Montserrat have kept the dream of an almost preposterous Gold Cup qualification alive with a 2-0 win away to Aruba on Friday night. With just one round to go in what is one of the strangest football tournaments ever devised, Montserrat may just need a win in the Cayman Islands next March to make it to the USA. It depends on the results in other matches, and a few extra goals may help, but the League is so tight and unpredictable that just the win could do it.

The format of the tournament is a reflection of how difficult it is to finance international football in the Caribbean. There are already rumours that some Islands are struggling with the cost, with receipts from the home games insufficient to fund those away from home. This demonstrates that the tournament, which combines the Nations League with Gold Cup qualifying, was the sensible way forward. Everyone has to be given the chance to qualify which rules out the format used by UEFA this year. Instead, we have a 34 team League with only 4 games to be played. Obviously, you would expect the likes of Jamaica, Cuba and Canada to stroll through whatever the format, but most of the teams in the League would be classed as “minnows” on the world stage and in this system, anything can happen or has already happened.

One shock was Turks and Caicos beating St Vincent and the Grenadines to all but end their qualification hopes. This came after 8-0 and 11-0 defeats for T&C and prompted calls for the President of the Football Federation, Marvin Fraser, to resign. But the real story of the tournament so far is Monserrat. If ever there was a group of people who can create a competitive advantage out of the reality of their situation it is the Montserrat football team, maybe even Montserratians as a whole.

Like most Montserratians these days, due to the volcanic eruptions and previous migration, the team is based mainly in England. This means a lot of the squad are playing regular games at a standard significantly higher than that of many of their competitors. Marvin Fraser explained the St Vincent’s shock defeat as being due to their players making their living in different Islands, and often playing at too low a level.

So what has been Montserrat’s secret? They do get a surprisingly generous level of funding from FIFA, and with a population of under 5,000, can afford to fly the team over for competitive fixtures without adversely impacting on their local development work. The way things are going, this could turn out to be a good investment as well as an inspiration to future generations. But they are also taking it seriously. Vincent Cassell the Chief Executive of the Montserrat FA said in September that they needed to play games, and for that reason alone the Nations League means “more to us than any other FA in CONCACAF”.

Coach Willie Donachie also said that the possibility of Gold Cup qualification was raised when he first had discussions about taking on the job. The appointment of a coach of Donachie’s pedigree also says a lot about the MFA’s ambition. As well as coaching, Donachie has the job of persuading others who are eligible to opt for Montserrat. He knows that regular fixtures of a decent standard of competition will make that part of his job a little easier, and Donachie already has his sights set on Matty Willock of Manchester United.

Donachie has got the side playing to its strengths. “They are strong, aggressive and know the game,” he said in a recent interview. But he has also said that getting the players together between games is impossible and of little benefit. So he watches them in England and they have a few days together before each game. He has been consistent, sticking with the team he picked for the first match against El Salvador. And the only addition has been captain Lyle Taylor, who wasn’t released for that first game. One of the uncertainties Donachie has is that there is no obligation for English clubs to release players for CONCACAF tournaments.

The players flew directly to Curacao from England for the Aruba game and will fly directly to Grand Cayman for the next. But the squad make the most of their time together. Striker Massiah McDonald, interviewed after the Belize game said “We feel we are a real attacking force. We have a solid team from back to front and a manager who knows what he is doing. He has a game plan and a style of play that works.” He also said that they took inspiration from the narrow defeat to El Salvador in their opening game: “We took a team of that calibre to the very end and they found it difficult to break us down. We now feel that we can compete and we can win games. We will now show the world what Montserrat is capable of.”

There is also clearly a sense of pride in playing for their country, or at least their country of origin. As Spencer Weir-Daley put it: “playing for your country is one of the best honours in football…respect it because you’re representing for your parents and grandparents”. He also described scoring against Belize as “one of the greatest moments of his life” and, following his subsequent goal against Aruba, he now has another one to go with it.

There also seems to be a genuine team spirit within the squad and the sort of siege mentality that marks out all the great sides. Also an understanding of the scale of what they can achieve. “We have a real chance of qualifying for the Gold Cup” said Weir-Daley after the Aruba game. “To possibly play nations like USA and Mexico in a major competition will be an all-time high for a nation underestimated by everyone. I really can’t can’t express how proud I am of my teammates”. “What a special group of players we have” tweeted midfielder Adrian Clifton, “defence to a man unreal today”.

The worst team in the world tag is also a motivator. They clearly aren’t that, and if their record of ten years as the world’s lowest ranked team is a reflection of the Island’s tragedy, it is now also history. “Worst team in the world” is also a lazy appellation, “The boys are thriving off this disrespectful journalism” tweeted Weir-Daley. “It’s like having a car race when (only) you know what power you’re working with”. McDonald added: “I think it’s about time the world got up and took a real look at ‘The World’s Worst Soccer Team. ’We are coming for the Gold Cup.”

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