Pride & Industry: Introduction Blog: HERE
As you might have read in the introduction to the blog series, and previous parts (the links of which are above), I have decided to create a challenge on Football Manager 2020 by taking charge of Barbados and trying to enhance their reputation in the world of football. The aim of the series is to try and develop football on the Caribbean island, and hopefully get the team qualified for some major tournaments and improve their FIFA world ranking. In this blog, we continue in the Lower Seeded section of the CONCACAF 2022 World Cup qualifying after having qualified from our group in Part 8. For the start of 2021’s fixtures, we progress to the quarter-finals of the WC qualifying phase by taking on Cuba over two legs.
NOTE: I would highly recommend you look at FMOverload‘s excellent Coaching Cuba series, as it was the inspiration for my series. Please check out the series here:
As read in Part Eight of the series (found HERE), my Barbados side had started their 2022 World Cup campaign after a successful qualification to the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. 2021 would be an important year for Barbadian football with the nation taking part in its first ever major continental tournament, but that wouldn’t be until July (and in Part Ten of this series). Therefore, before focusing on our exciting adventure to the United States, there was the small matter of 2022 World Cup qualification that needed to be progressed first. Having qualified from the group stage of the Lower Seeded section of CONCACAF qualifying, by finishing ahead of both Haiti and the US Virgin Islands, it was time to take on the 1938 World Cup qualifiers and the focus of FMOverload’s excellent series, Cuba, in the two-legged quarter-finals.
WCQ Quarter Final 1st Leg – Cuba (a) – March 2021
My scouting of the English professional clubs’ youth teams had provided fortuitous once again as I managed to spot a young right-back (not an area of particular strength within the Barbadian national pool of players), in the Fulham under 19s side, with Barbadian heritage. A quick call to the youngster enquiring about his international availability and he was soon committed to the Bajan project. Possessing a Current Ability (CA) of 64 for an eighteen year old, Rico Chase was soon called-up for the 23-man squad to take on Cuba in the World Cup quarter-final qualifiers, replacing the once-again-injured Nicoli Braithwaite. A brave choice considering he hadn’t made a single appearance for Fulham’s first team, but he had been impressive in the under 19’s and under 23’s team games for the Cottagers. Other than the Speightstown-born defender, there were no other real surprises in the 23-man squad for the games against Cuba with practically the same squad that played in the previous international break.
The first leg would take place upon the socialist paradise island of Cuba and within its vibrant capital of La Habana / Havana – the fourth largest city in the Caribbean (cue the Camila Cabello song). During the long flight across the entire Caribbean to the Juan Gualberto Gómez International Airport, the main airport for Cuba, I was thoroughly expecting a passionate and somewhat intimidating atmosphere when we landed on the region’s largest island. Therefore I was not disappointed when we landed in Cuba and received a pressurised welcome with the Cuban fans making every attempt to make our brief stay on the island as uncomfortable as possible. All luggage was checked thoroughly whilst processing was delayed, all the while, partisan home supporters gathered within the airport yelled insults in our direction. A few of the youngsters were unnerved a little but soon calmed down when they saw the coaching staff and I laughed at a few of the insults lobbed in my direction, especially when the team bus was being thumped upon loudly as it made its way from the airport to our premier and isolated hotel.
After an overnight stay at the hotel where a couple of jokers had pulled the fire alarm a couple of times during the middle of the night to wake everyone from their slumber, and disturb our preparations, it made everyone even more determined to get a result from the first leg of this match. Once again our bus was thumped upon, egged and shouted at as we ventured through the western streets of the Cuban capital towards the 28,000 capacity Estadio Pedro Marrero for our upcoming game. It’s clear they were worried about us potentially winning hence why the supporters were trying every trick in the book to unsettle us, so that their national team could get any advantage over us. Not to mention my friend FMOverload was trying to play some pre-game managerial mind games with me by being very blasé about our chances…oh no, no, no my friend… I AM THE MASTER OF MIND GAMES HERE!
