BELIZE CITY, Wed. Dec. 21, 2016–The stage is set for the finals of the Premier League of Belize (PLB) Opening Season 2016-2017, and the home fans had something to do with it. In both semifinals 2nd leg over the past weekend, featuring teams that had drawn in all their on-field encounters in regular season, it was the added energy and loud, vocal support of home fans that might have tipped the scale in favor of the victorious home teams, Belmopan Bandits (1-0 over FC Belize) and BDF (2-0 over Police United).
The pattern of regular season draw games had continued the previous week in the semifinals, with Bandits and FC Belize ending 1-1 in their 1st leg at the MCC; but was interrupted when Police United won 3-1 over BDF in San Ignacio. But there was a special circumstance in that Police victory: BDF star goalkeeper Tevin Gamboa was visibly hobbled by injury during the whole game, and their outstanding midfielder Osmar Duran could not play, due to a strained muscle sustained during his mid-week training with the National “A” Team. And both would be back in the BDF line-up for game 2 on Sunday at the MCC.
Isidoro Beaton Stadium
It was not a large home crowd at the Isidoro Beaton Stadium on Saturday night, December 17, but the amplified Garifuna drumming and vocal exhortations of Bandits’ professional cheerleader Ray “Chukuru” Arzu early in the match was enough to rattle FC Belize assistant coach Anthony “Willie Bo” Bernard. Willie Bo appealed vociferously from his coach’s box on the sideline to the fourth official and the match commissioner, to have the volume reduced, but to no avail. He was simply ignored. Willie Bo, who is not only the assistant coach, but also the vocal sideline motivator for his team, fell for the Bandits’ trap; and when he vented his already boiling rage at referee Irfan Basdemir’s no-call for what appeared a hand-ball by a Bandits player, the referee promptly came to the sideline, and ejected Willie Bo from the ball game at the 20th minute. About five minutes later, a series of orchestrated cross-goal passes ended with the Bandits’ Honduran striker Jairo Rochez driving a low left foot shot from the top of the eighteen into the far corner past the diving Mexican Rodrigo Vasquez in goal for FC Belize; 1-nil, Bandits, and it stayed that way till the long whistle. The amplifier was removed from the vocals and drums ten minutes after the goal; but, in enemy territory, and without their number one motivator on the sidelines, FC Belize never really got their momentum going.
The Bandits dominated midfield play for much of the game, but midfielder Humberto Requena was off target on a couple of excellent opportunities in front of goal, while Vasquez also made some fine saves against Jordy Polanco and Aloisio Teixeira to keep FC Belize in the ball game. FC Belize had their share of opportunities, but they were either squandered by off-target kicks, or their run-through passes were abruptly intercepted by Bandits goalie Shane Moody Orio even before the ball entered his eighteen. FC Belize’s Mexican striker Hector Martinez showed some flashes of brilliance, but his thrusts were mostly contained by the Bandits’ central tandem of Khalil Velasquez and Denmark Casey, who maintained a mostly defensive posture, while Jordy Polanco was the spark in the Bandits’ midfield attack.
The Bandits are through to the finals, but they will be without the services of veteran striker Elroy Kuylen, who exited the game a mere eleven minutes after entering in second half, after his short, retaliatory elbow to Martinez’s face gave referee Irfan Basdemir the opportunity to show an even hand. Martinez’s “Hollywood” collapse to the ground, and quick recovery thereafter made the instant red card seem harsh in retrospect; but Basdemir had also abruptly ejected FC Belize’s assistant coach, Willie Bo, when he may have used a yellow card instead.
All 5 FC Belize veterans saw action – starters Ryan Simpson, Ernest Wiltshire and Mark “Kelo” Leslie; and inserts Floyd Jones and Oliver Hendricks – but only Wiltshire was impressive; while their young Honduran midfielder Jorge Aleman languished on the bench.
All in all, the result was not a big surprise, although FC Belize played with enthusiasm and desire.
But there was a big surprise, a shock, really, about to take place on Sunday afternoon at the MCC Grounds.
