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.”