BY TOMOS KNOX
In July 1995, Montserrat – a small island in the Caribbean – was shrouded in smoke as its SoufriÃ¨re Hills volcano erupted, destroying the islandâ€™s capital Plymouth in the midst of its relentless onslaught. Following Plymouthâ€™s destruction, half of Montserratâ€™s population left the island for good, convinced that the economy had been crushed. Only two years later, a pyroclastic flow travelled from Mosquito Ghaut, tragically killing 19 people. The southern part of Montserrat has now been deemed unsafe, and is no longer inhabited. The old capital, Plymouth, once the hub of the islandâ€™s life, lies desolate in the shadow of the volcano. Instead of boasting 4,000 inhabitants like before, the former capital of Montserrat is empty, devoid of the life once found on its streets.
Now boasting a population of just less than 5,000, the â€œEmerald Isleâ€ has been seriously damaged by this tragic occurrence. With its capital demolished, half of its population leaving for Britain and a lack of an economy, things were looking relatively grim for Montserrat. However, football somehow pulled through and continues to maintain its position as one of Montserratâ€™s top sports. Somewhat surprisingly, the islandâ€™s national team only began playing four years before the SoufriÃ¨re Hills disaster.
Montserrat played their inaugural international versus St. Lucia in 1991 during the Caribbean Cup, losing 3-0 to the hosts. However, despite this setback Montserrat bounced back, grabbing an impressive 1-1 draw against Anguilla. The island proceeded to compete in the next Caribbean Cup, but crashed out after suffering some heavy defeats at the hands of both St. Kitts and Nevis and Antiqua and Barbuda, rounding off rather a cataclysmal display. In 1994, three years after the establishment of the Montserrat national football team, the Montserrat Football Association (MFA) was formed and subsequently joined CONCACAF. Montserrat played their first ever home match on the March 26th, 1995 in Plymouth, gaining their first win by defeating Anguilla 3-2. A subsequent victory over Anguilla guaranteed their place in the 1995 Caribbean Cup.
However, Montserrat exited from the Caribbean Cup after losing to St. Vincent and Grenadines by an aggregate score of 20-0 and, as the SoufriÃ¨re Hills volcano became unsafe, erupting on a number of different occasions, a large number of the islandâ€™s footballers departed, taking up the UK Governmentâ€™s offer of residency in Britain. It wasnâ€™t until 1999 that Montserrat played a football match again â€“ returning after a four year hiatus.
Montserrat returned a far weaker side as a consequence. The island did not even enter the 1998 World Cup qualifiers. Unsurprisingly, on their return to international football, playing in the 1999 edition of the Caribbean Cup, they lost 1-6 on aggregate to the British Virgin Islands, leaving them last in Group D, which, as Anguilla withdrew, comprised of just the two teams. These two defeats resulted in Montserrat departing the tournament, which would eventually be won by Trinidad and Tobago, without registering a draw, let alone a win. However, when taking into consideration the various factors weighing against the Montserratians, the tournament was not all that big a disaster; the fact that the islanders could still manage to field a team was an achievement in itself.
Due to their missing out on the World Cup qualifiers in 1998, 2002 marked Montserratâ€™s inaugural World Cup qualification campaign. This campaign was, however, to be short-lived, as they were defeated twice by the Dominican Republic.
All the same, Montserrat were not excessively upset by these two defeats. True, they may have lost by a fine margin of 6-1 on aggregate to another similarly weak side, but a glimmer of hope had emerged; Montserrat had scored their first goal in an international competition. This was the starting point of something that Montserrat hoped would develop. It was now time to improve.
And Montserrat received the exact opportunity to do this, as, in a fixture dubbed â€œThe Other Finalâ€, they contested the other team lying last in the FIFA World Rankings alongside themselves, Bhutan.
The match was to be held on the day of the World Cup final â€“ the 30th of July, 2002, in Thimphu. The interest surrounding the match was considerable, and Premier League referee Steve Bennett officiated the match. Played in front of 25,000 supporters, most of, if not all of, whom where Bhutan fans, it was the chance that Montserrat needed, an opportunity to gain a victory and a move from the basement of FIFAâ€™s rankings system.
However, there was to be no fairytale ending for Montserrat as they crumbled to a 4-0 defeat. Wangay Dorji of Bhutan grabbed himself a hat-trick, while Dinesh Chhetri scored the other goal for the hosts.
Over a decade on from their loss at the hands of Bhutan, Montserrat continues to plough on in hope of World Cup qualification, although their dream looks more and more unlikely as time goes by. Over the course of the last decade, theyâ€™ve lost 13-1 to Bermuda, 7-0 to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and have been defeated 7-1, not once but twice, by Suriname.
However, the â€œEmerald Isleâ€ managed something quite unexpected in 2012. Montserrat, facing the British Virgin Islands on the 9th of September 2012, emerged victorious by a colossal 7-0 scoreline, as Marlon Campbell and Ellis Remy bagged two goals apiece and Darryl Roach, Bradley Woods-Garness also scored, while the seventh was an own goal: the culprit was British Virgin Islandsâ€™ Jamal Sargeant.
For Montserrat, this victory meant a lot. During their short and arid football history, they had achieved very little up to this point, and to maul a fellow British Overseas Territory was also special in its own way; a derby of sorts!
It is fair to say that this win spurred the Montserratians on to better things, as in their next match, versus the US Virgin Islands on the 30th of May, 2014, Montserrat were the winners, with their prolific striker Jaylee Hodgson scoring the only goal of the match.
Montserrat had only just started making small footprints in Caribbean football in the years leading up to that fateful day in July 1995. They were a fledgling side, a team that could eventually become a giant in the world of island football. However, in a series of incidents that nobody could have predicted, the Montserrat Football Associationâ€™s dream of fielding a side capable of competing with the best of the CONCACAF teams was cruelly struck away by mere fate. As thousands of Montserratians departed the island they once called home, hundreds of potential footballers were whisked away by their parents, to live in the United Kingdom. Had the SoufriÃ¨re Hills volcano never erupted, perhaps the Montserrat national football team would be winning matches on a regular basis, challenging opponents of a higher standard, for example Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, both having qualified for the World Cup on separate occasions. However, this is not important at the moment, because the team that currently represents Montserrat recovered from the wounds that the SoufriÃ¨re Hills volcano inflicted upon their island when they hammered seven goals without reply against the British Virgin Islands. The only place that the Montserrat national football team will go from now on is onwards, and upwards!