By G. Michael Reid

Football was the big craze over the past two weeks as our beloved Jaguars broke ground into the realm of higher competition.  As one announcer on Fox Sports put it, “this is our World Cup”. To this point he is right but given the encouraging showing of our boys, he might at some point, be made to change that tune.

That of course, will depend on how we handle our minimal success. Given that six one loss to the US, a one nil loss to Costa Rica and a four nil loss to Cuba would not ordinarily qualify as success for most countries, but for Belize it is a step up. This is the first time we have ever competed at this level and normally, we are used to our teams going abroad and “taking a lot” from much less competent competition. Of course, the Gold Cup is still not the biggest stage as the real competition resides even higher up at the World Cup. Teams like Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are consistently in the top ten. To put things in perspective, the US is currently ranked at 22nd while Belize sits in 130th. Again though, for us it is a step in a good direction and now it will be up to us to ensure that the next step is further up and not back down. That will take some doing.

Belizeans “talked big” going into our match against the US, but in our hearts, we knew that it was only wishful thinking. We hoped only, that our boys would show heart and put up a good fight. Even the players themselves admitted that they fell short in that department but having watched the US team demolish Guatemala six nil, we were comforted by the fact that we were able to at least score a goal.  Vicente’s asinine comments about “embarrassing the US” did little to help and I would suggest a gag order for any future matches.

We then saw a much better showing against Costa Rica and realized that our boys had taken some notes from the loss to the US.  We saw better ball movement, better control and more cohesion. In fact, had it not been for a goal inadvertently scored on ourselves, we were in an excellent position for a tie. A tie is as good as a win in these competitions and would have done much for the moral of the team. I think that we all feel sorrier for, than angry at young Eiley for after all, this is not Columbia. This is Belize where we are more compassionate and forgiving.

There have been many excuses given for our failure, in particular against the US team; some are legitimate. The US team is well funded and their players eat, sleep and live football while many of our boys have full time jobs. They get way better training and for a certainty, even their kindergartens have better facilities than our university. These are all correctable realities. The amount of money that is stolen, squandered and shared among corrupt politicians and their families from our public funds can be put to better use in providing funding and facilities for our athletes. The Prime Minister just returned from a very expensive junket to the UK which he boasted was “paid for by the people and government of Belize”. Ten days of high life comes at a pretty high price. Yet, the football team which gave Belize invaluable international exposure had to rely on panhandling and barbecue sales for financing. Is it just me or is there something awfully wrong here?

Minister of Sports Herman Longsworth, in an interview given on June 26th, stated that his government could not spend money on “1 or 2% of the population”. Interestingly enough, he was up front and center profiling when the team played their first game in Portland. Upon returning, Longsworth was heard doing some serious back-peddling and claimed that what his government is doing is to “ensure that we build the base”.  Exactly where is this base being built Mister Minister?

Actually, that is exactly what needs to be happening.  We need to promote sports and in particular football, from early in our primary schools. Funding is not the only thing that the US athletes have over ours. Those athletes are brought up through a system of discipline and good coaching. Most of our schools hardly have space for classrooms, much less playgrounds.

Another reason given why the US team was so much better than ours is because they have been together for a longer time. Let us look at that! Soccer as a sport is fairly new to the US. It was not until the late seventies that the legendary Pele was recruited to give the sport exposure and to properly introduce it to audiences in that country. It was almost two decades later, in the mid to late nineties that a Major League Soccer (MLS) association was formed. That is when the sport really began gaining popularity and when “hockey moms” gave way to “soccer moms”. That aspect of the sport is more relevant than we realize.

In Belize now, competitive soccer, or football as we knew it, was a rage from way back in colonial times.  Teams like Dunlop, BEC, Landivar, etc. were drawing huge crowds to the MCC and such places like Edward’s Park from way back in the fifties. Men like Angus Vernon, Louis Garbutt, Winty J and others like them were household names and legitimate stars of the game. The older folks always brag about how well they played in the older days and to this day, we have countless competitions each year. What are we doing wrong and why are we still at this level? What has stymied our growth?

Growing up on southside Belize City, I watched many heated matches at then Edward’s Park. In our spare time, us kids would find any open lot to make a field. This is a part of what is lacking. There are so many empty lots in Belize City that could be cut and filled to provide playing space for our children. It is a simple plan, add the cost to the property tax of the owners and when they refuse to pay, acquire the properties to cover the cost and for the public good. Until they are sold or put to other use, the children would have a place to play.

If we want this thing to work, it will take some planning and some work. Funding yes, but just pouring funds into sports in and of itself, is not the panacea. There must be Little Leagues and primary school competitions. This is where the “soccer mom” aspect comes into play. Parents must also be involved and encourage their children and support them. Every school should have a football field and sports must be fully incorporated into the curriculums. Every district should have a FIFA certified football field and must be properly maintained. Many of these players from our national team came up playing football in places like Berger Field. Have you passed there lately? After much political pandering and promises, it is still a just an open space with hardly any grass. And we want to create champions that will embarrass the US? People please!

We can do this! But we must start now. We have seen what a successful sports team can do for our nation. With all else dividing us, here is something that unifies us. We know what sports has done for many young people who would have gone wayward had they not had an opportunity to play sports. We don’t need politicians profiling for mileage and we don’t need so-called owners and managers exploiting our young people. What we need is a holistic, coordinated effort. All of us, working together to make this happen Let us begin this journey to excellence!

The Belize Times