In the time since the FIFA world rankings began, no national football team has spent more time ranked as the worst national team in the world than Montserrat. For years on end, they have been cut drift from most of the rest of the world, suffering alone or occasionally alongside other equally unfortunate teams, at the bottom of the rankings.
At times for the Montserratians, it may have felt like a spell of misfortune that would never be broken. But nothing lasts forever. When the cycle of defeat was finally broken, it was done so in a remarkable way.
Under their London-born coach of Montserrat descent, Kenny Dyer, Montserrat had set themselves on the path to improvement by expanding their reach to the expat diaspora; either those whose family had emigrated in the wake of the Soufriere Hills volcano eruption in the late 1990s, or the sons of those who had emigrated earlier for economic reasons. A policy that had begun with the recruitment and foresight of Montserrat’s most famous footballer, Ruel Fox, had led eventually to open trials on Hackney Marshes and the discovery of one or two gems in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid.
Many were naturally to be found in England, though players of Montserrat descent were also found in Australia and the United States. With this new core of more experienced footballers, Montserrat went into the 2010 World Cup qualifying play-off against Belize with renewed optimism. They may not have won those clashes, but the performance levels and margin of defeat were a vast improvement from what had gone before.
Just a year later, when Montserrat next stepped into the international arena, the optimism was still high. In the opening round of Caribbean Cup qualifying, Montserrat were in a group with Surname, the British Virgin Islands and the group’s host, Martinique. The squad that had performed so well in the World Cup qualifiers had been supplemented by a handful of additional English-born players. The eighteen-man squad selected by Kenny Dyer contained one or two new faces, and many who had played for Montserrat unofficially in the London-based get-togethers that had become a more frequent and practical means of allowing the squad to practice. ‘Some of these players have been with me for seven years,’ he explained.
Dyer’s hopes were high when going into the Caribbean Cup games, particularly after the showing against Belize a year before. ‘I think this new team is the strongest national team we’ve ever put together, and I expect positive things from them.’ This wasn’t the first time such a proclamation had emerged from the Emerald Isle. All such previous claims had seen some improvement in performance but had nonetheless resulted in defeat. Hope sprang eternal, but would it be any different this time around?
A crowd of just 188 in the Stade Georges Gratiant in Martinique saw Montserrat open their Caribbean Cup campaign in August 2012 against Suriname. In spite of their recent improvement, Montserrat lost 7-1 to Suriname, just as they had done a few years earlier in World Cup qualifying, trailing from as early as the 3rd minute. Another defeat followed against Martinique, but at least their 5-0 defeat wasn’t nearly as bad as what Martinique had inflicted on the British Virgin Islands – they were beaten 16-0. Just a few days later, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands would clash in their final group fixture. Surely now, at long last, the perfect hapless opposition was in place for Montserrat to finally, belatedly record their first ever official international victory?
An even first 30 minutes belied two teams that, for all their positive talk, were short on confidence and lacked the belief to just go for it. And then, as the first half wore on, the chance to grasp the initiative was presented to Montserrat. Marlon Campbell, one of the new breed of UK-based players, playing his club football with Bethnal Green United, got his international goal scoring record off the mark with two strikes late in the first half to put Montserrat two goals to the good. Minutes later, they were in dreamland when their Australian-based midfielder, Darryl Roach, made it three. Both scorers exemplified the means by which Montserrat’s improvement had come about. Both represented the far flung descendants of Montserrat immigrants and both had learned their football in the more stringent environs of minor amateur leagues. While Campbell played in the Essex Senior League for Bethnal Green, Roach had spread his wings a little further and had pitched up in the Victoria State League playing for Port Melbourne Sharks. Between them they had set Montserrat on the path to paradise.
In the second half, Montserrat stuck the knife into their overwhelmed opponents. They almost unbelievably racked up a seven-goal victory of their own for their first win since gaining FIFA recognition. Montserrat’s second half scorers were also English-born descendants of immigrants, hardened in England’s amateur leagues. Ellis Remy, scorer of a second half brace, boasts a list of clubs in his career that reads like a who’s who of South East England’s lower leagues. Nineteen defeats and thirteen years after becoming FIFA members – and seventeen years since their last “unofficial” victory – they had finally won a match. They had a little assistance on the way. British Virgin Islands played the last half hour a man down, and the seventh goal was courtesy of a Virgin Islands’ own goal, but this was no fortunate backs-to-the-wall smash and grab raid. This was a team ranked as worst in the world handing out the kind of beating that they were more commonly used to receiving.
It had been years in the making, providing vindication for the policies instigated by Ruel Fox and Kenny Dyer. The diaspora had proved their worth and had put a sporting smile on the face of Montserrat. The search for more recruits and as yet untapped talent goes on unbounded, and with it the aim of continued progress and one day perhaps even a second win.
Their astonishing win over the British Virgin Islands is surely the most unlikely and spectacular of all escapes from the clutches of the worst in the world ranking. For a team stranded for so long in world football’s basement, it was an incredible way to finally rise up the table.