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What about our football fans?

EditorialWhat about our football fans?

Fishermen build shades to attract lobster. Who cares about football fans?

Monday, February 12, 2024

Sports is such a part of our Belizean culture that we often don’t give a second thought to the importance of fans, at least that is how it appears to us at times in Belize City, particularly in football, which is generally acknowledged as the nation’s number one sport. Talk to any old timer, and the first thing they will recall in the glory days of sports in Belize back in the 1970s, is “Fire on the Barracks!”, as Amandala headlines announced the great confrontations on Sundays that saw the MCC Grounds packed with excited fans that spilled over on the three main western bleachers, and two or three deep in other areas around the wire fence that separated fans from the playing field.

The wire fence was an encumbrance that we eventually got used to, because we had to – a new regulation from international football as Belize began making its application to the world governing body, FIFA, to which we finally were accepted in 1986. Before the wire fence was installed, there were some low wooden benches surrounding the outer perimeter of the field, and it was a challenge for policemen at the games to contain the eager crowd as the waning moments of tight matches saw fans pushing the rope restriction and some jumping over and onto the sideline, thus obstructing the linesmen and making it difficult for fans in the bleachers to see the action. So, the wire fence, as much as it diminished the fans’ clear view of the players, was still by far the lesser of the evils, and so we got used to it.

However, in today’s football games in Belize City, whether it is at the dilapidated MCC Grounds; the beautiful, renovated Berger Field; or the sorrowful Marion Jones Sports Complex field, there is no bother, fence or no fence, about one’s view being restricted due to the crowd, because there is simply not much of a crowd at the games these days. The question is, why?

Why have the crowds not been jamming the stadiums in Belize City for years now, the way they used to, say in the 1970s, and the way they are reportedly currently doing at other district venues, for example in Mango Creek, Independence, home of the reigning PLB champions, Altitude FC? A number of factors come to mind for Belize City, including the advent of crack-cocaine, gangs, rising crime, international games on T.V., but we think the two that stand out are the people and the stadiums.

Football is king in Mango Creek and Placencia, the closely aligned southern villages due to family relations and proximity. The population in the Mango Creek area includes a significant number of recent Central American immigrants who are mostly employed at the banana farms or in the shrimp industry. And football is king in Central America. Besides being traditional football fans, the people in that area do not have as many competing entertainment spots there, as we do in Belize City, with the lure of casinos and a host of other evening and nighttime attractions.

Then their stadium was also given a major upgrade, with comfortable bleachers a couple decades ago through funding from Belize Bank, thus the name, “Michael Ashcroft Stadium;” and recently it received further upgrading with some government/FIFA funding. So, the people are there, they love football, and their stadium is quite accommodating to them.

What can we say about the old capital?

Starting with the fans, most of the Belize City football fans who used to frequent the MCC on weekends in the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc., are likely now in the U.S. The exodus has been steady over the years. And not only have the demographics changed drastically, but the income gap has widened considerably, while football is generally more popular among the working-class folks. When the charge is $10.00 or $15.00 to enter a PLB game at the Marion Jones Sports Complex, due to the tough economic times, many would-be fans prefer to stay at home and watch the game on TV.

But, not only are some Belize City fans being turned off by high ticket prices at semipro games. The CYDP run William Dawson Peace Cup, which is sanctioned by the Belize District Football Association (BDFA) as its 1st Division Amateur tournament, is not attracting many fans despite entrance to the games being free. In that case, the timing of the games must be considered as a negative. In the hey-day of 2nd and 1st Division football in Belize City in the 1960s, ‘70s onward, games were played on Saturdays and Sundays, beginning at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. The current Peace Cup games start at 10:00 a.m., and they are played on Saturdays only. What’s up with that? Despite being free at the MCC and sometimes simultaneously at the Albert Hoy (Hostel) Field, 10:00 in the morning on a Saturday is not the best time to bring football fans to games. It was the same problem at the Mundialito tournaments held at newly renovated Berger Field. Kickoff time at 10:00 on a Saturday morning? Where did that come from? In times long past, to cover a tough schedule of 3rd Division, 2nd Division and 1st Division games, there was a start time of 9:30 a.m., but only on Sundays, never on a Saturday morning, the busiest time for many working or hustling people. Most 2nd Division games were played on Saturday afternoons; and the 1st Division games, all amateur in those days, were on Sunday afternoons, and also sometimes on Saturday afternoons. But never on a Saturday morning. Not in Belize City.

Then the stadium. Since 1978 when Hurricane Greta destroyed the three western bleachers (all of which had zinc roofs to protect fans from the sun and rain) at the MCC, they have not been replaced. The big pipe-frame bleacher (no roof) in the north-west corner is in desperate need of repair; and the field playing surface is in deplorable condition, masked by the grass that has finally started growing after years of being choked by a black-soot material that a contractor covered the field with in a supposed “renovation” back in 2013. The mere appearance of the MCC, since most of the fence was broken down by Hurricane Lisa, is not inviting to anyone looking to take the family on a sport outing. A few die-hard football fans still make do when PLB games were last played at the MCC, relishing the aura and the memories of the historic venue, and satisfied with its proximity to residential areas. They would even consider attending 1st Division games if they were held at the MCC on a Sunday evening, but not in “boiling sun hot” on a Saturday.

Regarding the Marion Jones Sports Complex football field, it has a nice, large, comfortable bleacher to the west of the field, and when the sun dips behind it after 3:30 p.m. there is shade for the fans. So, the 4:00 p.m. kickoff time for PLB games is fine; but the field is an absolute disaster, and many fans are not attracted to taking that long journey there to witness a severely blemished version of football.

It will take some coaxing and salesmanship for Port Layola FC to attract the numbers of fans they need to support their semipro franchise.

The bottom line is that Belize City fans are not attending football games in large numbers – from primary school to Mundialito, and from 1st Division to PLB. And those in authority need to try and figure out why. Something is definitely wrong. We have tried to suggest a few possibilities here.

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