The Islanders

While the question of the status of the British Football Associations as four different members of FIFA and UEFA sometimes get raised, it seems to be forgotten that there are other analogies, other FIFA members that are not states in their own right. The Faroe Islands, does at least have a level of independence from Denmark, but then so does Greenland, who appear unlikely to be allowed to join in the near future. French territories such as New Caledonia are also member states of FIFA, (while Monaco is not, afraid of jeopardising AS Monaco’s position in the French League). In the far East, the return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese control did not mean the disbanding of their own national football associations, or their removal from FIFA’s lists.

Of course, there are differences, in particular, the Faroe Islands, New Caledonia, Hong Kong and Macau all have their own leagues and no representation in the mainland’s league, (New Caledonia does have representation in the French Cup), while Wales has clubs in the English system.

And so to Puerto Rico. The one thing that is clear is the status of Puerto Rico – anyone in the US or Puerto Rico seems to know this – it is an unincorporated organised territory of the United States. It is not alone in this – Guam, the US Virgin Islands and North Mariana Islands have the same status. Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands are all members of FIFA. The North Mariana Islands are associate members of the Asian Football Confederation, meaning they may join FIFA at some time in the future. Puerto Rico has both a national league of its own and a team at the second level of the US Football system.

A little history and politics before we get back to Football. Puerto Rico is part of the lesser Antilles islands. Its nearest neighbours are the Dominican Republic to the west, and the Virgin Islands, (US and British) to the East. Columbus landed in 1493 on his second voyage, naming the island San Juan (after Saint John the Baptist) and the main town Puerto Rico (or Rich Port). At some time these names were switched, and the town of San Juan is now the capital of Puerto Rico. The Spanish colonised the Island, enslaving the local population and sacking its riches, although for most of the time, they were only interested in the ports, and left the interior untouched. The lack of immunity to European diseases, and the effects of slavery killed off most of the local population, and hence the only remnants of the indigenous population (known as the Taino) is through the gene pool. Spanish immigration, along with slaves brought in from Africa is the basis of the current population. The racial make-up of the population appeared to me to be very mixed – with the addition of recent immigration from across Latin America, while there has been sizable emigration to the USA, as all legal citizens are citizens of the US, and hence have free movement to and from the mainland. Spanish is the main spoken language, and the level of English spoken is surprisingly poor, even among those working in the tourism industry, despite the fact that the main source of this tourism is mainland USA.

Since becoming a Spanish Colony in 1493, the island was eyed up by other colonial powers, particularly the British and Dutch. This has led to heavy fortification of the port of San Juan. The British attacked in 1595 (unsuccessful) and again in 1598 (successful – although the British forces went down with dysentery, and had to abandon the Island back to the Spanish after only 10 weeks). Further attacks by the Dutch, British failed, but the Americans did win their 1898 war against Spain, and the territory, along with Cuba, Guam and the Philippines were all ceded to the USA at the treaty that followed – giving the USA an instant empire of its own.

The current political situation on the Island is something of a stalemate, with the main political groups being those in favour of the current situation, and those who would like Puerto Rico to become the 51st state. If this were to happen, then with around 4 million people, it would be around mid-table of the list of states by population, but above only Delaware and Rhode Island in terms of area. To use the most common form of land mass comparison, Puerto Rico is half the size of Wales, has 33% more population, and a hell of a lot more motorways. There is an independence party on the island, but they have little influence at the ballot box; however, there does appear to be a movement to remember the pre-colonial island, with a number of books on Taino culture and even a Taino-Spanish dictionary on offer!

It appears the general population knows from where their bread is buttered. To citizens of the US, this is Caribbean lite, a chance to go abroad without the complications of changing currency, or missing their favourite TV programmes, and thanks to the boys at BP, tourism should be up this year, while the Gulf of Mexico coast suffers from the consequences of paying less than US$1 per litre of petrol. Meanwhile the strangest consequence of Puerto Rico’s political situation, is that the locals can register as Democrats or Republicans and have a say in who the presidential candidates are – but they do not get to vote in the Presidential election itself. They also have no voting representation on Capitol Hill. Four million American citizens with taxation but no representation.

One local told me that he did not think that the locals should have supported Spain in the World Cup, given the history of the Spanish exploiting the “Rich Port”, and taking away the riches. The majority did not appear to agree and generally, the local support was for Spain. Of course, more of the locals are descended from Spanish settlers than any other group and from what I could discover, the riches that the Spanish plundered and moved through Puerto Rico were more from other Latin American countries than from Puerto Rico itself. Still, there is a difference in that these descendents of the Spanish will show an allegiance to Spain, (once their more local allegiances have not worked out). Would an Australian, New Zealander or Canadian support England in the World Cup final?

