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Who Are These Guys? : Island Team Makes Most of Soccer Visit

January 16, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is part of the bill at Anaheim Stadium tonight, expected to go on about 6 p.m., play for about 90 minutes and warm up the audience for the headliners.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines doesn't have a lead singer, but does have a lead striker, and doesn't play underground rock or dance-hall reggae, but is noted for playing an alternative brand of soccer that occasionally results in 11-0 defeats . . . or 11-0 victories.

St. Vincent is here, competing in its first Gold Cup, playing in front of monstrous crowds of more than 15,000, shaking hands with every member of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines stateside booster group--there are believed to be 10--and killing time between matches by attempting to answer questions from curious, confused Americans.

For example:

"St. Vincent? Is that a church or a hospital?"

"The Grenadines? That's the stuff you put in the Tequila Sunrise, right?"

"We are a very laid-back people," defender Ezra Hendrickson says, which explains the admirable patience of the St. Vincent players and coaches when confronted with these kinds of queries. Hendrickson usually provides a quick geographical thumbnail: "We are a very small island nation in the Caribbean. Nice weather. Very mountainous. We're an agricultural society, not as developed as Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. Our main export is bananas."

Rodney Jack, St. Vincent's striker and leading goal scorer, often resorts to a map when mere words fail to suffice.

"You try to explain but they still say, [sounding perplexed] 'Ohhh,' so I have to show them on a map," Jack says. "They say, 'Oh, you're very small.' All right, we're very small. 'Oh, you're only a short ways from Trinidad. I've heard of Trinidad.' All right, forget it. No one knows who we are."

And that's when you can find the place on the map.

"It's a dot," St. Vincent Coach Lenny Taylor says. "A dot on the map. And on some maps, the dot is there, but there's no name."

A former British colony that attained independence in 1979, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a group of about 600 islands (total land area: 150 square miles) located south of St. Lucia and north of Grenada in the West Indies. The entire population of the country, roughly 107,000, could be squeezed into the Rose Bowl, standing room only.

Of those 107,000, "maybe 7,000" play soccer, according to Taylor. "Out of that, we have to find a national team capable of competing on this level. It's very difficult, very difficult--and even more difficult with the financial constraints we have. We operate on a zero budget. We cannot even afford our own equipment or travel off the island to play international matches."

So how did St. Vincent get here, suiting up and playing Gold Cup games against Mexico last week and Guatemala tonight?

That's another question not easily answered. The uniforms and equipment were provided by a $300,000 grant from an Italian sporting goods company, contingent on St. Vincent qualifying for the Gold Cup. Travel and lodging expenses were provided by CONCACAF, contingent on St. Vincent qualifying for the Gold Cup.

St. Vincent qualified by finishing second to Trinidad and Tobago in last summer's Shell Caribbean Cup--a feat largely attributable to the luck of the draw. Jamaica and Trinidad are traditionally the strongest soccer-playing nations in the Caribbean, but both were placed in the same group with Cuba while St. Vincent drew French Guyana, Antigua and the Cayman Islands. Cuba then upset Jamaica to reach the semifinals, where St. Vincent then upset Cuba, 3-2, after trailing, 1-0, at halftime.

The victory over Cuba earned St. Vincent its first trip to the Gold Cup, prompting what Taylor describes as "an instant carnival back home. People were laying on the side of the street drunk. Horns were blowing in the street. Entire communities knew when a goal was scored because so many people were listening on radio. We'd score a goal and the whole community erupted.

"It touched all 107,000 inhabitants on the islands."

That moment remains the high point in the brief history of international soccer for St. Vincent, which did not have a national soccer federation until 1988. The low point? An 11-0 loss to Mexico in Mexico City during qualifying for the 1994 World Cup.

"Awful," is how Jack remembers the experience. "We couldn't cope with the high altitude or the Mexican players. They were running, shooting, scoring--and we were, like, watching. We couldn't do anything about it."

Shortly after, Taylor, a former youth and collegiate coach in the United States, took over the St. Vincent program and promised the players they would not only never lose another game by 11 goals but "would beat somebody else, 11-0, to avenge that horrible day. And we did. We beat Montserrat, 11-0, in the qualifying for the Shell Cup."

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