Sun, Sand, Ennui and Anguilla: Postcard From The Bottom of The World

Football Paradise takes a trip to Anguilla, a beautiful island in the Carribean, and chillin’ at the bottom of the FIFA world rankings.

For many outside the region, Jamaica encapsulates their vision of the Caribbean. Reggae, food and sports has created a cultural brand that has been exported to such a mass extent, that an area of the world inhabited by 41 distinctly different islands has largely been moulded into one generalised notion. Trinidad and Barbados will ring bells for many, but other smaller islands often go forgotten.

Anguilla, one such island, measuring a mere 16 miles by 3 miles, has a population of around 13,000.  For such a small and beautiful island that exudes natural radiance and the vibrancy of life, it is criminal to think that upon discovery by the British in the 17th century, it was used as a breeding ground for Tobacco, the vice which is also the detrimental antithesis of life.

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Like the historically covered ‘’Scramble for Africa’’, the earlier ‘’Scramble for the Caribbean’’ meant that at some point, most islands were sold or traded between European nations. Anguilla was owned by the British, then the Dutch, before a failed attempt by the French to take it ultimately ended with the island being claimed by the British once and for all. Borders being flexible during British periods of rule meant that from 1880, it was illogically grouped with St Kitts and Nevis, to form the a colony of three islands with no cultural or even geographical ties.

That’s not to say the country is passive; in 1967 British foreign minister William Whitlock had to flee the island amidst gunshots coming from members of Anguilla’s separatist movement in a decade which saw two revolutions from the population, which is mainly made up of African descendants taken over during the slave trade.

Being owned by the British meant that football naturally became ingrained into the social fabric of the island and over the years Anguilla has gained some media attention for one reason alone: they are always ranked bottom of the FIFA World Rankings.

When the FIFA election is held every four years at an extravagant Zurich location, the small island is one of the first to stand and make their vote count: Anguilla, due to alphabetical ordering, cast their   vote before most others and on paper at least, hold the same diplomatic power as a Brazil or England. Yet ask most people to pinpoint the island on a map and they would struggle. Pinpointing them on the FIFA World Ranking list would require you to scroll down to the bottom and search.

Anguilla, the mystery.

Anguilla, a British Overseas Territory in the Eastern Caribbean, comprises a small main island and several offshore islets. Its beaches range from long sandy stretches like Rendezvous Bay, overlooking neighboring Saint Martin island, to secluded coves reached by boat, such as at Little Bay. Protected areas include Big Spring Cave, known for its prehistoric petroglyphs, and East End Pond, a wildlife conservation site.

It’s ironic that the beautiful game has eluded one of the world’s most beautiful islands. Anguilla, is a postcard destination, a maritime paradise of blue water and white sands. A sea of optimism that has contrasts a depressing consistency in a sport which thrives off teams seeking eternal improvement: constantly rooted to the bottom of the FIFA World Rankings (in joint 206th place), and with no climb in sight, one needs to ask, what motivates Anguilla?

Many would argue that Anguilla’s most significant contribution to World football is the single vote the nation gets at FIFA elections, the same amount as every other nation under the FIFA Umbrella.  The island, used as a tax haven by many, is also a beneficiary of FIFA’s annual 500,000 US Dollar funding, a remarkable amount for such a small island, and they have received almost $2m additionally from FIFA since 2003 to build facilities, including a 1,100 capacity football stadium.

Yet stadiums and large funds don’t create successful players, and the small population of the island combined with a lack of development plan means that local football has remained at a very very low standard.

Controversial former FIFA President Sepp Blatter once made a visit to the island in 2010 to open the stadium, suggesting the importance of Anguilla’s voting power in FIFA elections more than anything. The former President would  rather optimistically say during his visit “The dream (of a new stadium) must be treasured, the legacy must be transferred to the field of play…we need more young Peles in Anguilla’’ before claiming he turned down requests from 18 other countries in order to visit the Anguillians.  The master of charm at work.  

