By BRENT STUBBS
Senior Sports Reporter
The top Bahamian soccer players have been forced to choose between playing for their country in the opening FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying tie next week or representing the nation at the CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship.
Normally, the players in the Bahamas Football Association (BFA) would double up and play on both the men’s national grass and beach soccer teams.
But a fixture clash means that the first leg of the World Cup tie against Bermuda takes place at the Thomas A Robinson National Stadium on March 25, the day before the team travels to El Salvador for the beach soccer showpiece, scheduled for March 28-April 4. The second leg of the World Cup tie is in Bermuda on March 29.
Only Lesly St Fleur has committed to play at home in the World Cup first round qualifier before he heads off on March 26 with the majority of the top players who have decided to travel to El Salvador.
“It’s going to be really tough, but basically what we had to do was split our numbers with some players playing on the grass team and the others playing on the beach team,” said Stephen Bellot, who along with Julian Smith, will serve as assistant coaches to the BFA’s new technical director, Roberto Ceciliano, who will serve as the head coach of the beach soccer team.
“CONCACAF, in my estimation made a major boo-boo with this one. For them to have both of their qualifiers at the same time is just unheard of, especially for us considering that small countries like the Bahamas who try to field teams in both disciplines, have basically the same pool to select its teams from. They have said it to us, but what do we do? We have to contest both events.”
With the beach team off for at least 10 days, Bellot said there’s no way that St Fleur will be able to play with the grass team when they go to Bermuda on Sunday in the second leg to determine who will advance to play Guatemala in the second round in June.
“There’s no way for our players to try to play both tournaments, but Lesly wants to help get the team started on the first leg here at home,” Bellot said. “It’s just going to be too much to ask for all of the players to make a commitment to play. So they have committed to just playing on the beach team.
“I think it will definitely affect us, but it will affect grass more than it would affect beach because a lot of the players who play beach have committed to playing beach. A few of them playing beach would have played grass, but we are not going to be able to do that. So we won’t be able to field our strongest grass team, but we have a strong beach soccer team traveling.”
St Fleur will be joined by Gavin Christie, goalkeepers Chris Davis and Torin Ferguson, Gary Joseph, Daron Beneby, Ehren Hanna, Kyle Williams, Donovan Williamson, Dwayne Forbes, Timothy Munnings and Nesley Jean on the beach soccer national team.
“The team is well prepared and we expect to advance to the final round. The team is in great mental and physical shape,” Ceciliano said.
The team departs for El Salvador on March 26, and will get their first taste of the action two days later against newcomers Antigua and Barbuda. The Bahamas’ second match comes on March 30 against Barbados and in the final group match the team will face the US.
The top two teams from the group will advance to the round of eight. The expectation is that the team will advance to the final four and from there anything can happen.
“The team have a lot of experience, so I think we should be able to hold our own,” Bellot said. “We’re going up against players who are full time professionals and they do nothing else but play soccer. Our players try to make a living as well as try to ply for their country.
“So it’s always a tall order for us because all these players do is play beach soccer. We expect to put in a good showing. On the beach, anything could happen, so we are looking forward to going to El Salvador and giving it our best show. We feel we have a very good team that should be able to perform very well.”
The Bahamas won the bid to host the 2017 Beach Soccer World Cup having been the venue for the 2013 CONCACAF qualification tournament at their beach soccer facility on East Bay Street. The United States won the gold from El Salvador, while Mexico got the bronze and Costa Rica was fourth.
The Bahamas finished sixth after losing to Guatemala in the fifth place game on a penalty shot. The two tams ended the regulation in a 6-6 tie.
On that team were Chris Davis, Kyle Williams, Mark Daniels, Gavin Christie, Alex Thompson, Gary Joseph, Dwayne Forbes, Ehren Hanna, Lesly St Fleur, Nesley Jean, Jason Edwards, Torin Ferguson and Valin Bodie.