Cuba 1 – 3 Barbados
It was a near sell-out at the Estadio Pedro Marrero with over 25,000 supporters crammed into the stadium creating one hell of an atmosphere. A few hundred brave members of the Trident Tribe had made the long and arduous journey to Havana (some of them having to stop off in Canada before making the connecting flight back southwards) to cheer on the team. Alas they were easily outshouted by the home support, who had already set off a number of red and blue flares before the match, and had begun filling the arena with a smoky haziness prior to kick-off. The smoke added to the uncomforting of the situation of the game which was already being played in 35 degrees heat! This scorching game against los Leones del Caribe was clearly going to be one of the toughest of my managerial career so far, and so I went a bit more cautious for this game with the team’s approach.
Cuba would start the brighter of the two teams and tested Akeem Holder in goal ‘early doors’, which made me worry that perhaps the intense pressure was getting to my players. However with Cuba coming increasingly close to opening the scoring, we would silence the stadium by taking the lead within half an hour of play. That man Nick Blackman once again stepped up and proved invaluable to the side. Starting the opportunity by claiming possession in Cuba’s half, he sprayed the ball wide to Elijah Downey in acres of space on the left side. A long, floated cross towards the back post was met by Blackman who rose above his marker to head the cross into the top corner of the net! Absolute pandemonium on the away bench and amongst the yellow-clad section as the volume in the Estadio Pedro Marrero rapidly decreased.
Just when I thought we could get into the half-time break with the slim advantage, Cuba finally broke their deadlock through a counter-attack and raised the stadium volume once again. Their star player, the Norwich winger Onel Hernández (strangely on-loan at Hungarian side Fehérvár FC for some reason), dribbled and slalomed through our recovering midfield and defence before striking an absolute thunderbolt from the edge of the penalty area and into the top right corner of the net. A hell of a goal from the on-loan Canary, but bugger, it certainly changed my half-time plans…
With the side being too cautious in the first half, I decided to switch the mentality to our more usual ‘positive’ focus and it would provide dividends instantly in the second half. Three minutes into the second half and the Bajan Blitz came into force once more as some slick movement amongst the midfield three before Mario Williams slammed a 25-yard thunderbastard which clipped the underside of the crossbar and bounced down on the ideal side of the goalline to give us a 2-1 away lead! Absolute scenes with Williams only scoring his second international goal of his career!! Things would get better for us 20 minutes later when another rare scorer bagged just his third international goal. Captain Jomo Harris was on hand to pick up possession from a headed out corner before lashing a vicious strike from outside of the penalty area and past the inside post to give us a 3-1 lead at Cuba!!! C’MOOOOONNNN!!!
Cuba continued to threaten and were desperate to reduce their arrears with the Man of the Match Hernández coming nervously close to scoring on a couple of occasions. Thankfully, I made use of my substitutes to slow down the tempo of the game and solid things up at the back, including preceding to hack my opponent by picking up three yellow cards, to ensure the game ended with an important 3-1 away victory for us! An incredible performance considering we had fewer shots and less ball possession throughout the game! With three away goals in the bag, we had one foot in the semi-finals of the WC qualifying.
WCQ Quarter Final 2nd Leg – Cuba (h) – March 2021
The game became just like a good Caribbean rum, when a touch of spice was added to it to make the second leg a very tasty affair. My friend FMOverload was continuing the managerial mind games after the first leg defeat by calling my antics prior and during the first leg “unprofessional” to the assembled press in the post-match press conference. Oh really?? Well just you wait when you find out that the hot water has been turned off in the away team’s dressing room for the second leg and the lights go off randomly during your team talks…’let bygones be bygones’ indeed ha!
