The worst team in the world reinvented after a disaster

The worst team in the world reinvented after a disaster

A boy poses on collapsed electrical infrastructure 10 years after the July 1995 eruption
Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, is a ghost town – it was abandoned after the eruptions

In July 1995, Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano began to erupt on a large scale. The effects were devastating.

Large swaths of the Caribbean island were covered in thick layers of ash. Sulfur dioxide fumes filled the air. The capital Plymouth had to be abandoned.

Large eruptions continued over the next five years, eventually leaving about two-thirds of the island uninhabitable. Two-thirds of the 11,500 inhabitants fled.

A once quiet and bucolic place would never be quite the same again – much of it remains closed off in ‘exclusion zones’ and volcanic activity is still closely watched.

Like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, Montserrat is one of 14 British Overseas Territories (BOT); autonomous but ultimately under British control.

Having been forced from their homes, around 4,500 Montserratians settled in England, mostly around existing migrant communities in London and Birmingham.

The national consciousness of Montserrat remains marked by a cataclysmic catastrophe. But there is also a spirit of unity forged through trauma and struggle. You can see it in its national football team – and the UK-based players who are giving back to their ancestral homeland.

Short gray presentation line

Montserrat played their first match in 1991 and only became a member of Fifa in 1996. For years they were ranked among the worst national teams in the world.

Between 1991 and 2012 they won two matches out of 27 played, both against Anguilla, another BOT currently 210th in the Fifa world rankings – only San Marino are below them.

When, in March 2004, Montserrat was finally able to host home matches again for the first time since the eruptions, it was in the first round of regional qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. They lost 7-0 to Bermuda .

They have long been the minnows of the international game, but that is slowly starting to change.

“Before it was chaotic,” said Alex Dyer, Montserrat’s appearance record holder with 21 caps.

“Not in a rude way, everyone did their best. We just didn’t have the finances, the facilities, we didn’t have anything.”

Dyer, 32, is a midfielder with Wealdstone in the National League who has played in Sweden, Norway and Kuwait. Grandparents on his father’s side grew up in Montserrat. He debuted in 2011.

That year, the team was ranked among the worst in the world. Just over a decade later they are 178th – but their progress goes further.

“When I started, we didn’t even have matching tracksuits,” Dyer continues. “It was really disjointed, but it was just a small nation at the start of their journey.

“As we go along it has gradually improved and over the last few years it has exploded. We have a fantastic sponsor who understands that we are not just a team that wants to play football and win prizes. matches. They make the trip, and they get the island.”

Part of the problem was the lack of regular games – between 2012 and 2017 Montserrat only played seven times.

In 2018 things changed with the launch of the Concacaf Nations League, offering opponents of similar size and level.

There have been 18 matches since – and eight wins – all overseen by Scottish manager Willie Donachie, who recently resigned.

As the team’s fortunes changed, more people wanted to get involved. Recruitment has not always been so easy.

“It’s been a long, long process,” laughs 36-year-old forward Bradley Woods-Garness, who since his debut in 2012 has helped find new players alongside old friend and teammate Dean Mason.

“Sometimes I would look for traditional Caribbean names from Montserrat. Sometimes I would look on Football Manager. If I found a player, I would message him on Facebook.

“A few people thought it was a joke, someone having fun asking them if they wanted to come and play international football.

“But once I was finally able to have phone conversations with people and explain to them where we are now – which players we have on board, where we are going and who we have beaten – everything has been fine. “

New arrivals include Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor, who first played for Montserrat in 2015 when he was at AFC Wimbledon. He is now their top scorer with 10 goals.

Former Salford City midfielder Matty Willock, whose brothers Joe and Chris play for Newcastle and QPR respectively, made his debut in 2021.

Standards and results have improved beyond recognition. Montserrat came awfully close to qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup, Concacaf’s equivalent of the European Championship, narrowly missing goal difference with El Salvador, a 6.5m country ranked 100 places above them.

“There are going to be some losses, but recently we won and the people of the island are happy about that,” Dyer said.

“It gives them joy and something to cheer for, and it inspires the younger generation of kids. Maybe they can look forward to playing for the country themselves when they’re older.

“Before, you wouldn’t see any kids playing football. Now when we go there, they have a whole production chain. They can be successful with football or not, but it gives them motivation and a passion that they’ I I will use it in other aspects of life.”

Spending more time on the island has given the team a better understanding of who they represent and what it means, not to mention the passionate support they can count on. Players feel their connection to the place has grown stronger.

“Even though we were brought up in the privilege of a western country like England, going there is so refreshing because it takes us back to who we are in our DNA,” adds Dyer.

“They always do tours to areas where it’s not as dangerous so you can see what’s happened. It’s pretty heartbreaking, but it’s part of the island’s history. That in made even more of a community and inspired people to care for each other than ever before.

“Once you see the people and see how proud they are of us, even when we lose games, we owe it to them to do whatever we can for them.

“Our ship is football, but we have a lot of players who have also done things outside of football, which is commendable, to help put Montserrat on the map. To show its beauty and what it is.

“The footprint of what we do will last. That’s what’s most important to us.”

A place in the Gold Cup remains Montserrat’s target, but just one victory in their first four 2022-23 Nations League games means they face an uphill battle to qualify. It might not happen this time around, but they are definitely heading in the right direction.

“We can feel how close it is and the standards we’ve put in place mean we’re disappointed when we don’t get there,” Dyer says.

“Even though we come into almost every game as underdogs, we have the confidence, borderline arrogance, to know that we are a good team and can even beat some of the biggest nations.

“You have good times and difficult times, but everyone knows why we are here and why we do it. Everyone is here to do their best for the country.”

Montserrat's Alex Dyer in action against Trinidad & Tobago in a Gold Cup qualifier
Dyer (right) in action for Montserrat against Trinidad and Tobago in a 2021 Gold Cup qualifier
A street scene in Plymouth after the eruptions, photo taken in 1997
A street scene in Plymouth after the eruptions, photo taken in 1997
A red phone booth is buried in volcanic ash and sand after eruptions on the Caribbean island of Montserrat
The scene in Montserrat’s former capital, Plymouth, in March 1998
A pre-eruption postcard of Plymouth
A new capital for Montserrat is under construction at Little Bay, near the current Brades Government Center
Map of Montserrat Exclusion Zones
Exclusion zones are still in effect on the island

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