BELIZE CITY–The PLB Interim Committee is reportedly having a meeting on Wednesday of this week. While we wait for word on the new season, we continue with our football musing.
BELIZEAN FOOTBALL COMPARISONS
Thursday, March 8, 2007
(continued from Amandala of Sun. Oct. 4)
Another question that needs to be asked is: why has professionalism in Belize not led to an increase in gate attendance, which would translate to better salaries for players, following the first few years of semi-pro? Instead, many clubs have folded due to financial difficulties, as fan turn-out during regular season games is abysmal. Teams that don’t make the playoffs have no hope of breaking even, and even champion teams have folded, or declined to return to defend their title, (New Site Erei, Sagitun?) due to financial problems. It is strongly suggested, from this scenario, that if the price is paid (in terms of gate receipts) to achieve excellence on clubs, they would be sustainable and continue to improve. But if top clubs collapse at their peak, due to financial constraints, only to then have to start all over again, this will naturally delay the rise of our football standard to match the higher ranked countries in the region.
There were definitely teams in the early years of the thirties, forties and fifties who held their own with teams from Guatemala and Honduras. And also in the sixties, although the international exchanges were not as frequent, clubs like Avengers of Cayo and Landivar of Belize City may have competed successfully at the regional level. The disastrous shellacking at the MCC of then 1969 Belize City Competition champions San Joaquin by visiting Platense of Honduras, featuring young Porfirio Betancourt, needs to be properly analyzed. San Joaquin was certainly overmatched, 9-nil, but San Joaquin was amateur, which means its players were all from their district. Platense, which already was part of a professional league in Honduras, obviously had access to talent throughout Honduras. Had San Joaquin reinforced, as had been the tradition when Belize teams traveled (as Berger 404 up through Mexico around ’76, or a Belize selection to Jamaica in ’63?), the result might have been more respectable.
With Milpros in ’89 (the big scores Milpros took in ’87 from Olympia, 8-1, in Honduras and in ’88 from Morelia, 9-nil, in Mexico were both largely an effect of the altitude handicap, as the return matches at home were much different, a 1-1 draw and a 2-nil loss), and again Acros-Carib and Juventus in ’93(?) and ‘95(?), and New Site Erei in 2006, it is clear that Belizean football has the capacity to attain higher levels, matching the level in other countries in the region. But the limiting factor seems to be financial – the chicken or the egg.
The challenge of any professional league in Belize is to market the teams and the game in such a way (of course the clubs have a big part to play in this, by conduct and performance on the field) that fans return to the parks in the numbers necessary to make the clubs profitable. But for this financial hurdle to be crossed, it will certainly take the political will of government, who owns the stadiums, and needs to make the necessary investments to make the accommodations attractive to potential fans who are otherwise satisfied with watching TV in the comfort of their homes, or going to one of the local discotheques, night clubs, restaurants or theatre. Football cannot successfully compete for the weekend entertainment dollar when the walkways, shelter, bathroom and seating accommodations are terribly wanting, the game has to be viewed from a distance through obstructive chain link fences, and the field, which used to be the saving grace, has a playing surface that takes away from the quality of performance, to put it mildly.
Exploring this theory, some worrying facts come to the fore. Take the case of the Coke Milpros “Rest of the World” team in 1985-86, when the popularity of football in Belize City can be said to have been at a peak it has not since then achieved. The Coca Cola franchise provided the financial base to make the development of that team possible, and the commitment of the players was second to none. A lot of hard work, discipline and dedication was put into the game by all the players and management personnel on that team. The media caught on to, and further promoted, the excitement surrounding this team that was a real happening in Belize City football – featuring one of the best, and arguably “the” most prolific Belizean striker of all time in his prime, Arthur “Goatman” Leslie, as well as a young phenomenon, Benjamin “Don’t” Mejia, that had simultaneously achieved a level of individual brilliance on the same team, and another top quality striker in his own right, the then recently recruited Maurice “Magic” Francis, who twenty-two years later is still scoring goals in the present semi-pro league, and it is clear that fans were treated to a level of talent representing the best in Belizean football. (By the way, in the 1987 national competition that Coke Milpros won, confusion at the national level resulted in only one individual award being given, and it was the MVP award to Maurice “Magic” Francis.)