There were not many changes to the Barbadian starting XI for the second leg at the Waterford Stadium with just a couple of players rotated out due to lower than desired match condition. As a result, young forwards Downey and Vaughn were replaced by the more experienced duo of Hallam Hope and Kemar Headley respectively. Otherwise it was the same eleven as before, employing the more successful ‘positive’ attacking mentality rather than the ‘cautious’ one which had started the first leg and was a little unproductive. I was hoping to score an early goal in the second leg to potentially end the tie and stop any Cuban comeback on the island – perhaps those cold showers and flickering lights would have done its intended job!
Barbados 2 – 1 Cuba (5 – 2 on aggregate)
As always, the Trident Tribe came out in full force for the World Cup qualifier by selling out the 12,000 seater Waterford Stadium despite it being a miserably rainy March day (albeit still a balmy 23 degrees centigrade in the Bridgetown suburb). A visiting contingent of 1,400 Cuban supporters had ventured down the Caribbean archipelago to watch this game, and were providing a loud and committed support just as their compatriots had done in the first leg. However this time they were outnumbered by the yellow-shirt-clad supporters, who had brought with them a number of Barbadian flags, streamers and blue flares! It was clear that the home support were not going to be ‘out-supported’ by their opponents this evening!
Thankfully the increasingly soggy supporters were treated to a goal within the first twenty minutes of the game when the starman Nick Blackman opened up the scoring and practically confirmed our passage into the semi-finals of the World Cup qualifying. A nice one-two between left wing-back Ackeel Applewaite and Kemar Headley allowed the Paradise FC defender to cross the ball into the box where Blackman was positioned. The forward ghosted between the Cuban defenders to head an unmarked effort towards goal, and despite his initial effort ricocheting off the crossbar, he was the quickest to react to the rebound and fire past the helpless Cuban goalkeeper Christian Joel to give the Bajans an early lead in the second leg.
Things would improve before half-time when Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s Blackman found the back of the net once again to give us a secure 5-1 aggregate lead in the tie. Another passing partnership between Applewaite and Headley on the left-side passed towards Jomo Harris, and the captain launched a long pinpoint cross towards the far post where an onrushing and completely unmarked Blackman who cut-inside from the right-side to nod the ball past Joel to double our lead on the night. Cue pandemonium both from the stands and the home dugout, with even more yellow and blue smoke flares being set alight from amongst the stands (where the hell are the fans obtaining these flares from??)! We were seemingly on our way to the semi-finals of the World Cup qualifying and the Waterford was bouncing!
The majority of the second half was very much uneventful from my point of view with tactics being changed to avoid Cuba finding any unlikely comeback, although we continued to have the majority of shots and ball possession. Even though their substitute forward Frank López managed to breach our defence in the 70th minute (just two minutes after coming on – what an impact substitute!) to provide a touch of nerves to emanate from within the home dugout, six minutes later, their influential player, Onel Hernández, had to leave the field injured. With FMOverload having used up all of his allotted substitutes, it meant the visitors had to complete the remainder of the game with a man disadvantage. At that point, I knew we had finally progressed to the next round with a 2-1 victory and could relax somewhat and enjoy the remaining minutes of the game whilst celebrating with the crowd. This mad Caribbean journey was continuing into the semi-finals!!
WCQ Semi-Final 1st Leg – El Salvador (h) – June 2021
Our opponents for the World Cup qualifying semi-final would be El Salvador, who managed to overcome a technically gifted Curaçao side 3-2 on aggregate to send the Central American side into the next round of qualifying. It would be a very tough test for us against a side who were joint 85th in the FIFA World Rankings list and had a number of dangerous players that could cause problems to my defence. Their forward Nelson Bonilla (CA of 117) of Bangkok United would be the danger man upfront for los Guanacos, whilst midfielders Alexander Larín and Darwin Cerén would also be problematic for my players also (both players have a CA of 114). If we were going to progress past them into the qualifying final, we would need to keep these players quiet and keep a clean sheet in both legs, although it was going to be a tough situation.
It wasn’t made any easier selecting the squad with some serious injuries in the midfield with both first-teamers Ramar Layne and Haden Holligan missing the games, with Layne especially being a long term loss. The talented youngster Layne would be out for 4 months with a hip injury (annoyingly missing the Gold Cup also, which would be a big blow to my plans), whilst Holligan would be out for 4 weeks with a muscle injury.
