A Goal-Oriented Trip To The Caribbean

Author: 
Jose Lambiet
Date Published: 
1996-08-11
Source: 
New York Daily News

SURF & SOCCER
A MATCH THAT'S MADE IN HEAVEN AS ISLAND SQUADS VIE FOR WORLD CUP BERTHS

As if snorkeling in turquoise waters, lounging in a hammock tied to two palm trees and strolling on a deserted beach aren't reasons enough to take that Caribbean vacation, here's another one: World Cup soccer.

Through the fall, four Caribbean nations will duke it out with other North American and Central American countries for the right to play in the 1998 World Cup in France.

Caribbean "football" is as colorful as the local marine life.

"I would encourage people to go to a game down there," said Steve Sampson, coach of the U.S. national team, who expects a tough challenge from Trinidad. "It's a great atmosphere. And we could use some U.S. fans."

Take me out to the ballgame

I saw Caribbean soccer on a recent weekend when I flew to St. Vincent, four hours on a jet to Barbados and one on a Mustique Airways eight-seater, to attend a World Cup pre-qualifier match against St. Kitts and Nevis.

St. Vincent is the largest of 33 sparsely populated islands off the coast of Venezuela that form the Grenadines. This relatively new country it gained independence from Britain in 1969 is known for rainforests, an active volcano, the banana industry and an absence of tourists. It has drawn the likes of David Bowie and Raquel Welch.

The national stadium, Arnos Vale Field, lies on a black-sand beach a penalty-kick away from Kingstown, the capital. Getting there was interesting.

I took the island's only means of transport, one of the vans that justify the names painted on their windshields Phil the Thrill and God Have Mercy. Built for 10 people, the one I took to the game (for 30 cents) whipped around mountains with 17 riders onboard, including the 6-year-old stranger on my lap. Its toothy driver played calypso music so loud, the windows felt as if they would shatter. But we got there with 15 minutes to spare.

First surprise: The ticket line, $3 for the bleachers and $5 for seats, was non-existent. Fans usually arrive five minutes before kickoff. Second surprise: Some of the players were just getting there, too, in the same vans as spectators. Third: Officials were just drawing the field's lines, building the goals and hanging the nets.

I settled in the bleachers with a 35-cent coconut bought from a stocky, machete-wielding woman outside the stadium. For 25 cents more, she cut it open and poured in a shot of rum.

It was hot, 100 degrees, but the ocean breeze made it bearable. Though the 6,000-seat stadium wasn't pretty, the scenery was something else.

To the south, waves crashed on dark rocks as Bequia Island loomed on the horizon. To the north, hills covered with banana trees extended high into the sky, tiny houses clinging to their flanks. And palm and coconut tree-tops appeared above the stadium walls.

When St. Vincent, in blue-and-yellow, and St. Kitts, in black, red, green and yellow, took the field, it wasn't the testosterone-packed affair I've seen in U.S. stadiums. The fans urged their team on, criticized their players often and loudly, but never used profanities.

"Well, you can't use foul language in public here," said Lester Bacchus, 56, a former policeman. "It can fetch three months in jail and a $500 fine."

I had another explanation: the smell of ganja wafted from the upper stands.

On the field, meanwhile, crafty little players displayed amazing speed and dribbling skills. Undeterred by the heat, they fired shots, headed the ball toward the goal and, despite their amateur status, played a quality game.

The match ended in a 0-0 tie, enough for St. Vincent to advance (they scored two goals at St. Kitts the previous week). And though I hate that type of score, sharing stories with my bleacher mates made the day enjoyable.

Tony Sardines, owner of a nearby stately mansion-turned-hotel, reminisced on the 1992 campaign, when St. Vincent unsuccessfully tried to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

"We were beaten by a total 28-0 in six games," he said. "We lost 11-0 at Mexico, but that's because someone fired a cannon near the hotel between 2 and 4 a.m. to keep our boys up all night."

It was like a sauna

"Yeah, but we got them when they came here," said Dr. Francois Truchot, 29, a Frenchman who started a dentistry clinic. "We made Mexico play us at high noon imagine the heat! And to make it worse, we sprayed the field with water 30 minutes before the game. It felt like a sauna. Mexico still won, but only 4-0."

Nearby, potbellied Scobie Taylor, whose first name is the name of the boat on which his father once sank, wasn't pleased with the performance.

"I knew it," said the man who represented his country in soccer, snooker, cricket and table tennis. "Our boys were seen in bars all night, and now they can't score a goal!"

Sidebar: CATCH THE ACTION

For soccer and beachball aficionados, St. Vincent plays at home, against Mexico on Sept. 15; Jamaica on Sept. 22, and Honduras on Oct. 13.

Trinidad and Tobago meets the U.S. in Port-of-Spain on Nov. 24; Costa Rica on Sept. 1, and Guatemala on Oct. 6.

Cuba, which does not play home games at home, is pitted against El Salvador Sept. 9 in Veracruz, Mexico; Panama on Sept. 22 in Colombia (site to be named), and Canada on Oct. 13 in Edmonton. In Cuba, all sporting events are free, and Cuban soccer officials prefer playing abroad.

Jamaica, at Kingston, meets Honduras on Sept. 15; St. Vincent on Nov. 10; Mexico on Nov. 17.

TICKET INFORMATION: Contact CONCACAF, the New York-based ruling body of international soccer in North America, at (212) 308-0044.