Getting to Puerto Rico was more straight forward than I may have hoped for, considering that matches in the US and Canada do not kick off on time – the best you can do is for the national anthem(s) to be played at the stated kick off times. The worst was Montreal, where the match notes stated (quite accurately) that kick off was 7.47, as opposed to the official 7.30, and then the second half started 68 minutes later, (in most games I went to, the halves kicked off around 62 or 63 minutes apart, which I have found to be the general standard in England and Europe as well). Portland finished around 9.00, and I reached the airport by 9.30 giving time to check on for a 10.20 flight. Over 8 hours flying, 100 minutes changing planes and three time zones meant I arrived at Puerto Rico around midday, but still had to hang around in the hotel bar waiting for the room to be ready. Still, I was in place to see the World Cup final on TV, although after the journey, I lacked the will to watch it outside with the locals, and settled for my comfortable (air-conditioned) hotel room.

The flags at the top are for the USA, Puerto Rico, and the Cross of Burgundy – which is the flag raised by the Spanish when this fort was their defensive position

I used the overpriced taxi service to get to the Stadium. Taxis in Puerto Rico have a perfectly reasonable fare structure printed on the side, but all refuse to use this structure. I have been told (by a taxi driver) that they use a zonal system in tourist areas – he even produced a table to show how it works, except he did not reckon with me being able to read English, and realise that the fares printed were not the same as he wanted to charge (in fact, the official table says zones are only used to and from the airport, meaning I was only overcharged by $2 between airport and hotel). Anyway, the stadium is well outside the tourist areas. There is a metro with a station next to the stadium, but no station in the main city or the tourist resorts. Asking about taxis with locals, the response was always, “I don’t know, I never use them!”.

When I arrived at the Stadium, it was practically deserted, making me wonder if I had the wrong date, or at least kick off time – but the gates were open, and I was admitted, and the fixture was as printed. The stadium was another that is shared with baseball, and this results in an impressive stand curved around two sides of the ground only, while no spectator accommodation at all on the other two sides. The pitch was grassed, but was clearly not well looked after. In one goalmouth, there was a diamond shape of bare earth, and my assumption is this would be third base, the other bases were thinly grassed over, as was the plate area – which anyway was just off the playing surface by the corner flag. At Portland, I was told the pitcher’s mound was portable, and was moved from the sideline in one piece, I assume something similar happens here, as no mound was visible.

Of course, there were factors to keep the crowd down – the World Cup final on TV earlier in the day may well have distracted potential viewers, and a double weekend, with matches on both Friday and Sunday – but anyway I was given the impression that crowds for the Islanders are not as high as the other USSF division 2 clubs I had visited. The official figure for the match was 1089 (less than halve the figure that had seen the Friday match). A lot of the crowd appeared to be on the young side, and they did manage to make quite a noise despite being spread out around the ground. Thunder crackers were being given away free, as often appears to be the case in Britain, while a few vuvuzelas could be heard. I fear a sign of things to come – in small numbers, these do not produce the continuous buzz we are now familiar with from World Cup games on TV, but a plaintive wail.

It is about time I discussed the current situation for Football in the USA. The main league is the MLS, (Major League Soccer) with 16 current teams. They play 30 matches, which means the standard format of playing every team home and away. However, the league table is split into two, the Eastern and Western Conferences with the top two of each Conference guaranteed a place in the eight team end of season play offs. As a rule, this means that the top eight in the combined table will make up the play off teams. The league is franchised, rather than direct promotion and relegation, so it is already known that two new teams (Vancouver and Portland) will enter for 2011, and one more (Montreal) in 2012. There are plenty more potential franchises in the offing. Up to last season, the second division was the United Soccer League’s division one. However, over the last year, there has been a dispute between the teams, mainly over the league’s ownership. Six teams were going to leave the division and reform under the title North American Soccer League, (which was also the name of the main league when I first visited in 1994). The two leagues then sued each other, which is of course a national pastime in the USA, but this one went to the governing body, the United States Soccer Federation, (USSF), which decided to curse both houses and run the league, (for one season only, officially) themselves. This is under the title USSF, Division 2 – but on the USL web site, you access it as Division One. The USL itself has two further divisions, as well as running a Women’s league. The USL division 2 is a six team league, and the only level 3 league in the USA, while the PDL (for Premier Development League) is a widespread level four league, with four regional conference, each divided into two more regionalised divisions. All of the PDL teams play a 16 match regular season, but division sizes are not always 9 teams, so in some there are more than two matches against selected teams, whereas others have a couple of opponents they play once only, (9 teams is the most popular division size though). There are special arrangements in the PDL for Bermuda Hogges – who only play four opponents at home – each of their visitors play twice on the islands, generally Friday and Sunday of a weekend. When Bermuda travel to the mainland, they also play two matches on a weekend, although generally at different locations.

In the USSF Division 2, the 12 teams play 30 matches, which means they play every team at least twice, and four selected teams on four occasions. Two of Puerto Rico’s opponents play twice in a weekend on the Island, but Carolina visit the Island twice, in May and July. The league is arranged in two Conferences, but unusually they are not geographic, and depend on whether a team was going to stay with the USL, or become part of the NASL. The groupings for playing teams twice however are regional, with four groups of four, plus every team players on other team a third and fourth team, (allowing the all Canada match, Montreal and Vancouver to take place four times, which may be over the top, as they also play twice in the Canadian Championship). Only the top team in each Conference is guaranteed a place in the eight team play offs, which does not make sense, as if eight out of 12 go through, then fairly clearly a minimum of two must go through from each Conference, and the combined table is going to decide the make-up of the play offs.