The Police United staff was brimming with confidence on Sunday morning, when “5-Star General” Aaron “Gambis” Gamboa even announced plans on the KREM Press Show to provide 300 tickets at the advanced price of $10.00 each for the finals the following week, where they would charge an entrance fee of $15.00 for their home game against the Bandits. Overcoming the 3-1 lead enjoyed from game 1 by the star-studded Police United Team seemed a near insurmountable task indeed for the BDF squad.
Well, at the MCC Garden on Sunday afternoon, somebody forgot to tell that to the BDF team and their boisterous brigade of energetic recruits who, despite the tall odds against their team, and facing an extremely formidable opponent, kept their loud cheerleading chants going throughout the game.
An early goal was in the plan for BDF, but it didn’t come. Yet, the recruits kept their chant going strong. Their courage and determination against tremendous odds is commendable and reassuring to Belizeans “from border to border.” Indeed, their “never say die” attitude was evident from their injury time score, while down 3-nil, in their first meeting. And that one goal, by Shane “Chucky” Flores, would prove critical.
Carlton “Fubu” Thomas was his magical self for Police, but the BDF defense, though missing an injured Ricky Rickets, was stern and inspired; and an apparently fully recovered Tevin Gamboa was impeccable in goal for BDF, fielding attempts by Fubu, Danny Jimenez and young Byron Chavez. But neither team could score, as the half ended, nil-nil.
Without a single “go-to guy” all season, nobody knew who would make it happen for BDF. But with the recruits’ chant still roaring on the sidelines, the second half was only a few minutes old when BDF right defender Orland Trapp embarked on a solo run down the right sideline; and then, instead of making the expected centering lob pass, he suddenly accelerated further into the eighteen, to be cut down on his way toward goal. Penalty, indicated referee Rogelio Bennett. And the stadium buzzed with excitement, as the veteran Vallan Symns calmly sent Police keeper Eithon Wagner to the left, while the ball settled in the right side of the net; 1-nil, BDF, at the 51st minute.
There are Cinderella storybook endings, and this one was coming dangerously close to being one.
There soon developed some discussion and confusion among fans about the “away goal” implications. Gambis inquired if the 1-nil score would stop Police from going to the finals. No, was our reply, following confirmation with league manager Wilhelm Miguel. The away goal rule only comes into effect if there is an aggregate tie in goals at the end of regulation. Gambis was relieved, as time winded down near the end.
Those last few minutes were frantic and tension-filled, as BDF threw everything into attack, and the Police defense tried to hold on, while hoping for a score at the other end to finally dash the BDF finals dreams. But Police coach Palmiro Salas had done the unthinkable, removed an un-injured Fubu from the game at the 61st minute, possibly saving him for the final, and that only served to embolden the BDF attack. Police even utilized their last substitution in the waning minutes of the game, to try and “kill” some time. But it was the sheer unrelenting pressure of the desperate BDF attack in those final minutes, aided by a couple miscues in the Police defense, that saw BDF second half insert Kyle Budna unleashing a grounder from inside the eighteen on the right side at the 87th minute, and it found its way through a crowd of Police defenders into the left corner of the net. 2-nil, BDF. Shock and awe on the Police bench; and pandemonium among the BDF recruits and fans. And when the long whistle blew 6 minutes later, jubilant fans stormed the pitch, like it was a championship game, to congratulate their BDF heroes, who were now on to the Big Dance against the Belmopan Bandits.
What a game!
The Big Dance
The PLB finals kick off on Christmas Eve at the MCC, and it promises to be another treat for football fans, as the two combatants, regular season #1 seed Belmopan Bandits SC and #2 seed BDF FC, drew (1-1 and 0-0) in both their regular season meetings. BDF plays at home first, and the Bandits host game 2 at the Isidoro Beaton Stadium on New Year’s Eve.
Saturday, December 24, Game 1
4:00 p.m. – BDF FC vs Belmopan Bandits SC – MCC Grounds
Saturday, December 31, Game 2
7:30 p.m. – Belmopan Bandits SC vs BDF FC – Isidoro Beaton Stadium