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Early professionalism in Belize football

You get what you pay for; or at least, you pay for what you want

BELIZE CITY, Sun. May 10, 2020– We’ve recently chronicled some highlights on the road to the inception of the first semi-professional football league in Belize in March, 1991. But that was hardly the first time that footballers broke ranks with the “amateur” label, so staunchly guarded by the then bureaucrats of the sport.

In fact, the legendary Queens Park Rangers was unapologetically a semi-professional team in its heyday. What do you call it, when players are given jobs with a company because of their football skills, and then allowed special time-off in the afternoons, while other workers continued at their tasks, to go and practice football on the company’s playing field? Such was the case when the likes of “Tubuk” Martinez and others had their regular training on the “table top” grass pitch called the Pomona Football Field. The Citrus Company of Belize at the time was managed by one Mr. Sharp, who loved football, and used to take the team to play exhibition matches in Honduras and Guatemala, and occasionally on invitation to perform in Belize City.

Meanwhile, the British Honduras Football Association, based in Belize City, the then commercial and administrative capital of the little colony of British Honduras (now Belize), was a declared amateur association; and its secretaries in the 1950s and 1960s, Phillip S. Hall followed by Gilmore Hinkson, were staunch believers in the Olympic spirit of amateurism, and warned players of the dangers and risks of “losing their amateur status” if they even accepted a penny for playing football. Such was the case when some members of the Independence football team reportedly requested a share of the gate receipts before agreeing to play an exhibition game in the mid-1960s, that most of the team members were reportedly banned from playing football for a year.

Belize was a strange place in colonial times, and the football story is interesting. Take the case of the sensational Dunlop team of underprivileged youths who burst upon the scene by winning the Junior competition undefeated, and then challenged the Senior champions, Diamond A, in a trilogy of draw games in the post-season Knockout. Dunlop then became the 1958-59 Belize City Senior champions.

In those days, it appears to us (we may be corrected here) that only Belize City based teams participated in the competitions. That would likely be because road travel was so challenging on the sand and gravel surface of the northern, western and southern roads. Eventually, with road improvements, teams from Cayo (Rocking-R and Avengers), Orange Walk (O.W. Sugar Boys), Corozal (San Joaquin and La Victoria) and Stann Creek (Pomona 11, RAC, etc.) would participate in the Belize City competition. The bad road and very long journey made it too difficult for teams from Punta Gorda to participate until much later in the late 1970s and 1980s when they were accommodated and subsidized in the Ministry of Sports sponsored National Competitions.

But coming back to Dunlop, there was no hue and cry about “professionalism” in Belize football, when some of the top young stars on Dunlop suddenly moved as a group over to B.E.C., which provided jobs to those players in the sawmill operations at the end of North Front Street. It seemed natural and acceptable in the amateur world for those players – Ernest “Reds” Wilson, Gilbert “Chico” Ellis, captain Gilbert “Pine” Hernandez and goalkeeper Wilfred “Palma” Davis to all suddenly become BEC players; and BEC proceeded to win the championships in 1960-61 and 1961-62 (which was only a knockout, due to Hurricane Hattie on October 31, 1961, which aborted the regular season). The records show that Landivar had won in 1959-60, but it is not clear, though likely, if those Dunlop players had already moved over to BEC.

Follow the money

Despite the sport being officially amateur for many years, it is clear that businessmen/sponsors had a lot of sway in determining which team a player would join. Thus the soon popular reference to “hired guns” in local football parlance. And that’s exactly what it was. Indeed, to a dedicated athlete, without other means of gainful employment, it had to be nothing less than a mark of distinction and a sense of accomplishment, if his skills were found by some businessman/sports investor to be worth committing a good weekly sum (“under the table”) and/or some form of employment that afforded a comfortable arrangement for priority football activities.

There were exceptions or variations, of course, in that attraction of players. The noted Coca Cola firm, for example, that offered employment to a few players that performed on the popular “Rest of the World” Coca Cola Milpros football team in the mid-1980s, gave no special privilege to its employed players, some of whom complained to team management that they worked as hard as any others lifting crates all day at the factory, and still were expected to go put in a full evening of training with the football team – no special privileges there.

But there were definitely teams that gave special financial arrangements to lure top players; and getting the physical evidence is not necessary to prove that. And this formed part of the impetus in making the step into official above-board professionalism. How do you explain it when your star goalkeeper, or your star striker, suddenly leaves, with no argument with management, to go and play for the arch-rival. Rumors abound; and everybody knows; and years later they revealed to us the attractive salaries and/or perks they received; and we could never fault them. Such was the order of the day in Belize football. The problem was that there was no avenue of compensation to clubs who had helped to develop those talents, only to have them swiped by merchant interests intent on winning. With such a system, unless a bunch of big business interests decide to compete in the sport, the tendency had been for a select few to attract all the top players, and the rest to struggle.

In sports, everybody wants to win; and to “level the playing field,” it seemed natural that there needed to be regularizing of payment to players, which would provide more job security and respect for players, as well as protect clubs from losing their best players with no compensation.

Respect and job security

It has been amply proven, beyond dispute, that professionalism in sports is the avenue to the highest level of achievement, as well as the best rewards for players, who had no security in “under the table” arrangements. Even in the Olympics, it has long been revealed that the most successful countries in “amateur” sports were those that subsidized their athletes with enough perks and privileges that could easily be equated to a form of professionalism, although not being recognized as such according to the existing rules. A lot has changed over the years, and now even the NBA players are participating in basketball at the Olympics. Amateurism has thus been discredited as a farce; poor people need to eat; and sports is an avenue for advancement in the entertainment arena by athletes who put in the work and have the talent to perform at the highest level.

Though there are sometimes questions about the source of financing, Belize football has achieved its highest level in recent times when the teams were adequately financed; and thus clubs like Juventus, Acros Carib and New Site Erei were competitive with the best in Central America. Unfortunately, these clubs had to fold due to lack of sustainable financing; but while the clubs were active, the results were impressive.

Belize clubs have been taking a licking in Concacaf competitions for some years now; and it is not coincidental that citrus is no longer king in the south, sugar is no longer sweet in the north, and the “Belize Breeze” is not blowing as it used to.

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