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Breaking New Ground

Years of inactivity in international play saw the Puerto Rico national team take a free fall in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The Boricuas have now emerged from the depths with a former FIFA World Cup™ player at the helm, and in the process have become one of CONCACAF’s most improved sides.
Considered a semi-autonomous territory of USA, Puerto Rico has been a FIFA member since 1960. While there are obvious connections to the USA, such as the love of baseball and basketball, Puerto Rico does not share America’s football success. Results have been mixed at best over the years and there have been few shining moments in Puerto Rico’s football history.
In the early part of the millennium, football in Puerto Rico had virtually no identity. With the national team not playing any FIFA-sanctioned matches for a number of years, support for football had plummeted to an all-time low. In addition to that, Puerto Rican fans also had to endure the sight of their side being ranked amongst the five lowest in the FIFA/ Coca-Cola World Ranking.
The nadir seemingly came in November 2004 when Puerto Rico was ranked 202nd, ahead of only The Turks and Caicos Islands, American Samoa and Guam. The Federacion Puerto rriquena de Futbol (FPF) even decided to forgo qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in order to get its house in order and refocus efforts on developing a competitive team.
That decision has seemingly paid off as 2008 has proved to be a year of renewal for the Puerto Rico national team. It all began in mid-January as the team played Bermuda twice in the span of three days. The first friendly ended in a 2-0 win for Puerto Rico. The victory was a godsend for Puerto Rico supporters who had waited 14 long years since the national team’s last success in an official match. A second victory over Bermuda (1-0) followed just days later. Puerto Rican football was back on the map thanks to the two victories in Hamilton.
The real shock, however, came in February when the team managed a 2-2 draw against Trinidad and Tobago, finalists at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. That result showed the entire CONCACAF region that Puerto Rico were becoming a side to be reckoned with.
The draw against the Soca Warriors was the perfect boost for Puerto Rico ahead of their clash with nearby rivals Dominican Republic in the first round of CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. The Dominicans did not have a stadium that met FIFA standards, so the series became a one-match play-off in late March at the Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel in Bayamon.
The atmosphere was electric and the 8,000 supporters in attendance were made to wait but eventually celebrated a 1-0 extra-time win thanks to a 96th minute penalty by Petter Villegas. It was only the second ever win for Puerto Rico in their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying history, the first incidentally also coming against the Dominican Republic back in 1992.
The victory set up an exciting second-round home-and-away series with highly-rated Honduras in June. Win or lose, Puerto Rico have already surpassed expectations. As FIFA magazine went to press, the team had made an astonishing jump to 149lh in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, rising nearly 50 places since the start of the year.
So, what are the reasons for this seemingly sudden success? Credit must be given to the FPF, which has sorted out its affairs and has proved to be a stable organisation ready to support the growth of football on the island. Grassroots interest in football has also grown considerably in recent years thanks to the formation of the Puerto Rico Islanders (see separate article). The Bayamon-based club plays in the United Soccer Leagues (USL), which is essentially the second-tier league of the USA.
The greatest credit, however, for the recent rise of Puerto Rican football may go to current manager Colin Clarke. A former Northern Ireland international, Clarke enjoyed a distinguished playing career that saw him score 13 times in 38 matches for his country while also having the distinction of scoring in a World Cup final competition (Northern Ireland’s lone strike against Spain in the 1986 tournament). His club career was equally impressive as he played for the likes of Southampton, Queen’s Park Rangers, and Portsmouth scoring 146 goals in 361 matches.
Clarke cut his managerial teeth in the USA, first in the USL with the likes of the Richmond Kickers and San Diego Flash and then with the Dallas Burn of Major League Soccer (MLS). Clarke enjoyed two highly successful seasons with Dallas, helping the team break a series of club records including victories in a single season.
In May 2007, the Islanders came calling and Clarke was excited by the challenge. An ambitious coach with a superb track record, Clarke was impressed with what he saw when he first arrived in Puerto Rico. “The team was in good shape and had come along very quickly in the first four years. What was needed was some structure and organisation – those were the main ingredients missing,” said the 45-year-old coach.
Under Clarke’s guidance, the islanders gained those attributes and soon became one of the league’s top sides. The FPF was impressed by Clarke leading his team to the USL semi-finals and earmarked the coach as the man to lead the national team.
Clarke was charged with taking the Boricuas out of the international football doldrums. It seemed a perfect match as the accomplished coach would be working with an association possessing a clear vision and offering him full support. Clarke’s dual role as club and national team manager helped him amass a squad that was a mix of Puerto Rico islanders and players based in the USA.
Clarke was able to recruit several players with Puerto Rican connections to the squad including the likes of Chris Megaloudis, Taylor Graham, Terry Boss, Richard Martinez, and Eloy Matos. These players were in the squad for the qualifying victory over the Dominican Republic and all ply their trade in the USA, either in the MLS, USL or collegiate ranks.
According to Clarke, native-born talent is the key to the side. The current star of Puerto Rican football is Marco Velez. The 27-year-old, recently selected as captain by Clarke, was sold by the Islanders to Toronto FC earlier this year. The Boricuas are a very young side and some, such as 19-year-old Andres Cabrero, a skilful winger, are potential stars.
Clarke has focussed on fostering young talent and said, “There are lots of young players coming in who are 19, 20, and 21 and are the future of our team. We have to make sure there is a future by creating a foundation for the national team to build on.”
Certainly these are promising times for football in Puerto Rico. Future plans such as the construction of a National Football Training Center in Bayamon is a testament to the hard work being done to improve the sport at all levels. Speaking about the training centre, FPF President Joe Serralta explained his hopes, “It is a project that is already standard in all countries where they practise football. This will provide housing and training facilities for all national teams, as well as directing all programmes in youdi categories. We have already spoken with many personalities and the omens are very positive.”
For so long a mere afterthought in the region, Puerto Rico is quickly gaining respect as an up-and-coming football power in CONCACAF. With strong leadership from the FPF, a groundswell of support from football fans on the island, and with the positive direction being laid out by the national team manager, the sky is the limit for football in “The Island of Enchantment”.
So could participation in FIFA World Cup™ finals become a reality some day? Clarke thinks so, “Yes, I think we all live with that dream. That’s why we play the game, isn’t it?” That kind of rhetoric would have been non-existent a year ago and is a clear indication of the positive winds of change sweeping through Puerto Rican football.