With some serious injuries in the midfield, it meant a call-up for Weymouth Wales’ experienced central midfielder Renaldo Marquez to the 23-man squad, who had already earned himself 27 caps previously, whilst also moving Kemar Headley to cover the lack of midfield cover. As a result, I brought in young Barbadian-Uzbek striker Bobur Ergashev to make his debut in the full team after having glowing reports about him from the scouts. He had been doing well for Porey Springs having scored four goals in the last five games, and with Uzbekistan also sniffing around for his potential international services, I thought it would be best to cap him and tie him down for the Bajan Tridents before the White Wolves sunk their teeth into him and he was lost forever! Better safe than sorry!
Barbados 2 – 1 El Salvador
The first leg of the World Cup qualifying would be held at the Waterford Stadium, which would also be curiously the final home game before the Gold Cup was set to commence. As a result, the Trident Tribe had once again turned out in full force by selling-out the 12,000 seater stadium, located on the outskirts of the island’s capital. In addition, El Salvador had brought across 2,000 fans to the tie – about 1/6th of the stadium’s attendance, meaning there would be a strong visiting contingent at the Waterford Stadium and providing an unbelievable atmosphere for the first leg of this qualification game. Phalanxes of Barbadian and Salvadoran flags were fluttering in the light breeze amongst the 27 degrees heat of the Friday evening, whilst the Bajan fans had produced a tifo of a large-sized Barbadian home shirt, saying “Best of Luck Bajans – 2021 Gold Cup” on the front, which was held and fluttered above their heads in the stands prior to the game.
The first half was very frustrating for us as we were certainly the better side having creating numerous chances, but our efforts just wouldn’t allow the deadlock to be broken. After missing all of our chances in the first half, naturally we would be punished just a few minutes into the second half. Tafari Moore got his timing absolutely incorrect when attempting a covering tackle and brought down a Salvadoran attacker in the penalty box, resulting in a penalty awarded to the visitors after just two minutes played. I was absolutely fuming from the decision, what an idiot!!! Gilberto Baires made no mistake from the penalty spot to give El Salvador the lead in a game where they hadn’t created that many chances – we were the masters of our own downfall and had conceded a crucial away goal. Disaster!!!
As the time ticked down in the second half, we continued to miss numerous chances to equalise and I was starting to get worried that it just wouldn’t be our day. A few substitutions and a switch to a 4-2-4 formation meant I was gambling for an equaliser as I didn’t want to go into the second leg 0-1 down even though the risk of conceding another away goal had now increased. With just seven minutes remaining, my attacking gamble finally paid off when young substitute Mario Vaughn scored his seventh international goal to level the scores. A cross from the right by fellow substitute Elijah Downey was volleyed first-time by Vaughn to send it beyond the reach of Benji Villalobos in goal. What a talent this young lad is becoming – the hype increases!!
Things would get even better for us just two minutes later when the provider became the match-winner! A dangerous run from Bobur Ergashev (making his international debut) down the left-flank stretched the Salvadoran defence allowing him to cross towards the far side edge of the penalty box. Without breaking stride, Downey struck the cross low first-time and fired it into the bottom corner of the net! A monumental turn around in this game although it was something we had deserved considering our previous efforts. All three substitutes had made the required impact I had desired and gave us an important advantage going into the away leg – perhaps I am not so bad at this management lark after all…
WCQ Semi-Final 2nd Leg – El Salvador (a) – June 2021
Even though we had managed to create a successful, if uncomfortably late, comeback against El Salvador at the Waterford, the tie was still on a knife-edge. Failure to score in the second leg and potentially conceding just a single goal to a threatening Salvadoran attack would see us knocked out on away goals. Therefore on our 8 and a half hour flight across the whole Caribbean region to the capital of San Salvador, situated near to the Pacific Ocean, was filled with some trepidation knowing that we would have to score in El Salvador to make our progression to the qualification final more secure. But having scored twice against them, we could do it again, although I wasn’t so confident we could keep a clean sheet whilst doing it.