The island has played all of 30 games since its introduction to FIFA in 1997, and has officially achieved three wins in total, all against fellow British territories Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands. The pinnacle of Anguillan football has been a somewhat miraculous goalless draw against Dominican Republic in 2006 World Cup qualifiers thirteen years ago and their highest ever ranking has been 190th, which they achieved in 1997, the same year they started.

Infrequent fixtures means that most players only achieve a handful of caps and there is no continuity for development as team, indeed, since 2012 they have only played 10 official FIFA fixtures, the same amount a team such as England or Brazil can often play in just one year. Big losses for the team in recent years have included a 14-1 loss to Grenada, 12-0 loss to El Salvador and a 10-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. For the high of their goal-less draw vs the Dominicans, there have been more than enough lows.

For the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, they ambitiously hired Polish-born coach Richard Orlowski, who dismissed the side’s lowly ranking to the media with the line “This is football and anything can happen.”’ Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and Anguilla lost 8-0 on aggregate to Nicaragua. Orlowski left soon after citing poor administration as one reason. 

“After over one month of preparation for the World Cup qualifiers, we played two friendly games with the British Virgin Islands and one with Saint Martin. We won all three games and the Anguilla players were so motivated. They knew we had momentum, and every practice they worked harder and waited for the FIFA ranking.”

– Richard Orlowski

Anticipating a move up from last place, the team and coach were dismayed to find out they had not moved up even one place. Saint Martin were not a FIFA nation so that win was not recorded and the request to FIFA to make the match vs British Virgin Islands official was never made and thus that match did not count.

The motivation and commitment to football was gone’’ Orlowski would say when discussing how that affected the players. It seems that administration has played as much a role in Anguilla’s inability to progress. Raymond Guishard, the President of the football association, was banned for 45 days in 2011 during the infamous ‘’cash for votes’’ scandal which shook FIFA, but returned to the Presidential seat afterwards and has remained there ever since. The administration has also been involved in disputes with local clubs over the years which have seen many teams drop out of the local league

With no professional league, the top domestic league is known as the AFA Senior Male League and contains nine teams, some with simple names, such as ‘’Attackers’’, whilst others such as defending champions  ‘’Salsa Ballers’’ have opted for more memorable names.  

Roaring Lions FC, another big club on the island, went so far as to withdraw from the league during the 2015-16 domestic season due to what they saw as ‘’a lack of viable opportunities for our players and the stagnation of football in Anguilla’’, a rather bleak outlook that does not reflect well on those administering football on the island.

The players who do feature in the league also go on to make up the National team, but work day-jobs as teachers and bankers, and as Anguilla has no real diaspora which other countries in the region usually can count on, the Anguillan dream of ever progressing seems to have no chance of ever becoming a reality.

So what has the team been doing to motivate themselves, to find an outlet of hope? The answer is that keyword which many teams emphasise an importance on: youth development.

Football in Anguilla

‘‘It’s always difficult for an association or federation to when it’s time to rebuild, when it’s time to move forward from what you already had or the players had before you. We have started our preparation for 2022 (World Cup qualifiers). Long term succession planning is always effective’’ says Nigel Linton, a member of the backroom staff, in a suggestion that the next generation of Anguillan players may be the key.

Players such as 15 year old Keanu Richardson have already made their international debut and talented players from youth level are being fast-tracked into the senior side as Anguilla hopes of rising up the rankings, while another player, 20 year old Germaine Hughes, earned a move to Barbados to play his football. Small, but significant steps for the small island to make.

When the foreign minister of Britain fled back to Britain in 1967 after gunshots scared him off the island, the ‘’Mother’’ country sent in 300 soldiers and the British press mockingly referred to the event as ‘’The Bay of Piglets’’. Anguilla. Forever burdened by the smallness of its being. A condescending tag attached to it where humour is found in the plucky nature of the island.  

Being the worst team in the world must be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is the notion of hope that allows the nation to persist with football and society to function. The team’s 37 year old captain Kevin Hawley is a veteran, an amateur footballer who has served his country for almost two decades, a player who offered insight into what motivates his side after a 7-0 loss to Guyana last year, when he suggested the fact they did not concede a goal in the first ten minutes was a positive to take from the game.  

For Anguilla, any hope is better than none at all.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur