The United States opens World Cup qualifying today against Antigua and Barbuda, a game described by the Washington Post as David versus Goliath and his two snarling brothers. There is little drama to the outcome or indeed purpose to playing the game. True, if the Faroe Islands can have a team in World Cup qualification (um, where ARE the Faroe Islands?), then certainly the micro-states of the Caribbean are entitled to contesting the tournament, too. And, also true, the game does mean that the country will receive some press outside of the travel section of the newspapers, albeit small articles buried in the sports section.
But, really? The entire population of the nation of Antigua and Barbuda is less than 100,000 and could fit comfortably into the Dallas Cowboys football stadium. In all of World Cup history, only four Caribbean nations have ever gone to the tournament itself, all of which, not coincidentally, are among the larger states: Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, Jamaica in 1998, Haiti in 1974, and Cuba in 1938. The Benna Boys effort is therefore not just quixotic, it is somewhat of a farce.
So here is a proposal for consideration next time: the Caribbean nations should band together to compete under one flag, much as the West Indies do within world cricket competitions. The West Indies, or “Windies,” are a sporting confederation of 15 mainly English-speaking countries, British dependencies and non-British dependencies, and, although their fortunes have lately waned, in the 1970s achieved status as the world’s best. Much sporting success has come to the islands by pooling their resources. More importantly, working together toward a common goal is one element that has contributed at least somewhat to broader regional integration efforts.
The comparison is not perfect: soccer and cricket are different games, of course, and not all of those involved in cricket are eligible to participate in World Cup qualifying. As well, nations including Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica have achieved recent World Cup qualifying success on their own and may have little interest in participating as a group.
Nonetheless, the time has come to reconsider regional qualifying. Why not put together the island nations of the Eastern Caribbean, as a start (with or without Trinidad and Tobago), and enter the next time as a group? There are no guarantees that the results will be different, although the odds would at least improve; even with pooled resources the countries would still likely struggle on the pitch. Ultimately, though, that is not really the point, because the real agenda has to do with economic integration in the Caribbean Basin which continues to be more aspirational than reality. Building a team to compete in the World Cup would contribute to this long sought goal.
Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” There is nothing like a joint sporting endeavor to begin to change minds, but if you want to work together, you first need to come together as a group. The World Cup in 2018 could help to achieve that goal.
Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.