Anguilla: Last in FIFA’s rankings but grateful for cash

Is FIFA’s top brass spreading the wealth of the beautiful game or buying loyalty by giving cash to small nations?

Anguilla, shown in orange kits during a March World Cup qualifier against Nicaragua, have not scored a goal since 2008 [AFP]

THE VALLEY, Anguilla – The turquoise blue waters wash up against ivory sand beaches, attracting tourists to high-end resorts where they search out postcard-perfect selfies.

This tiny island, a British territory, is a speck of tranquility in the vast waters of the Caribbean sea.

At about 91 square kilometres, it is only about half the size of Washington, and can be driven from one end to the other in less than 40 minutes.

It has a population of just 16,000.

Sailing and cricket are popular here. Football is not. Maybe for good reason.

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Anguilla has a national football team, but the last time they won an official, FIFA-sanctioned match, was more than 14 years ago.

Along the way they have had some notable defeats. In 2008, they lost to El Salvador 12-0. Last year, they played three matches in Caribbean Cup qualifiers and conceded 20 goals and scored zero.

In fact, the last time Anguilla scored a goal was back in September 2008 in a 3-1 loss to St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The team has no professional players. Its members all hold down day jobs as boat builders, teachers and bank workers.

Perhaps it is little surprise that Anguilla is ranked dead last – number 209 out of 209 – in the FIFA world football rankings.

Anguilla – home to some of the best beaches in the world, but the worst football.

Despite being such a small country with miniscule football influence, FIFA has given the Anguilla Football Association about $1.7m since 2003 to build offices and a technical centre.

The money is on top of the $250,000 yearly stipend Anguilla gets from FIFA, granted to all 209 member football associations.

Anguilla is far from the only Caribbean island to get such infusions of extra cash from FIFA.

Anguilla is a speck of tranquility in the vast waters of the Caribbean sea and has a population of just 16,000 [Anguilla Tourist Board]Anguilla is a speck of tranquility in the vast waters of the Caribbean sea and has a population of just 16,000 [Anguilla Tourist Board]

Turks and Caicos – ranked 193 in the world – has received $2m since 2003, Trinidad and Tobago $1.9m since 2004, and St Kitts and Nevis $1m since 2002. The small Pacific nation of Fiji has received $2.2m since 2001.

“Under the stewardship of [FIFA president] Sepp Blatter, FIFA has distributed much more money to smaller, poorer nations and that includes the Caribbean,” said Nathan Carr, a sports journalist who runs The Home of Caribbean Football site.

“[The money] is aimed at providing islands with better facilities and infrastructure so they can develop the state of their football.”

In The Valley, Anguilla’s capital, the money was used in part to build a modest, 1,100 capacity football-only stadium that also serves as the offices for the local football association.

The venue is by no means state-of-the-art. It is simple, and some parts look slightly unfinished, yet it is the only such venue on the island.

But they are proud of it and know who to thank.

“We could have never built this stadium without FIFA,” said Raymond Guishard, the president of the Anguilla football association and the man who the stadium is named after.

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Blatter came to Anguilla in 2010 to attend the ribbon cutting.

“We don’t need to apologise, in fact we are grateful to [Blatter] for thinking of us and for the contribution we get from FIFA,” Guishard said.

“Places like the US and England don’t need the money. We need the money. We’re trying to build our own football legacy here.”

But critics say, while Anguilla has done nothing wrong, it is an example of how FIFA boss Sepp Blatter dishes out money to small football associations in far flung corners of the globe to buy loyalty in a system where even tiny countries have the same voting privileges as large ones.

Within the FIFA organisation, a vote by Anguilla holds equal weight to those of powerhouse football nations like Argentina or Germany.

In the past four years, FIFA has given more than $1bn to football associations around the world; most of whom stand very little chance of ever playing in a World Cup match, let alone winning one.

FIFA has said the money is meant to “spread the wealth” of the game. It is an argument that resonates in places like Anguilla that have no choice but to depend almost entirely on FIFA money to survive.

Anguilla's FIFA-funded football stadium [Gabriel Elizondo / Al Jazeera]Anguilla’s FIFA-funded football stadium [Gabriel Elizondo / Al Jazeera]

But David Larkin, a Washington-based sports lawyer, says FIFA cash distributions are meant to buy unquestioned loyalty to Blatter and other top organisation brass.

“The money does not come for free,” Larkin said. “The political consequences of going against the leaders of FIFA are dire. And that is what small football associations have learned.

“And that is why you have them march in lockstep and every time something happens in FIFA they follow the lead of the leaders because the power is pretty much absolute and uncontrolled.”

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FIFA rejects such claims and proudly announces that its biggest non-event expense has been $1.5bn spent over the past four years in “solidarity” programmes for member nations, according to a report in Bloomberg Business in April.

A Reuters headline in May screamed: “FIFA soccer scandal exposes Caribbean’s corrupt underbelly.”

Four of the nine people arrested in May following US prosecutors’ indictment in a $150m corruption case centred around FIFA were members of football’s regional governing body for North, Central America and the Caribbean, known as CONCACAF.

Two of the men were the most powerful officials in Caribbean football, and were directly implicated.

Former CONCACAF president Jack Warner – from Trinidad and Tobago – as well as the man who replaced him, Jeffrey Webb – from the Cayman Islands – were both implicated.

Webb, considered an up-and-coming star at FIFA and possible future FIFA president, was jailed and extradited to the US where he pleaded not guilty and was released on $10m bail.

Both men were former members of FIFA’s powerful executive committee.

The FIFA grant money handed to small nations is seen as ripe for corruption, critics say, and point to Warner and Webb as potential examples.

“The problem is not isolated to the Caribbean,” Larkin said. “You see it in Asia and Africa and other football associations as well.”

But it is the football associations in the Caribbean that are now coming under increased scrutiny.

The Anguilla Football Association received a $500,000 grant in 2011 to build dorms and a technical facility for visiting teams.

It is still not completed but appears in the final stages of construction. Guishard says it is just weeks away from opening and will help lure more teams to play on the island to avoid costly hotels.

In March, Anguilla got another $600,000 from FIFA.

 Raymond Guishard, the president of Anguilla's football association and the man the stadium is named after [Gabriel Elizondo / Al Jazeera] Raymond Guishard, the president of Anguilla’s football association and the man the stadium is named after [Gabriel Elizondo / Al Jazeera]

Guishard says the money will go towards building the second phase of the dorms and technical centre.

At a fishing dock across from Scilly Cay, lobster fishermen – who refer to the local football venue simply as “FIFA stadium” – look at the slow pace of construction and a modest stadium and express doubts about where all the FIFA money on their island is being spent.

“Something ain’t right, something doesn’t add up,” Orlando Nias said. “Something has gone wrong, definitely.”

While there is a lot of talk, there’s little proof of financial wrongdoing. Guishard is quick to show receipts and to account for all the FIFA money.

Truth is, the money coming into Anguilla is just a drop in a large ocean of FIFA’s worldwide cash distribution.

But as FIFA faces increased scrutiny and structural change, there are questions of whether the cash will continue to seemingly wash onto the sandy beaches to shore up a national team with lots of dreams but so few goals.

“In a couple of years, I’m looking forward to winning the World Cup,” Guishard says with a wide smile, before adding: “I can dream. That’s the easy part.”

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @ElizondoGabriel

With reporting from Lucia He in New York.


Source: Al Jazeera