Caribbean football administration – inches from the precipice

Sporting excellence in the Caribbean could be understandably thought to lie within the domains of athletics and cricket. In the popular imagination, Jamaican athletes with Olympic gold medals or West Indian cricketers with T20 trophies seem representative of the region. This belies the fact that football is the most popular sport in much of the region. 

Only three Caribbean countries have qualified for the final stages, with Haiti being the first in 1974. Jamaica would qualify and record the region’s first win against Japan in 1998. In 2006, Trinidad and Tobago would become the last country from the region to make an appearance at the Finals. None of the three would go past the group stage. Since then both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago would make it to the final rounds of qualifying for CONCACAF but finish bottom of the group. Caribbean national teams do not seem particularly likely to be making another appearance at the World Cup in Qatar.

Yet despite the infrequent appearances on the field at the biggest stage, the Caribbean Football Union, which governs the game in the region is one of the major players on the world football stage and has been for some time.

FIFA is not generally thought of when one thinks of democratic processes. The election results at FIFA for everything from its executive committee to World Cup hosting selection can only be described as opaque and problematic. However, there is a significant marker of democracy in the fact that the world’s governing football body does not rank the votes of any member. Each member has a vote of equal value, no matter how many World Cups their team has won or how low in the rankings their team lies. As the CFU contains 25 members of FIFA (as well as 6 non-members such as Guadeloupe and Bonaire who have teams but have more complicated administrative status, due to being constituent countries or overseas territories of France or The Netherlands), this makes it the dominant member of the regional governing body of CONCACAF and a significant ally for anyone in FIFA.

The North American Football Union and Central American Football Union, who comprise the other regional divisions of CONCACAF, have 3 members and 7 members respectively. In a complete reversal of almost every other sphere of importance in the region, it is in football administration that the Caribbean holds power. 

It could be argued that the success of many teams has happened despite their governing bodies and not because of it (the recent acrimonious history between the players and the board in West Indies cricket is the most visible example in the region). An expected outcome of being a visible region at the organizational level would be access to funding, since FIFA earmarks a significant portion of funding to development programs for their members. Yet, across the region, the game is mired in financial disputes, from tiny Monserrat who had their football association brought to court in 2019 for unpaid taxes to the Jamaican women’s team who went on strike after their first World Cup appearance to resolve a pay dispute.

Politics in the Caribbean is a complex subject and tensions run high in several countries around election times., Politicians are largely thought of as corrupt and depending on one’s level of cynicism, expected to be corrupt as well. Even though political affiliations are usually strong and unshakeable, the most devoted supporter would not be brave enough to say their preferred party is free of corruption. This hypothesis that the culture of corruption is engrained in island society would be validated if tested at the administrative level of football. The apathy towards honesty in politics has led many people to accept corrupt politicians as long as they contribute in some visible way to improving the lives of their voters, much in the same way that gang leaders are seen as community leaders, depending on one’s perspective or affiliation (especially in Trinidad and Tobago or Jamaica). This sentiment perhaps explains the popularity of Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president, in the region for providing development funds and for expanding the number of places for CONCACAF at the World Cup. It is not that the Caribbean population thinks FIFA and the CFU are innocent of corruption but that they can be willing to accept corruption as a price of improvement.

Jack Warner, ex-Vice President of FIFA and President of CONCACAF

Two of the three previous CFU presidents, Jack Warner and Gordon Derrick have been given bans by FIFA’s Ethics Committee for a range of offences including bribery and misuse of position (founding member and first president of the CFU, Andre Kamperveen was assassinated in a politically motivated murder by the current Surinamese president). During the 2011 FIFA presidency elections, Mohammed Bin Hammam attempted to sway members of the CFU at a meeting in Trinidad and Tobago with envelopes of cash containing $US 40,000. The resulting fallout when details became public resulted in bans and reprimands for more than 20 CFU officials and Jack Warner, head of the CFU for more than two decades, lost the presidency. All three CFU members on CONCACAF’s committee were also removed.

