Sports — 04 January 2013

Belmopan Bandits defeat Police United,     1-nil, for PLB championship

A massive crowed thronged the FFB Stadium on the outskirts of Belmopan yesterday afternoon in bright sunshine to witness the final championship game of the Premier League of Belize Opening Tournament 2012-2013 between two teams who called Belmopan “home” during the competition – Belmopan Bandits and Police United FC. Police were “bridesmaids” in the previous competition behind Placencia Assassins; but it was the Bandits, who were also “bridesmaids” some years ago in the semi-pro football league, who finally captured their first national football title.

The two clubs, both connected to Hon. John Saldivar, as sponsor of Belmopan Bandits, and as the Minister in charge of Police, had met only once before, and that was in game 1 of the championship finals, in which they drew last week, 1-1.

About home field advantage

During the course of the regular season, all of the Bandits’ home games had been on Saturday night at the Isidoro Beaton Stadium. Police had used the FFB Stadium for 3 of their games, but subsequently retreated to the Isidoro Beaton also, playing their remaining home games on Sunday afternoons. When the two teams met in the finals, and Police chose to play on Sunday afternoon, December 23, at the Isidoro Beaton Stadium for their home game, it was assumed, and it had already been released by the league, that the Bandits home game the following weekend would be on Saturday night, December 29, at the Isidoro.

But something changed last Monday, following the 1-1 draw, and the word eventually reached our sports desk, that Bandits had agreed to play the deciding game 2 on Sunday afternoon at the FFB Stadium. It certainly would make for more comfortable accommodation for the fans, where seating and bathroom facilities were concerned; and the big final game was expected to draw the biggest crowd of the season.

We called Bandits coach Edmund “Buzzard” Pandy on Thursday when we learned of the change, and inquired if he was concerned about losing some of the edge in his “home field” advantage, since his team was more accustomed to the Saturday night scenario. But Pandy was confident. Two of his key players who were missing in game 1 due to suspension, Erick Rodriguez, and injury, David Trapp, would be back for the finale. “The only concern about playing in the afternoon as opposed to the night game, would be conditioning,” he said, “and we proved in game 1 that our players can handle the sun, so there is nothing to worry about.” We asked him if the slightly bigger FFB field and better grass surface wouldn’t favor the Police runners in attack like Danny Jimenez and Evan Mariano. Pandy was again unfazed. “The better field won’t hurt us,” he said, “because we have the better touches,” referring to his team’s passing game, versus the more long-ball style of play employed by Police.

Yesterday’s results have proven the Buzzard right, and further reinforces the league’s early announcement of his choice as “Coach of the Year” for the regular season. Buzzard has done a splendid job all season long with the Bandits team, though they started out losing their first game of the regular season; and that’s taking nothing away from a number of very good coaches this year, including playoff qualifiers Andres Makin of Police United, David “Rat” Torres of Placencia Assassins, and Palmiro Salas of BDF.

The game

Police played gallantly, with strikers Danny Jimenez and Evan Mariano giving their all in the attack, and Trevor “Burger” Lennon and Orlando “Leechi” Jimenez driving the midfield for the full ninety. But, in the end the difference was the patient and strategic passing coming out of the Bandits midfield that dictated the tempo of the game. Though relatively quiet in game 1 the previous week, striker David Madrid was very effective in maintaining the passing game in tandem with the advancing Bandits midfield; and veteran Dennis “Den Den” Serano, who scored in game 1, was again playing the Bandits style of ball, willing to make the extra pass, or laying it back to the midfield, rather than forcing a runaway attack. The only goal of the game came off a sequence of short passes on the left side of the eighteen involving midfielders Jacinto Bermudez, Denmark Casey, Jr. and Lincoln Wiltshire along with forward Dennis Serano, that culminated with a hard, low shot from Bermudez that Police goalkeeper Charlie Slusher had difficulty holding, and it dribbled across the goal line, before Serano gave it an extra push into the back of the net for good measure.

The most exciting shot of the game had come a little earlier, when David Madrid’s blast toward the top left corner saw Charlie Slusher making a spectacular leaping save, pushing it over the cross bar.

Fifteen minutes into second half, the rains came down hard, but there would be no more goals. The closest call Police made at the Bandits’ goal was a shot at the 66th minute by Lennox “Criminal” Castillo, inserted in 2nd half, that saw Bandits’ goalie Woodrow West leaping to push it over the crossbar. In the closing minutes, Police’s Evan Mariano was taken down just outside the eighteen, but Danny Jimenez’s kick to the right corner was corralled by a well-positioned West. And with about 5 minutes to go, a scramble in front of the Bandits’ goal seemed to point to a sure equalizer for Police, but Trevor Lennon’s shot went wide right, and the Bandits had dodged another “bullet”. The long whistle by referee Amir Castillas came shortly after, signaling the long-sought Bandits championship, and Police were “bridesmaids” once again.

End of an era, passing the baton

During the awards ceremony that followed, master of ceremonies Ismael “Miley” Garcia announced that Police goalie Charlie Slusher had played his last semi-pro game, after a long and stellar career in Belize football, both nationally and internationally. Charlie had informed us of his decision from the previous week. It was a very emotional moment for Charlie, a fierce competitor, who was consoled by his opponent yesterday, Woodrow West, who later received the Best Goalkeeper and Regular Season MVP awards.

We asked West afterwards what he had to say to Charlie as they embraced. West said he thanked Charlie for being a role model for him. “I told him that from I was a small boy he was always my idol. I always watched him perform, both nationally and internationally, to try and learn as much as I could to someday become as good a goalie as he has been. I told him I really appreciated what he had done for me and for football in Belize.”

Winning and losing

Despite the hard fought contest, there was great sportsmanship displayed among players from both teams immediately after the game, as bitter rivals shook hands and embraced each other. Nevertheless, it was a joyous scene among the many Bandits fans after the game, and Hon. John Saldivar, who received the champions trophy from FFB President Ruperto Vicente, was as exhilarated as the many fans and players who joined in the victory parade.

Undaunted, Acting Police Commissioner Elodio Aragon, Jr. insisted that his team pose for a post-game photograph. “We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said, admonishing his Police players to hold up their heads despite the painful loss.

Coach Andres Makin, Sr. was disappointed, but resilient to the end. “I felt we would have still won if the game was a little bit longer,” he said afterwards. His Police team had topped their zone in the regular season of consecutive PLB tournaments, and twice ended as sub-champs.

And the Police flag bearer and cheerleader number one, Corporal Aaron “Gambis” Gamboa, who gave an acrobatic performance for the fans at half-time, despite being down, 1-nil? He kept a brave face afterwards and congratulated all the winners, sportsman that he is; but his eyes on the post-game team picture tell the “inside” story.

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