An unprecedented football saga in the St Lucia Football Association [SLFA] camp has stirred much concern as the local football governing body’s developmental plans unfurl.
Saint Lucia’s non-participation in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers (WCQ) has opened up some ‘old wounds’, whereby a group of national players/selectees have expressed their dissatisfaction and grievances with this latest turn of events.
With the St Lucia Football Association’s [SLFA] emphasis on the development of ‘professionalism’ in the sport, local based players say they feel ‘left out’ in the overall selection process.
Should there be a selection process in place that allows for the inclusion of a certain proportion of foreign-based players to complement the local based players on the national football squad?
The ruckus, which is reportedly unparalleled in local football circles resulted in a group of national players/selectees staging a mini-protest action outside the SLFA’s base, in La Clery last week.
Subsequently, the media frenzy and outpouring of public support has raised several pertinent issues as to the SLFA’s communication strategy and looking after the general interest and welfare of local based players.
The players feel aggrieved that they were not afforded the recognition as national football players or national selectees.
Zaine Pierre, the national football team captain led the charge by expressing the players’ viewpoint on the matter.
In an exclusive with Winners Sports Beat, he spoke on the unfolding saga in St Lucia’s football development plans.
Pierre, 27, said the protest action staged by the players helped to inform the public as to what was going on between the SLFA and players.
He opined that there has been some sort of ‘tug of war’ going on for years between SLFA and players, with players remaining quiet for too long.
He said the local based players and foreign-based players support this latest protest action, as for too long the players have experienced too much frustration and so decided that they should take a stand.
According to Pierre, in January, in the prelude to this unfolding saga and during a series of at least four Zoom meetings with foreign-based players there was no presence of local based players in the discussions.
He adds that, in February, a statement was released saying that ‘it is highly unlikely’ that the national team would participate in WCQ. The players were subsequently informed that a letter was sent to FIFA and the SLFA was awaiting a response.
The players further argue that after making an inquiry the SLFA’s technical director did not provide them with a valid reason for St Lucia’s non-participation in WCQ.
Pierre says they were informed of a myriad of difficulties that included flight problems, travel and passport arrangements for overseas based players, Covid-19 protocols, and the availability of ‘home venues’ amongst other issues.
He questioned the SLFA’s commitment to the players, while stating that they ‘cared for the players’, so as to protect them from virus. But, he asked, do other countries not also care for their players since they were able to participate in WCQ.
He referred to comments made by the SLFA president on facebook, stating as to ‘who had selected them as national players’ since they had to be released from their respective clubs for national representation and that was never done. It is reported that there were groups of players training with local coaches, in Dennery and Gros Islet.
Pierre wants to know if some level of division exists between the coaches and the SLFA president. He contends that the players are not on level grounds with the SLFA and suggests that there may be a three-way ‘tug of war’ between the SLFA executive, coaches and players.
And as the saga unfolds, the players say they want to see some ‘structural changes’ in the running of football on the island. The players feel that not enough is being done to provide a push for local players to reach professional level and they contend that while the SLFA appears to promote the youth team, these players are eventually disbanded when they reach senior level.
SLFA President Lyndon Cooper has noted that Saint Lucia was relegated from the div. II to div. III following the country’s participation in the Nations League, in 2019, despite spending a whopping $1 million for the national team’s preparation and representation.
Consequently, Cooper has put forward the SLFA’s ‘development program’ agenda with strong emphasis on a Saint Lucian national team representation in the FIFA World Cup, irrespective of gender or group level.
The SLFA boss contends that Saint Lucia must aspire to reach ‘quality standards’ if they are to pose any serious competition to opposing teams. Hence the reason, he says, the SLFA has committed to the development of football from the ‘grassroots’ level with strong focus on the development of football from the youth level to the senior level.
Cooper further expressed the view that St Lucia would accommodate players from ‘across the globe’ in an effort to strengthen the national team representation in global tournaments.
Nonetheless, Pierre argues that there is no youth ranking and senior ranking. He says its St Lucia’s ranking on the global stage that counts and junior levels do not add up to the country’s football rankings.
During participation in the current Concacaf WCQ, Trinidad and Tobago fielded a team that primarily consisted of foreign-based players in its squad. From a T&T national squad of about 20 players, the majority was reported to have been foreign-based players.
To add to this scenario, though T&T’s recorded victory in their matches against Guyana and the Cayman Islands, the national coach stated that he would look to boost the team with the inclusion of more foreign-based players in the squad.
Last July, CONCACAF announced a new qualifying format for the World Cup. First round: CONCACAF teams ranked 6 to 35 based on the FIFA rankings of July 2020. They are drawn into six groups of five and play single round-robin matches (two home and two away), with group winners qualifying for the second round.
St Lucia was scheduled to play in Group E, alongside Nicaragua, Belize, Haiti and Turks and Caicos.
As of late, St Lucia’s current national football team consisted of players in the age range from 21 to 29 years old. Some of these players perceive this year’s WCQs as the last attempt to represent their country on the world stage –a dream, albeit several determined and hard-working players aspire to.
Moving forward, should the SLFA review its selection policy to provide equal opportunities for both foreign-based and local-based players to represent the country?
Over the last four to five years or so, the SLFA has put in substantial amounts of money into its overall development programs. And it has placed much emphasis on playing a ‘quota’ of a number of scheduled matches at the local level in order to meet FIFA’s requirement for the allocation of funds.
The players put in the requisite training and preparations to represent their respective clubs and communities in the SLFA’s competitions and there will definitely be some players within those ranks who aspire for national representation at the highest level.
Is it an autonomous situation that players who do not make it to the professional or semi-professional leagues will not get an opportunity to represent their country?
While the SLFA says its ultimate focus in senior men’s football is to field a ‘professional squad’ to represent St Lucia, a line needs to be drawn as to what’s in store for local based players.
And while the SLFA states that they are set on promoting ‘professionalism’ in the sport, the authorities must of necessity heed the complaints of the players and figure out how best will the SLFA be able to cater for the future development of these players.