Sunday, March 22, 2015

WIBD CONCAF Round 1: Anguilla

Shirt badge/Association crestIn keeping with my fondness for righteous underdogs, it's time to consider the wee minnows in our own backyard.  Or in this case, the dolphins in our own backyard

While the US has only a slight chance of hoisting the World Cup, their odds are decidedly better than their neighbors in the North American Federation, I mean, we're not Haiti, or Suriname, or Canada, and we are most certainly not the lowest seeded squad in the contest: Anguilla.

The Three Dolphins (who might be smarter than the Three Lions of England, but are also less likely to win a bar fight) are ranked 208th in the World after going almost three years without a match (a 1-0 loss to the British Virgin Islands). But recent form suggests they might have a better future ahead, after taking two matches against those self same British Virgins (Note: There's got to be a better demonym than that...oh Virgin Islanders of a British persuasion...that's better) in the last month as a tune up for their qualifier against Nicaragua.

Still, this is the World Cup, and Anguilla's never won a qualifying match. They haven't scored a goal against CONCAF opponents in a meaningful game like this since 2002, and have been dusted by rivals by a total of 28-0 in their last six matches. Their highest honor lately was making my list of 11 cool looking federation badges.

Girdon Connor (#2, Left)
Normally statistics like that don't matter, I mean, squads turn over, especially in a decade worth of matches...but...well...this is still Anguilla, and they're still a nation sparsely populated by footballers, so much so that 36 year old Girdon Connor (who has been on the squad since 2004) is still their top performer.

Facing all this, coach Ryszard Orlowski (a Polish refugee living in Pennsylvania who helped coach Nepal before taking over Anguilla) remains optimistic.  "We’ve now and winning is contagious. Play our football and we will succeed.” Orlowski may have a point--after all, while Nicaragua has a squad filled with professionals, and consistent access to international competitions, so did Sri Lanka*.

Win or Lose, the Dolphins will keep playing, keep working, keep improving, and keep living in Anguilla. That's a pretty excellent way to live your life, all things considered.

*Note: "So did Sri Lanka" may become the rallying cry of every minnow in the wake of Bhutan's stunning may call "Trademark" on that.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Well I'll Be Damned! 2018 Kickoff

We're two short weeks away from the kickoff of World Cup 2018 Qualifying, and as such, it's time to reignite one of my favorite features to write during World Cup Qualification "Well I'll Be Damned" (WIBD) for short.

WIBD is a quick way to give some press to the least known and most easily forgotten teams in qualification, the squads for whom winning a match would be a high point in their national history, for whom qualifying for the finals is the stuff of intense day dreams, and for whom actually winning the cup would signify certifiable delusions.

Since the Road to Russia/Miles to Moscow/Long Haul to Luzhnki starts in Asia, that's where our WIBD profiles will start too, with the lowest ranked team in the whole cup: Bhutan

Shirt badge/Association crestThe Druk 11, as they're known in Bhutan, have a pretty paltry history in international soccer events. The 2018 tournament will mark their first foray into the World Cup. They haven't played a game at all in the last 18 months (a 5-2 loss to Sri Lanka in September 2013). And now they're set to face those same Lankan Lions in their first ever qualifying matches.

Given the absurd altitude in the land of the Thunder Dragon, the national squad might be able to develop some tremendous endurance. But given the lack of financial opportunities for football players in Bhutan (the game is often given up by kids once they discover more exciting/profitable math), players tend to have a hard time developing the skill sets to keep up with their other AFC counterparts.

Ranked 209th in the world and with an historical goal differential of -185, the odds are most definitely stacked against Bhutan. They've never drawn so much as a point against Sri Lanka, and in 15 matches against them they have scored exactly twice.

Still I'm optimistic. Maybe it's the fact that anything can happen. Maybe it's the fact that Changlimithang Stadium is at 7,600 feet above sea level 1500 feet below the insurmountable Quito in Ecuador. Maybe it's the fact that I taught the former son of the Bhutanese FA and am still hoping I can get a national team jersey. But come on, let's face facts. Bhutan is a rising power, ten years after beatin gMonserrat they could easily beat the world.