(Continued from Amandala of Sunday, October 26)
Hattie and America
Hurricane Hattie of 1961 (October 31) started a process some months afterwards that continued to have a great impact on Belize football development over the years. If it is stars that fill stadiums, then there may be a clue here as to why it has been difficult over the years to keep fans crowding the stadiums like they used to “back eena di day.”
When the USA “opened the door” to Belizean families following the devastation of Hurricane Hattie, an exodus of Belizeans began, and that exodus was joined especially by the brightest of Belizean sports stars, one after the other. And it continued for decades.
It is sometimes said that one man, Babe Ruth, was responsible for the building of the great original Yankee Stadium, so great was his popularity, and his effect on fan attendance at games played there.
When Pine, and Chico, and Pops Hamilton, and Frankie Clarke, and Reds Wilson, and the Roo, and the Mugger, etc. … when these star players left Belize for the U.S. still in their prime, it had to have a negative impact on fans who were their contemporaries. Of course, many fans of their generation also joined the exodus themselves.
The Mugger probably stayed the longest, playing football and basketball in Belize throughout the 60s, finally making the northward journey in 1970 at 30 years of age. Perhaps because he had given so much for so long, he left behind a legend that persisted for generations.
When the game is professional, and a player can make a handsome living from the sport that he loves, he can dedicate his life to the game until his skills are eroded by age and it is time to retire. By then, new young stars are emerging, and they also learn from the older stars along the way. That is how it should be.
In Belize, with the amateur game, the reward for those who become big stars is often an opportunity to make that move north to L.A. or the “Big Apple.”
Earl “Mandingo” Barnett and Eugene Guild made that move in the latter 1970s when they were at the top of their game; as did “Jumping Jack” Sutherland. “Garrincha” Adderley hung up his boots fairly early to pursue a career in the BDF; football was not an option for professionalism in Belize. Harry Cadle left at the peak of stardom in football (Charger) and basketball (Grand Marnier), as did Michael “Suffodge” Rushford (Charger). Maurice Jones and Gilroy “Coro” Usher were back and forth to the U.S., so they missed a number of competitions during their best athletic years. Joel Jones was a huge and promising young star with Royal Rentals, but he left right after they had won the opening Marathon to start the 1983-84 season.
If we really begin to analyze the situation, there are so many of our big stars that left for the States while still in the prime of their playing careers; and it must hurt the attraction of the game for the fans.
The impact was never more dramatic than in 1986, when the spectacular “Rest of the World” Coke Milpros team had shockingly demolished the reigning national champs, Verdes, by a 5-nil score in the National Marathon at the MCC. This was so unprecedented (the game was only 15-15) that the BNFA had called an emergency Wednesday congress meeting, and voted to change the competition “strengthening” rules, because, as they put it, “Coke is too strong.” While previously it had been declared from before the competition that no strengthening of district teams would be allowed in the national competition in keeping with FIFA requirements for clubs, now they were going to allow, not 3 as in previous years, but 5 new players to be added to the team rosters in the national competition. And right while they were doing that, two of the big stars on Coke Milpros – “Best Midfielder” Evan “Chubby” Jones and outstanding young striker Benjamin “Don’t” Mejia were about to leave for the U.S. the following week. Fans would not see Chubby and Don’t in action again. That had to hurt the game somehow.
It happened to many teams, but I have the records for a good part of the Milpros saga. When Coke Milpros won the national competition in 1987, and Maurice “Magic” Francis was chosen National MVP (Turo Leslie was still the team’s bigger “goleador,” but Magic had distinguished himself by scoring in both CONCACAF encounters with Olimpia of Honduras, in Honduras and in Belize, and he had gone on to score the winning goal in the 2-1 Coke Milpros victory over Verdes in Belmopan for the championship). Well, Magic was at the peak of his stardom; and, you guessed it, he left for the U.S. following that season. He returned briefly after a failed attempt, and played a season with Milpros’ nemesis, Duurly’s, before making good his move to Los Angeles, where he spent the next decade.
Where the grass is greener
The story is repeated over and over. Yes, new young stars emerge. But are we so super talented a people that all of our best can be so easily replaced so quickly. It has to have an impact. And it is not good for Belizean football development, or fan attendance at games.
But who can blame the players, when there is nothing in the way of a secure living being offered from the sport? If the sport becomes a successful business, and the best players can see a decent living from it, then perhaps they will stay long enough to develop their fan base so that, with other young stars coming behind them, the game can be pushed to that next level, to match Guatemala, Honduras and the rest of Central America.
It cannot happen if the quality of the game does not reach “higher heights” to impress and attract the fans; but that will never happen if clubs remain financially weak and unable to sustain their budding stars; and clubs will not become financially strong if the finance does not come from somewhere – the government or FIFA – to create the necessary infrastructure conducive to the game’s development – good fields, as well as to enhance fan accommodation, comfort and enjoyment – seating and catering facilities.
We’ve lost too many stars already, with world class potential. The present conditions stymie our players’ development, and restrict them from going to the next level. Some are saying that Deon stayed in Belize too long; that he should have left long ago. On the flip side, we need to create the right conditions here at home, so that other up and coming Deons can develop and strive to reach their full potential early, so that Belize makes an impact in the region, and so that our players are able to command greater respect in the international bargaining arena.