Jack Warner, like Sepp Blatter, was popular in the Caribbean especially in his home nation. In Trinidad and Tobago, he began his career as a history teacher (where he taught my mother in sixth form. She said he rarely showed up as he was always busy with football affairs.) and after ascending to FIFA’s vice presidency also found time to be the Minister of Works and Transport (and so, technically, was my boss at my first job) and Minister of National Security. It was not a secret that his business dealings were less than exemplary but as long as the national team was doing well, the legend of someone from a tiny island going on to become a key figure in global football largely superseded any other disquiet. While his popularity certainly fell in 2011, it was not until a more complete picture of funds meant for national football development being diverted to shell companies coupled with a tremendous fall in performances by the national team, that caused the general public lose much of their admiration. 

The fight against the misuse of funds and for greater transparency for Caribbean football often comes from the players themselves. The Guyanese football team in 2012 had knocked Trinidad and Tobago out of qualifying for World Cup 2014 and were into the final round of qualifying for the Caribbean Cup before going on strike, specifically against the Guyanese Football Federation and its governance. Tasked with the already difficult project of trying to take their countries to the Gold Cup or the World Cup players sometimes also have to advocate for better funding and transparency. The public and journalists also play their part in advocating for change. But whistle-blowers are rare and even more rare are changes being done to the systems of governance without external factors influencing it. The boards rarely do what they should because of their own initiative and mandate.

The aforementioned 2006 Trinidad and Tobago team has taken the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation to court over their World Cup bonuses, where the court eventually ruled against the federation. The TTFF had their board disbanded in March 2020 by FIFA and was replaced by a normalization committee with one of their stated goals as establishing a debt repayment plan for the $US 7 Million owed. In a move that comes straight out of the playbook of local politics, the recently elected TTFF president alleged the deficit was due to corruption by the previous board. FIFA has also stated there is a lack of documentation at the TTFF and the committee will work on implementing FIFA complaint processes. FIFA is also looking into the Jamaican Football Federation and its processes, which comes after several public calls for improvement in transparency and accountability from the public, though the linkage of the two may be coincidental. 

It is not the case that the Caribbean is especially problematic in football governance, considering the global reach of FIFA’s corruption scandals. It has often been said in Trinidad , when Jack Warner’s sons would drive by in an expensive sports car or a Hummer, that “You don’t go in FIFA for football, you go to thief money”. However, the lack of existing systems of control coupled with political apathy means that corrupt officials are less likely to be caught in a timely manner if at all. The region has a need for its resources to be well invested to allow actual development and improvement of the game. Reduced funding of player development will directly cause a drop in quality that will be rapidly reflected on the national performances. The lack of investment at the grassroots and club levels means that unlike in other regions there is no possibility to rely on much being done without FIFA’s funding.

It seems unlikely Caribbean teams will be able to qualify for World Cups with any kind of regularity, unless they have the support from their boards. Unlike in more affluent regions, or ones with stronger football leagues and clubs, the Caribbean cannot afford to lose any of its football budget to non-football matters such as corruption and fines. There just isn’t enough funding to go around.

In the Caribbean, but in a different sport, global tournaments have allowed West Indian cricketers to train and play at the highest level and have access to resources that are unavailable in the Caribbean. An organized and united CFU could serve to negotiate deals for promising national players to play in Europe, much as the United States did for their national players in the early 1990s and boost the development of Caribbean players to the benefit of the national teams, much in the way the French national team benefits from the presence of its players in many of Europe’s strongest leagues. 

The Caribbean is in danger of looking towards the past as a golden age of football. It does not have to be the case. But to access any portion of this imagined brighter future, it will be necessary to attain previously unachieved levels of organization. Because without functioning systems and federations, the popularity and talent of the Caribbean at the grassroots level, will be wasted, leaving the region under-prepared for football at the highest level and perpetually attempting to catch up to nations with better pitches and better coaches. This would be nothing less than an entirely preventable tragedy, repeated enough times to begin to border on farce.

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Shastri Sookdeo

S.R. Sookdeo was born in Toronto and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. He is often found discussing the impact of football on identity.