Pride & Industry: Introduction Blog: HERE
As you might have read in the introduction to the blog series, and previous parts (links above), I have decided to create a challenge on Football Manager 2020 by taking charge of Barbados and trying to enhance their reputation in the world of football. The aim of the series is to try and develop football on the Caribbean island, and hopefully get the team qualified for some major tournaments and improve their FIFA world ranking. In this blog, we start on the 2022 World Cup campaign after having qualified for the 2021 Gold Cup.
NOTE: I would highly recommend you look at FMOverload‘s excellent Coaching Cuba series, as it was the inspiration for my series. Please check out the series here:
As you might have read in the previous part (found HERE), I managed to guide Barbados to their first ever major international football tournament by qualifying for the 2021 Gold Cup. A momentous and glorious occasion, where we might have triumphed over cricket for this brief period of time, and becoming Barbados’ number one sport. Needless to say, I was a busy manager throughout the summer with the many interviews from Barbadian and foreign football media outlets asking about my management rise with the Bajan Tridents. BBC’s Football Focus described me as the “Caribbean’s Carlo Ancelotti” – it certainly raised an eyebrow that did…
My well-publicised performance as Barbados manager was clearly being noticed in world football. The two-time World Cup winners, Uruguay, offered me their vacant international manager’s job, although strangely for less money per week. As much as working in the football-mad capital of Montevideo looked very tempting, and working with talented players such as Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, and many others would be superb for the career, I still had a project to do here in Barbados. Plus the weather is much more favourable in Bridgetown! Therefore gracias la Celeste, pero no gracias!
2022 World Cup Qualifying Within CONCACAF
September 2020 would see me complete my first year as manager of Barbados, and start the second year with a drive to the 2022 World Cup. However unlike the relatively straight forward qualification process in Europe and South America, the qualifying format for the World Cup via the CONCACAF system is very weird. The top six ‘higher ranked’ sides in the confederation are all placed in a league together where they play each other home and away. The top three teams at the end of this ten-game group phase qualify for the World Cup, whilst the fourth-placed team earn themselves a playoff.
The remaining ‘lower seeded’ teams in CONCACAF compete in a tournament, where they are separated into eight groups. After playing each team home and away in their group, only the group winners progress to the quarter-finals. It is then a two-legged direct knockout contest to determine which ‘lower seeded’ team earns the right to face the fourth-placed ‘top seeded’ team in the two-legged playoff. The winner of that playoff then qualifies for the 2022 World Cup….yeah it’s a very confusing format. Essentially the qualification system strongly benefits the better teams in the confederation, and you have to go through a ‘battle royale’ just to be given an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, if you are a lower ranked team. Sadly, we will be fighting within the melee of the lower seeds.
For the first round of World Cup qualifying, we were drawn in a group with our old friends, the US Virgin Islands, once again, but more worryingly the difficult hurdle of Haiti. This is a squad who had reached the semi-finals of the 2019 Gold Cup, losing narrowly to the eventual winners, Mexico, by a single goal after extra time. They were one of the very big fish in the CONCACAF pond, and a fearsome looking opponent, who could have been in the top seeded teams. With only the group winner progressing to the next round of World Cup qualifying, this is going to be a straight slugfest between us and the overwhelming favourites of Haiti for that group victory.
Rather frustratingly or positively (depending on your point of view), we would be playing away at Haiti first in the scheduled group fixtures for the September 2020 international break. Who came up with these fixtures?? At least it would be our only competitive game for the international break. As well as the World Cup qualifier, we also had a home friendly organised for a few days later, against the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba. An opportunity to make some changes and test some ideas out for future games against a team we were expected to beat!
1st Group Game – Haiti (a) – September 2020
There were no real major changes to the squad when compared to the 23 man squad that had qualified for the Gold Cup against Bermuda in June. Mario Harte, Seb Hunte and Tyrell Bancroft were all dropped out of the squad, with Nick Blackman and Nicoli Braithwaite both returning to the squad after their injuries, and Brittons Hill’s central midfielder Zigkigah Samuel coming into the squad for a potential international debut. I was keen to see how he would perform to help strengthen my options in central midfield. In addition, captain Jomo Harris was serving a one-match suspension after picking up too many yellow cards. meaning he was unavailable for the World Cup qualification game against Haiti, so depth was needed in the middle of the pitch. The captain could appear in the friendly against Aruba however.
As mentioned previously, the first game of the World Cup qualifying was perhaps the toughest game of the schedule, an away visit to the Stade Sylvio Cator in Port-au-Prince, to take on a very decent Haiti side. Haiti were ranked 98th in the world rankings, although looking at their squad, I think that was a very conservative and false ranking as they look much better than that ‘on screen’. This was a team who had also qualified for the 2021 Gold Cup through the Nations League by beating Curaçao and Costa Rica in their group, teams who were above them in the world rankings.
Les Grenadiers had a lot of players playing at big clubs around Europe and the MLS, with their EA Guingamp forward Frantzdy Pierrot looking very impressive for this level of qualifying. Clearly the Haiti FA have scouted the French leagues for players with Haitain descent to improve their team, and they have got themselves some superb players like Hervé Bazile (Havre AC) and Brian Chevreuil (Stade Lavallois) who would get into nearly every Caribbean team’s starting XIs. Essentially there were arguably one of the best teams in the Caribbean, and a level I would love my Barbados side to attain in the future.