But at the end of that spectacular 1985-86 season, Coke Milpros lost their “National Best Goalkeeper” Wayne “Bom” Jones to the 1986 national champs Verdes, with no compensation to Milpros. Similarly, the Wagiya club of Dangriga had lost their young midfield star Benedict Lopez to Verdes, and Benedict became the “National MVP” in that same 1986 national competition that Verdes won, with no compensation to Wagiya. A few years later, Milpros lost star striker Turo Leslie to their nemesis in Belize City, Duurly’s, again with no compensation to Milpros. The same thing had happened almost 3 decades earlier to the young Dunlop champions, who lost a number of their star players to job offers from BEC. And even up to today in the semipro league, because the clubs are so weak financially, there is hardly any talk of transfer fees when players opt to move from one club to the other. In the interest of their players, club owners are reluctant to “hold them back” from any opportunity for advancement.
But the Coca Cola franchise still had to carry the Coke Milpros team financially, because gate receipts, though generally better than for the other clubs, still could not suffice the expenses incurred, much less cover the traveling costs for participation in international competitions. (Of course, in local competitions, the clubs only received a portion of the gate receipts until the advent of semi-pro in 1991.) And this was still in the amateur era, so there were no player salaries to worry about. Yet, the gate receipts alone could definitely not suffice to maintain this team, and allow it to continue to improve. And the Coke sponsor was not interested in “ratching” up the inputs to bring the club to a semi-professional level. As the sponsor representative once remarked, much as he loved the game, the company was only prepared to spend so much of its advertising budget on sponsoring a football team. They thought they got more “bang for their buck” sponsoring advertisements on local cable TV with the WWF shows.
Also, it must be noted that, despite the image of a plush sponsorship from the giant Coke, the reality is that it was nothing like the sponsorships of other legendary teams like the Queens Park Rangers, and even a couple City teams of the sixties, whose sponsors afforded special privileges to their players who were employed on their company’s payroll in a sort of semipro arrangement; although, where the football association was concerned, they remained officially “amateur.” Players on those teams did a few hours of work and were afforded time off early each day to go and do their “workout” on the team. But on Coke Milpros, the few players who were lucky to get jobs at the King Street warehouse received no such privileges. Coke Milpros players who worked at Coke had to work just as hard as any other employee, with no time-off to go to the team’s work-outs in the evenings or the mornings, when they were scheduled.
What helped the packaging of football for the fans in the 1985-86 season was that the MCC had just undergone a major re-surfacing the previous year (the 1984-85 season was played at the National Stadium.), making the ball passing on the ground more effective and the attacking play more efficient and exciting for the fans. Nevertheless, despite the hard core fans that attended the games, this did not spill over to other members of the public, who could swell the numbers to make the game really a financial success for clubs.
Ask any fan, and it will be clear that the major draw-back to most non-football fanatics attending games is that the accommodation is frightfully inadequate – insufficient bleachers; very uncomfortable seating; no shelter from sun and rain; pot-holed and muddy walk way to reach the bleachers; insecure and inadequate parking facility; … It is clear then, that putting necessary crowds in the park to make semi-pro teams able to continue improving to higher and higher levels, will depend not on the teams playing international level ball, because the finance must come along the way to make it possible. And, unless and until the necessary infrastructure is put in place to allow the fan turnout to take off, the clubs will not have the necessary finance to keep improving to the next level. Like New Site Erei in 2006, teams will rise to a crest, and then fall back, only to have to rebuild again to reach similar heights.
Something more than just teams playing good football needs to be done to make football profitable enough for clubs in Belize, so that they can continue improving to match and maintain international standards. If the government does not consider such an achievement to be in the national interest, and worthwhile making the necessary investments in infrastructure, then it will not happen. The business community, which used to carry the burden of clubs in amateur days, can no longer foot the bill of player salaries without reasonable compensation from the gates to defray expenses, and the gates will remain small until the game’s attractiveness can compete with the new reality.
To be continued.