The Caribbean Cup: Football’s Forgotten Tournament

Pub quiz time: anybody know what the first senior trophy Dwight Yorke lifted as a player was? It was not at Manchester United, or at any other club side for that matter. Rather, it was an international trophy and came for his native Trinidad & Tobago in 1989, as he scored the winner in the final of the first ever Caribbean Cup for the Soca Warriors against Grenada.

Fast forward 27 years later, and the little-known tournament is still existent, buried amongst more notable international powerhouse tournaments (probably snugly fitted somewhere alongside Oceania’s Nations Cup). The Caribbean Cup is a battle that takes place every two years to see which Caribbean Island can claim footballing bragging rights. Every nation from Jamaica to French Guiana tries to take part, but with funding scarce in the region, often not every nation competes.

 

New for the 2017 Caribbean Cup

In an attempt by the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to gain more coverage of the competition, this year’s edition of the Cup has one alteration from previous years: after numerous qualifying rounds featuring 26 nations starting this March, the final tournament will take place in the USA next year for the first time ever. This also means the duration of the cup will be fourteen months, the longest in its history. Unsurprisingly, in a market where European football has a monopoly on viewership, the tournament usually gains little coverage beyond local Caribbean media and fans. So why, you must be asking, is this tournament important?

Development. That’s the answer. The tournament is the centerpiece for Caribbean football and aims to exhibit the best in Caribbean talent. The Caribbean islands have raw talent but scarce outlets to showcase that talent and potential. It is a region where Cricket and Baseball (in the case of Dominica) dominate the sporting landscape, and thus the tournament represents a massive insight into the players and quality of football in the region, and an opportunity for players to garner attention.

Where else could you find the tiny Dutch island of Sint Maarten (population of 33,000) line up against the US Virgin Islands (with an average FIFA ranking of 193) with both teams confident of achieving a rare victory? Nowhere else is the answer. This is the tournament for fans of the under-dog.

 

Tournament Quality

FIFA has gradually recognized the importance of the tournament, this year they are providing the opportunity for it to be staged on FIFA International dates, so Caribbean players based in Europe can travel away from their domestic clubs to take part in the tournament; before 2014 the Caribbean Cup had previously been hindered by being staged on dates in the middle of European domestic seasons, and as such teams were massively depleted as overseas based stars were unavailable to take part.

Caribbean Cup
A fresh-faced Dwight Yorke holds the inaugural Caribbean Cup trophy in 1989
Therefore, the quality of the tournament will be high this year for Caribbean standards: Martinique can call upon former French International Julien Faubert (West Ham fans, remember him?), who scored five goals in three qualifying games last time around. Trinidad and Tobago will have the services of former Premier League striker Kenwyne Jones and Jamaica will be able to call on Leicester City’s reliable Wes Morgan and Crystal Palace’s Adrian Mariappa. The integration of these established professionals provides priceless benefit to the local players who can get a vivid idea of what it takes to make it to the top level.

Crucially, it is also a competition which sends the top 4 teams as Caribbean representatives into the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a globally covered tournament which allows Caribbean Nations to face world class opposition as well as offering the players (many of whom hold jobs outside of football in order to pay the bills) a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a contract at a major club. In 2012, the small island of Martinique finished in the top 4 of the Caribbean Cup and consequently played in the 2013 Gold Cup, held in USA, where they faced Mexico, Panama and Canada in front of crowds numbering 56,000.

This experience proved invaluable to the development of the team and in particular their striker Kévin Parsemain, who was signed by Major League Soccer team Seattle Sounders, where he played alongside Clint Dempsey. Parsemain’s signing was a direct result of performing well in the Caribbean Cup (he bagged 11 goals in 6 games) and thereby gaining a chance to shine at the Gold Cup, where people in America took notice. 2014 Caribbean winners Jamaica made the most of their opportunity last year as they went on to famously eliminate USA in the 2015 Gold Cup before losing to Mexico, in the process becoming the first Caribbean team to reach the final.

 

What to Expect

With virtually all islands in the Caribbean limited in the amount of International friendlies they play due to the high cost of domestic flights in the region and a distinct lack of funding, the tournament, and its numerous qualifying stages provide a platform for nations to play a minimum of two much-needed fixtures.  Above all else though, the main attraction of the cup is that it’s a fun tournament free from the immense pressure and predictability of more renowned competitions; the lack of information or games featuring Caribbean teams during the interim period between tournaments means you never can know which overseas star a team has recruited or which local diamond they have unearthed until the start of the competition and in that regard there is a sense of mystery to the whole thing which mimics how football was globally before the dawn of the Internet.

In many ways, the serene vibe of the competition and lack of any real publicity merely reflects the laid back culture of the Caribbean region it is encapsulating.  I urge everybody to keep abreast of the games this year which start in late March, and support a region that often has little opportunity to be in the spotlight, but surely deserves it if this is truly to be a global game.

 

image source: CONCACAF.com