MIAMI.- One by one they pulled their cars up to the training pitch. They killed their engines, but the keys stayed in the ignition. They’d need the car’s battery to keep the headlights burning.
The Bahamas national team had to train for its Concacaf Nations League match against Bonaire, and with electricity not yet restored after Hurricane Dorian hit the country, they’d have to do it by the lights of their cars.
Training during the day was out of the question, with many members of the Bahamas national team still personally involved in relief efforts, but getting flood-lamps lit wasn’t likely either.
“Those moments were very difficult, and it can be frustrating,” Bahamas manager Nesley Jean remembered. “But at the same time, we had a goal we wanted to accomplish. Them cutting the lights was a major problem for us, but we knew more people were suffering. We did what we had to do to get these guys ready.”
Despite the circumstances, Jean and his staff were able to get the team ready for a victory over Bonaire just a week after the storm made landfall. And beyond that, they took the Bahamas from Concacaf League C to League B, earning promotion thanks to an undefeated run in a group that, in addition to Bonaire, included the British Virgin Islands.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for a small nation,” Jean said. “We haven’t been so far in this sport, so for us to make it to this stage for the first time in our lives, it’s a good accomplishment.”
It wasn’t long ago that Jean was on the field for the Baha Boyz, with the familiar veteran of both the grass and beach soccer versions of the game scoring during Nations League qualification. The federation entrusted the 34-year-old to be the head coach for the CNL proper, so Jean set to work putting a squad together, including some of his peers mixed in with an up-and-coming generation of players -- many of whom play at universities in the United States.
Veteran midfielder Happy Hall also split time coaching and playing and remembers bringing some of the younger players through his programs. Previously, Hall said, the Bahamas was tossing out too many inexperienced players, but now is finding the right blend.
“You have just enough of flour and sugar and water and rise to make that perfect cake,” he said. “I think the experience now has brought a sense of composure for the younger guys and also a sense of comfort coming from top Division 1 universities or playing professionally abroad now.”
Players’ experience off the island also has helped the team find a style of football more in line with modern trends - and one in which its technical superiority often can shine through.
“I would say traditionally the Bahamas has been one of those countries where it’s a classic Caribbean kick and run football, but I think the new coaching staff has come in and really adapt the style of play to keep and move the ball,” said defender Logan Russell, one of the younger members of the team at age 20. “Compared to years past, we keep the ball better now, probe, break teams down. I think that’s been a big improvement now.”
Some of the tactical maturation has come from the senior players working to educate the team’s new faces, but the team also has benefitted from the soccer IQ many of the young players have after growing up with the game.
Still, the leadership provided by Hall, defender Ambry Moss and others who have been involved in previous Bahamas camps has proven invaluable.
“A lot of times I’d have a meeting with the older guys and try to explain exactly what I want,” Jean said. “Most of them played with me and know how I do things, so they try to go help the younger guys to understand that you guys are going to be the next generation, so you guys should look at the older guys and the older guys should lead by example.”
Helping in the aftermath of the tragic hurricane proved to be something players of all ages could rally behind.
“It put a chip on our shoulder. We have something more that we’re playing for. It’s not just sport, we’re playing for the pride of a country,” Russell said. “It gave the country something to rally around and take their minds off of some of the things that have been going on.”
And with Concacaf playing a message at halftime of each Nations League game encouraging fans to support relief efforts and fellow Member Associations sending supplies and other donations, Moss said the team ‘absolutely’ felt brotherhood from the rest of the confederation.
“Whether it’s through social media, whether it’s through funding, you can see people are saying Bahamas Proud,” he said.
While the off-field support surely will continue, other teams in the region will be wary of Bahamas on the field. After winning its group, the Bahamas now have only a two-legged series against French Guyana and a potential tie with Bermuda sitting between it and its first-ever Gold Cup berth.
“We’re trying to rebuild as a nation and I think there’s some symmetry there for us trying to build as a football program,” Hall said. “The last couple years haven’t been the best in terms of ranking worldwide. But we have the capability and ability to rank much higher.
“I think we’ve proven that in League C and hopefully moving forward qualifying in League B we can do something going forward to show the world that we’re not just a tourist destination, we’re also a footballing destination.”