It didn’t help that a number of our players would not be starting for the second leg due to a lower-than-desired match condition. Tafari Moore would have to be dropped to the bench (where at least he wouldn’t give away any further penalties) and be replaced by regular second-choice right-back Nicoli Braithwaite, whilst Mario Vaughn would need to be replaced by Kemar Headley, who would move upfront from his previous midfield berth. Replacing him in the centre of midfield would be BDFSP’s Raheim Sargeant, who was perhaps the best choice from my opinions available to me. Otherwise it would be the same starting XI starting the second leg as had begun the first leg.
El Salvador 0 – 0 Barbados (1 – 2 on aggregate)
The second leg would be played in the 32,000 capacity Estadio Jorge ‘Mágico’ González (named after their legendary forward who played for the national team between 1976 and 1998) situated right in the middle of San Salvador, and is also the home of Alianza who have previously won the CONCACAF Champions League in the 1960s. Even though it wouldn’t be a sell-out game, there would still be over 28,600 supporters watching the second leg, with the vast majority of them hoping for a home victory and progression to the World Cup playoff final. Despite being behind in the tie, the Guanacos supporters were confident they could overcome the arrears and potentially qualify for their first World Cup since 1982 (where they lost to Hungary 10-1 – perhaps not worth mentioning that again…). Likewise, the small contingent of Trident Tribe fans who had made the long trip across the region, wanted this mad World Cup qualifying journey to continue (as did I).
Alas I’m sure the Barbadian travelling support was as worried as I was throughout the first half seeing the home side absolutely battering us. Even though we had our fair share of ball possession, we just couldn’t create anything up front, with our star inside-forwards making absolutely no impact on the game, all the while El Salvador continually created efforts and shots on goal. Thankfully our young keeper, Akeem Holder, was equal to all of the chances but I was still getting increasingly worried that the home breakthrough was going to come eventually. Things became even tougher on the 33rd minute when I had to replace Mario Williams with Seb Hunte after the central midfielder had picked up a neck strain resulting in my midfield becoming even weaker.
With such a thought in mind, I decided to risk it by playing defensively, and threaten on the counter-attack, to maintain the goalless situation and hope that we can stop the Salvadoran attacks more effectively. Hard-tackling, continuous countering and some structured organisation would be the order of the day for the second-half, hoping to grind out a result or potentially nick a counter-attack goal. Thankfully the tactics would prove to be very fruitful throughout the second period with Krystian Pearce being an absolute rock in the back and blocking everything that came his way. His second-half performance was so good, he earned the Man of the Match award and could’ve held back the Pacific tide if he tried! As the time ticked by, the palpable tension within the stadium ramped up and as a result, the game faded into a stale, uneventful contest, which absolutely suited me completely!
The game fizzled with a damp squib, and the home support were distinctly unhappy with the performance as boos (and some rubbish) rained down upon their compatriots. I felt a pang of sadness for my opposite number, who just slumped into his seat in the dugout. However, I couldn’t have been any happier with the result as the whole bench spilt out onto the pitch and celebrated like we had actually won the World Cup! Against all the odds, we had somehow managed to reach the World Cup Lower Seeded playoff final – an absolutely incredible performance, where we would face the daunting aspect of Canada in September! With such superb results, it also improved our FIFA world ranking, raising us up to the nosebleed-inducing heights of 123rd in the world. Most importantly, the games gave us the required momentum and confidence we needed for our next adventure…it was now time to focus on the country’s first ever major football tournament…IT’S WAS GOLD CUP TIME!!!
Please follow my friend FMOverload on Twitter @FMOverload_, and check out their blog at https://fmoverload.home.blog/. It is an absolutely brilliant Football Manager blog and I would highly recommend you check it out, especially when they explore their new FM21 saves!