Friday, 19 July 2013

Bermuda win but first medals for Greenland and the Falklands

The football tournament at the biennial Island Games has featured 16 teams in recent years but the latest event suffered from a first move outside Europe. Getting to Bermuda put off many teams like the Isle of Man, whose association claimed sending a squad to Hamilton at would cost £144,000. 

With Gibraltar focused on an ultimately successful attempt to get into UEFA, the tournament was reduced to just four sides. IGA rules insist a team event needs at least six entrants but an exception was made, giving Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, the Norwegian island of Frøya and Greenland a chance to win a first ever football medal.

Preparations differed widely. As hosts, Bermuda had the easiest time. Most of the Norwegians came from the island’s main club, fourth tier side Frøya FK, making training simpler, but the Falklands’ appearance was constantly in doubt.

The South Atlantic side only decided to enter after first choice keeper Ben Hoyles changed his mind and agreed to go, but getting to Bermuda cost £3,000 per player and was only made possible after subsidy by the islands’ government.

Most Falklanders took an RAF flight from Mount Pleasant to the UK then flew back out to Hamilton. Some came straight from the UK, including Martyn Gilson-Clarke, who had caused a furore in 1996 after going for trials with Argentine giants Boca Juniors. Aged just 16, Clarke dined with Maradona, then found himself dragged onto a national talk show to discuss politics. His footballing ambitions were ultimately stymied and, finding life difficult at home, he moved to the UK.

In four previous Island Games football tournaments, the Falklands have won just three games. Cricket is in the ascendancy after the islanders were admitted to the International Cricket Council in 2011. This brought international opportunities, including a memorable win over Costa Rica and a Caribbean tour last year.

The Falkland Islands Football League was founded in 1947 and once had five teams. By 2011 this had dwindled to three and the league not completed. With the only pitch in Stanley re-laid, the league was not even played this year. To prepare for Bermuda, the ‘national’ XI had a few games against military teams.

Greenland is less politically contentious but with no roads linking any settlements in the Artic Island, preparation was again difficult. Nine of the 18 player squad are with club side B-67 from the capital Nuuk. Greenland lost 3-2 against a Nuuk XI but after flying to Denmark for a training camp found form.

After a 2-2 draw with Danish second tier outfit Naesby, KFUM Odense were beaten 2-0, Martsal/Rise overcome 3-1 and FC Svendborg thrashed 3-0. The Greenlanders arrived in Hamilton on a high but lost their opener 3-0 to Bermuda. On the same day, the Falklands beat Frøya 2-1 to claim the Small Islands Trophy for the two football sides with the smallest population.

A day later Greenland scored 12 goals without reply against Frøya, who only brought 14 footballers and had to call on a swimmer and golfer to bolster their injury-hit squad. The same day, the Falklands were crushed 8-0 by Bermuda.

The hosts’ coach Andrew Bascombe did not call on Nanhki Wells, whose goal for Bradford City in the 2012/13 play-off final made him the first Bermudan to score at Wembley, but Bermuda had plenty of experience.

“They had no less than nine full internationals in their team against us,” sighed Patrick Watts, a former FIFL president and in Bermuda to commentate for FITV.

Eligibility for the tournament only requires two years of residency and the Falklands had two naturalised Chileans, Andres Balladeres and Rafa Sotomajor, who scored the winner against Frøya.

To save players for a likely bronze-medal re-match with the Norwegians, Falklands’ manager Ian Bett rested players in the final group match and Greenland romped home 9-0. This secured a game in the final with Bermuda, who thrashed Frøya 8-0.

The Falklands recovered to claim bronze, crushing Frøya 6-0 in a match played in hot conditions. One of the Falklanders' goals came from 16-year-old Scott Thain, who came on as a substitute and was given a chance to take a penalty. His strike hit the bar, but Thain buried the rebound.

Patrick Watts adds: "The players received a bronze medal but it seems that it is not officially recognized because they were just four teams competing and the IGA deem that only gold/silver are officially awarded. But the players were given a bronze and are happy, regardless of the regulations."

In the final, only a contested 88th minute penalty subsequently scored by midfielder Drewonde Bascome separated Bermuda from Greenland. René Olsen, Greenland's coach, said: "The tournament was very good but it needed more participating teams. Bermuda were very strong but we almost had them in the finals. With some more tough games we might have been a bit sharper in front of the goal."

The hosts have been in FIFA since 1962, were backed by a home crowd and had an experienced squad. Silver and such a close score is a real fillip for Greenland, making the Arctic Islanders isolation seem all the more unjustified.

Falklands’ football is held back by Argentina’s long-standing claim over the islands. Greenland have home rule but need full independence to meet UEFA’s entry criteria. Instead, after their first footballing successes, both islands must wait two years for the next Island Games in Jersey before playing another meaningful fixture.