The stadium was a cacophony of noise and music as the 5,000 capacity stadium was a complete sell-out for this opening qualifying game, with the stands jammed with expectant and joyous Haitian supporters. The closeness of the stands provides a formidable atmosphere to all visiting teams, making it feel like a cauldron and this evening was no exception. The wall of sound and music being projected from the stands were surely inspiring and driving the home team to try and win this opening game. This was going to be a very tough game for us during this humid evening, and if we managed to earn anything from the game, it would be a superb result!
I adopted the same formation and team as the one in the second leg against Bermuda, with Renaldo Marquez replacing the suspended Jomo Harris in the centre of midfield. However I soon shifted the mentality of the team to ‘Balanced’ as soon as the game kicked off, as ‘Positive’ were leaving us open to counter-attacks from the home side. Nonetheless, I was hoping our high-press, high-tempo tactic could provide some problems for the Haitian defence.
It is fair to say that the game was certainly not a classic, and not one which will be shown in its entirety anytime soon! Haiti had most of the ball possession and nearly all of the chances throughout the game but they just couldn’t break through our impressive defensive set-up. It certainly didn’t help their plans when midfielder Zachary Herivaux was sent off in the 44th minute for picking up his second yellow card. Even with a man advantage, we still couldn’t find an opening in the game and were under the cosh for large periods of the second half by the home side, no doubt pushed on by their expectant loud supporters.
With only the number advantage being in our favour during the second half of the match, we somehow managed to scrape a goalless draw against Haiti. In all honesty, we were perhaps lucky to come away with a point, but I was very pleased that my side had (just) held their own against one of the region’s best sides. There’s still plenty of work to be done to be challenging teams of that ilk, but it gave me and the side a huge boost in confidence for the future, as the players were ecstatic to get the draw considering the media were writing us off pre-match.
Friendly – Aruba (h) – September 2020
For the next game in the international break a few days later, I made a complete team selection change for the home friendly against Aruba. Everyone who played in the Haiti match was replaced except for Mario Vaughn, to give the other players and Vaughn more international gametime. I also wanted to try a more attacking formation so switched to a more attacking 4-2-3-1 formation so I could play Ramar Layne in his more natural attacking midfielder position, and see if he could make more of an impact. In addition, Zigkigah Samuel would be making his debut for the Tridents.
Naturally for a midweek friendly, it wasn’t a sellout at the Waterford National Stadium with only 6580 supporters turned up for the friendly – just over half capacity. However considering it was a Tuesday night game that was being played in 33 degrees of heat, I can certainly forgive them for wanting to skip this particular game! It was certainly a grueller out there!
The Bajan Blitz was in full effect once again as we managed to open the scoring after just 55 seconds against this Aruba side, unlocking them with a classic route one routine. Tony Pulis would have LOVED IT!! A long goal kick was punted upfield from goalkeeper Nashton Browne and found Mario Vaughn in the Aruban half. The youngster then scooted past the Aruban defensive line and slotted the ball into the bottom right corner to open the scoring. This lad is quickly becoming a superstar!
Our lead doubled after 34 minutes when a Nicoli Braithwaite corner was headed downwards towards the goal by the unmarked Elijah Downey. Rather fortunately his shot was fumbled into the net by the experienced Aruban goalie Lionel Kaarsbaan to give Downey his first international goal in his seventh appearance for Barbados. This resulted in us going into the half-time break with a solid 2-0 lead, and a very decent performance with the updated formation.
We extended our lead on the hour mark when a superb Braithwaite cross from the right flank found Vaughn unmarked in the penalty box to header the ball into the net for our third goal of the night. However Aruba got a goal back four minutes after, when a poor Teriq Highland mistake in possession allowed Raymond Baten to launch a lofted ball over our defense. He found substitute Owen van der Wijne, who had broken the offside trap, and slotted the ball past Browne into the far corner.
The lads soon restored our three goal lead when a long Zidkigah Samuel pass from midfield was poorly dealt with by centre-back Nickenson Paul, who failed to intercept the pass. This error was seized upon by Vaughn who ran clear of his marker and fired his shot past substitute keeper Eric Abdul to complete his perfect hat-trick! That’s four goals in four appearances for the young Bajan!!
Sadly the game would fizzle out into some disappointment as firstly substitute Nick Blackman had to be taken off after a few minutes of coming onto the field due to injury, although it was found out that it was only a minor injury thankfully. Then Aruba completed the scoring when another lofted ball, this time from right-back Davidson Kaarsbaan found the unmarked van der Wijne to nod in his second of the game. Frustrating defending from the home side there and it took the shine off what had been a decent performance up to that point. I was frustrated with the side’s marking there! Nonetheless, a win is a win, and it helps with the confidence in the team.
Unsurprisingly, we dropped down a position in the FIFA world rankings to 141st position, but I’m not concerned at this point. There are still plenty of future opportunities to rise up the rankings. With three remaining World Cup qualifiers coming in October and November, it could see us climb higher in the rankings and potentially get nearer to qualifying for the World Cup! We shall see…
Please follow my friend FMOverload on Twitter @FMOverload_, and check out their blog at https://fmoverload.home.blog/. It is an absolutely brilliant FM blog and I would highly recommend you check it out! The Coaching Cuba series looks fantastic and I am keen to see it develop!!!!
If you have any questions, comments or whatever, please put them in the comments box below, or tweet me on Twitter @The94thMin or leave a comment on the Facebook page.
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