After the disappointment of their near miss in 2019, and the cancellation of this year’s play-offs, it looked like Montserrat’s dream of playing in the Gold Cup was to remain just a dream. The core squad is not getting and younger, and unless Willie Donachie can persuade a few more players to sign up, 2021 could be the last chance to qualify for some time.
But Concacaf has suddenly announced that Cinderella will be going to the ball. The play-off games are to be replaced with a new “Preliminary Round” to be held in the USA the week before the tournament proper starts in July. Further details are to be announced.
Montserrat had been due to play Guatemala home and away in March this year and, had they been successful, would have moved on to a final playoff against Cuba.
The pandemic put a stop to this and it has been difficult to see how the games could still be slotted into the international schedule, particularly with the World Cup qualifiers due to start later this year. But Concacaf has found a solution. Montserrat will join fellow British Overseas Territory Bermuda in the tournament, along with Bahama, Barbados, Cuba, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The arrangements for the World Cup qualifiers have also been announced and should also provide some interesting games.
They will begin in the Autumn of 2020 and run through until 2022. Montserrat will be in a group of five teams and, if they top that, they will then play a two-legged play-off in the following March to decide which sides will participate in an eight-team octagonal qualifying tournament.
Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras have pre-qualified for this based on their FIFA rankings, which means the other nations are competing for just three places.
The previous plan was for a final hexagonal tournament, comprised of the top six teams in the FIFA rankings only, with the other 29 teams able to compete only for a potential 4th qualifying spot through the inter-confederation play-offs. Concacaf officials appear to be still stung by their federation sending Panama, rather than the USA, to the 2018 World Cup but the change of heart came about due to the impact of the cancelled fixtures on the FIFA rankings.
In a statement, Concacaf President Victor Montagliani said:
Given the suspension of the March, June and September FIFA match windows, and with so many of our Member Associations unable to complete a full FIFA rankings cycle, the previous Concacaf Qualifiers were compromised, and a new approach was required. All teams now have the chance to compete for direct access to Qatar 2022 and dream of playing at a World Cup, while we have also respected the positions of those nations which had already mathematically qualified for the Final Round under the previous system.
An interesting issue is the sort of team that Montserrat will be able to put together. Montserrat will not be playing at home, which is a disadvantage, and a disappointment, but a trip to the USA after the league seasons have ended might be attractive to a lot of players, even if it could cause them some domestic strife should they then go on to qualify.
Four guaranteed World Cup qualifiers may also make playing for Montserrat an attractive proposition, and if the team can get through to the final round, it will mean 14 games against the top teams in the region, including Mexico, Costa Rica and the USA.
For the World Cup qualifiers, European clubs are required to release their players if selected. The downside of these arrangements is that, if Montserrat fails to make it the eight-team qualifying tournament, their fixture list for October 2021 onwards is going to look a little empty.
Of course, we don’t know the course that the pandemic will take in the USA, nor the likely quarantine arrangements on the players return. This could make everything more complicated. At the moment the final is scheduled for Florida, which is struggling to get a grip on the pandemic, but we can live in hope. It is a year away.