And so, the game itself. Both teams played with a single forward, and the opening exchanges seemed frenetic, fast and not well organised, the play was not helped by the playing surface. Carolina took the lead with two early goals, the first when Sullieu Bundu broke through the defence at put the ball past the keeper on 18 minutes, and then eight minutes later when the home side failed to clear their lines, allowing Josh Gardner a shot that went in through a crowded area and into the net. After the second goal, the Islanders re-arranged their team, bringing on a second forward and in simple terms, they overran Carolina for the last sixty minutes of the game. The statistics sheets bear this out – Puerto Rico are recorded as having 16 shots, to their opponents 6, and to have been ahead in this category 10-1 after half time, they also led 10-1 on corners. The official page does not record how many of the shots were on target, but does state that the Carolina goalkeeper made five saves, while the home keeper made only one (and of course, failed to save two more). In the end, the only statistic that matters is that those two early Carolina goals were the only goals of the game.

According to the stats sheet, the Islanders goalkeeper made one save. Guess this is it!

When I went into the office after the match to pick up the stats sheet, I got to see the Puerto Rico coach, Colin Clarke and his assistant Adrian Whitbread. Clarke appeared very busy trying to load up a video of the match on his computer as a way of finding out what had gone wrong, but Whitbread had time for a quick chat. Naturally, as I support Cheltenham where his old boss, Martin Allen had been manager until recently, we talked a bit about Cheltenham and Martin Allen first. It is always nice to meet someone this far from home who has heard of Cheltenham Town.

The Clarke/Whitbread team is in charge not only of the Islanders, but also of the Island’s international team. Generally, this has not been a burden as they have not played since being knocked out of the World Cup by Honduras back in 2008. However, the status of the club gives them more matches than most USSF teams. Back in the spring, they played in the Caribbean Football Union championships and actually won the tournament. A top three position in the CFU championships gives a team a place in the qualifying round of the CONCACAF Champions League, and the Islanders are due to visit Los Angeles for the first leg of their two legged contest at the end of the month. After that has been played, the National team will be taking part in a three match series in the first round group stage of the Copa Caribe, (the national team competition in the Caribbean). As they are staging these matches in Puerto Rico, the home side has every chance of going through, although they will not be expected to reach the final stage, let alone qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011.

Looking at the team from the last World Cup, very few of the International team play Islanders League squad, some are with Universities on the mainland, and quite a few are with the clubs in the Puerto Rican league. Only one appears to be in the MLS – Terry Boss, a goalkeeper at Seattle Sounders. Boss is not the regular keeper for League matches, but did turn out in their US Open Cup game. I will be observing the squad list for the August games, to see if the club has managed to recruit more of the international squad.

Whitbread told me that the Islanders do not have difficulty in recruiting players, as Clarke has excellent contacts with scouts on the mainland; he also seemed to think more of the squad would play for the International team next time around, as those coming from mainland USA are already USA citizens, (there not being a separate category called Puerto Rico citizens), and they can therefore qualify to play internationally after a two year residency period. I’m not certain if FIFA have anything to say about this, but I know they have started to insist on a five year residency by players taking out a change of nationality to play for their adopted countries, after several high profile cases especially in countries such as Qatar. The difference here is that no change in nationality takes place.

There is also a large pool of US citizens qualified to play for Puerto Rico under the parent and grandparent rules, whose forebears have left the Island. Of course, this argument works both ways, anyone who is born on Puerto Rico, but who then leaves for a mainland university is qualified as a potential USA international by the time he has finished his course!

I did my tourism bit in PR, the day after the match spending the afternoon in the old city of San Juan, and looking around one of the forts used to defend the territory against various aggressors. It is an interesting place, and quite a contrast to the modernity of most American cities. The Island also has a good selection of beaches, and I would imagine some fine scenery had I taken a car – public transportation is poor, and there are not many tours on offer. From my hotel to the town it was about an hour’s walk. Despite heat and humidity, this was not a major problem. I had to cross a bridge over an inlet that brings the sea behind the peninsular the hotel was on, and one of the locals jumped into the sea at me. I was somewhat surprised that the water was deep enough to take someone jumping from about 20 feet, but he made a bit of a splash. It was the closest to an aggressive act I witnessed during the whole tour. Further along, where there was a grass verge, some green lizards, (Iguana, I think) paused in their sunbathing to observe the unusual site that is a pedestrian in these parts. It is still, as I have already suggested, “Caribbean Lite”, for Americans, it is over-priced for taxis and hotels, and I would not recommend it to vacationers. For me, it adds one to the list of countries visited for football, the only extra one available to me at this time, but before I will really start to say I have been to the Caribbean, I need to go to at least one Island with a Test Venue for cricket! Rumour has it that the French and the Netherlands also colonised some of the area, and they play neither cricket, nor baseball.