, the whole Leeward Islands,” captain George Dublin said. “We have this opportunity to shine and show the world that Antigua has some good footballers and we can get to the world stage. It is a precious situation for us.”
The smallest countries, by population, to qualify for the World Cup were Trinidad and Tobago (1.2 million), Northern Ireland (1.8 million) three times and Slovenia (2 million) twice.
Antigua (89,000) has never qualified for the Gold Cup, CONCACAF’s in-house tournament. Its best finish in the Caribbean Cup was fourth in 1998. Its FIFA ranking peaked at 83rd in the world last November and is currently No. 105. Home field is a cricket ground.
In this World Cup cycle, however, Antigua and Barbuda has defied the odds. It has won five of six matches in the second stage to edge group favorite Haiti for a semifinal berth.
“It’s been a big success story,” Curtis said, “but now it’s a big, big step up.”
Curtis, 39, was a midfielder in England’s lower tiers for 16 years and coached at the university level before being tapped for the Caribbean gig by Bryan Hamilton, Northern Ireland’s former coach who is now Antigua and Barbuda’s technical director.
Increased government aid and private cash have invigorated the national team program. To concentrate efforts, Antigua Barracuda FC was born. Previously, the core of the national team was semipro and amateur.
Barracuda gained admission to the United Soccer Leagues’ Pro division, two levels below MLS and one step behind the new North American Soccer League. In its first season last year, the club posted a 9-13-2 record. This year, the club is 2-6-0, 10th in the 11-team league.
Road trips require distant journeys to, among other places, Los Angeles and Harrisburg, Pa., Richmond and Rochester, N.Y.
With the qualifiers approaching — the second match is Tuesday at home against Jamaica — Barracuda has been off since May 13. The national squad set up training camp at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.
Thanks to Antiguan family roots, several Englishman are eligible to represent the country — most notably midfielder Mikele Leigertwood, whose goal in April earned Reading promotion into the English Premier League, and forward Dexter Blackstock, an eight-goal scorer for Nottingham Forest in England’s second flight. Others are from the English fourth and fifth divisions and a regional conference.
Curtis has used a network of former colleagues in England to identify players eligible for Antigua and Barbuda, a former British colony.
But “the backbone of our team is the local players,” Curtis said. “It’s certainly a challenge, with lots of difficulties and issues, but the federation has taken a visionary approach. We’ve tried to bring the right players with the right mentality into our team.”
In March, the team received a pep talk from, of all people, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan: “You may be small but so is the atom, and when you crack the atom, it releases power.”