When you think of Barbados, you think of rum and Rihanna (a newly-acquainted Juventus fan, no less). Football isn't always the first thing that springs to mind, but this island is crazy for it.
Barbados is a member of the wonderfully sounding governing body, CONCACAF, which includes the North and Central Americas, as well as all of the 28 Carribean islands, as diverse a group of nations as you will find. Ranked 152nd in the FIFA World Rankings, sandwiched between Tahiti and Fiji, perhaps it becomes clear why the sport here isn’t the first thing that goes through your head.
As a tropical storm gives way to intense humidity and Carribbean tunes, football is at the forefront of hundreds of Bajan minds tonight. Wildey Turf, on the outskirts of Bridgetown, is the unassuming 2000 capacity venue where locals park their cars wherever there is some free space, on or off road. Going into the stadium, the metal detectors feel out of kilter with the relaxed atmosphere around the ground (and the island in general), but as fans filter through, the atmosphere slowly builds, people using tissue and cardboard to protect against the wet, uncovered bleachers. It seems crazy to think this place has hosted World Cup qualifiers. The bar does a roaring trade, with an unsurprising bias towards rum, selling them in quarter bottles with mixers, UEFA it ain't. The very reasonable price of 20bbd (roughly £8) for back to back matches has certainly helped to swell the crowds. The food looks better than anything Wembley would offer, jerk chicken, rice and peas with flames dancing around the grill. Reggae fades down, the stadium announcer goes through his routine and it's game time, in the Capelli Super Cup quarter finals.
Randy Harris, the president of the Barbados FA tells The Culture Division “The Capelli Super Cup was introduced as a spur for the players to train and improve their quality of play and to boost our gate receipts”. This is a man whose love for the game is unparalleled, having been involved since the 70’s in a multitude of capacities, not least holding the honour of being the youngest General Secretary in Barbados when he was elevated to that post 1982 at the age of 28, a position he held for seven years. He even lived out everyone's Championship Manager fantasies, leading out the Barbados National Team at the finals of the Shell Caribbean Cup in 1990.
“I became involved as a player. That was short-lived however, when I realised that there were many players much better than I was. My love for the game continued and with the assistance of some elders I became general secretary of the Barbados Football Association at a young age. I really wanted to make a difference in the lives of our young people, since the game that done the same for me”. Essentially, he is the Bajan Michel Platini - just without the corruption.
Tonight's teams are Empire, in traditional blue, and Blackbirds, in yellow and white. The crowd is subdued but the kochidas are making a racket. The first few minutes are punctured by cagey exchanges with long balls not finding the target, with the bulky (kind description) centre forward for Blackbirds doing his best to hold up the ball. Number 10 for Empire is growing into the game, resembling a European trequartista with his positioning and poise. Any through ball is just skidding off the wet astro turf, with no player finding their range just yet.
Blackbirds take the lead on 25 minutes, a rapid counter from an Empire corner, down the pitch in two passes, finished off by number 14 with the most satisfying strike, cannoning off the bar and in. The 10 for Empire nearly helped his side level with a wonderful free kick from the right curled in, but the forward strayed marginally offside. Players of his quality can really push the game in Barbados to another level. There are no official drinks breaks here, despite the fact it’s a sweltering 30 degrees, so when a player goes down with an injury, the others take the opportunity to rehydrate.
A sidenote for the squad number nerds - don't watch Bajan football. 3 is centre back and 6 is right back for Empire. 9 is centre midfield and 3 is right back for the Blackbirds, unconventional to say the least. Also, an outfielder takes the goal kicks for the Blackbirds, which is a wonderful throwback. It should have been two-nil on the stroke of half-time, as the Blackbirds split the defence open with a nutmeg slide rule pass that was really well saved by the Empire goalkeeper.
The half time whistle brings a mad dash for the rum bar and rotis, very different to molten pies and flat, warm larger.
During the interval, a chance meeting with Randy offers more insight as he explains the government doesn't help with football on the island, the stadium is a FIFA 2.0 project, he is really pushing to develop the infrastructure here. To think the president of the FA is just mingling with fans and everyone seems to know him is a wonderful thing, truly a different world here. What is his take on the atmosphere? “Fan culture is very low keyed, a good attendance at times, once the games are competitive”
The second half begins with an Empire free kick from 40 yards, that somehow clears the fencing behind the goal. A group of fans have gathered in a small corner of the bleachers playing drum ‘n’ bass and smoking something that smells suspiciously different to cigarettes, which adds to the party vibe around the stadium. Then it's Blackbirds turn to clear the fence, as vendors patrol the stands selling cold beer and indeterminate snacks, which provides an unwanted distraction from the action on the pitch as Empire nearly equalise.
A member of the crowd shouts "Ref you're a div boy". That's a new one, coming to a Premier League ground near you. This also makes a mockery of Randy’s previous assertion that fan culture is subdued.
All Empire so far in the second half, frustration showing as they haven't yet made a breakthrough. Blackbirds, against the run of play, almost made it 2-0, this time the crossbar is a hindrance not a help for the team in yellow and white. The game draws to a disappointing close for Empire, but the Blackbirds hold on for a semi-final place in the cup.
There is clearly ability and potential, you only have to look at athletics and cricket, where the nation has had relative success, so what could be holding football back? As Randy explains, his number one aim is to “Develop strong coaching education from primary schools and up...Right now there is a dearth of certified coaches in this amateur atmosphere. Then we can introduce professional football”
You can see football is on the up here, the crowds are interested and engaged, there is both a community and a party feel. On the pitch there is athleticism and tactical knowhow. It surely won't be long until this football-mad island makes an impact on the world stage.