Something special is in the air
What a week this has been for Bermuda sport, engendering a feel-good factor that at least for a New York minute consigns to the margins talk of blacklists, municipality takeovers, healthcare reform, communications overspend and public transportation mayhem that has more than a ring of Keystone Cops about it.
Bermuda’s footballers have qualified for the Concacaf Gold Cup and as a result of their top-six placing have booked home dates in Nations League A group B with countries who appeared at the World Cup in Russia less than 12 months ago.
The team coached by Kyle Lightbourne, captained by Danté Leverock and spearheaded by Nahki Wells have it within their grasp to become national heroes over the course of the next seven months.
But first a word on a group of special athletes who have already arrived at that status, capturing our hearts every step of the way during a festival that garnered unprecedented global attention.
Our Special Olympians.
The 13-member squad returned last Friday from the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi to the type of welcome befitting of their accomplishments in the United Arab Emirates between March 14 and 21.
The sheer joy of their universal acceptance at the airport and in the subsequent motorcade this week were sights to behold, and proof that we as Bermudians do have it within us to be accepting of all mankind, no matter their differences and disabilities — intellectual, physical or otherwise.
It has not always appeared to be so.
Every squad has its characters, and in this group Wayne Smith and Kemari Dill stand out for their effervescence. But Special Olympics Bermuda and its very worthy support staff have created a particular ethos where all are equal and no one gets left behind.
So Wayne Smith (bowling), Kemari Dill (athletics), Bridget Marshall (tennis), Micah Lambert (tennis), Kristopher Trott (athletics), Danielle Gibbons (athletics), Tiannie Lowe (bowling), J’Naysha Maloney (athletics), Solay Thomas (athletics), Del-Che Landy (athletics), Damon Emery (athletics), Carlton Thompson (bowling) and Eden Woollery (equestrianism), please take a bow!
We salute you and we cherish you.
There were more than a handful of medals that returned with them, too, but greater than that was the sense of pride and determination in performance, pride in donning the national colours and finally the joy in knowing that the country was behind them.
National pride is seen in sport more readily than it is in any walk of life, and begs the question why that segment of society habitually receives a pittance of financial support come Budget time, regardless of which political party is in control of the public purse.
It is true that sport can do more to market itself, which brings us to the tremendous opportunity that is literally at the feet of our footballers.
At no time in our history have we possessed so many overseas-based professional footballers, the closest being in the 1970s when a golden generation that included Ralph Bean, Fred Lewis, Gary Darrell and Granville “Sam” Nusum plied their trade in the North American Soccer League in the United States, while Clyde Best was at the back end of a storied career with West Ham United in the English first division.
But now Lightbourne has so many to call on that striker Jonté Smith, who has recently signed for Oxford United in Sky Bet League One, could not get off the bench in either of the wins over El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
That speaks to a satisfying depth in the Bermuda squad, which has not happened overnight but has been the product of a nurturing academy and sound networking that have provided opportunities for more than a handful of fine young men.
They have all seized their chances, scattered over the globe, and have returned to the national team to form a unit that is as competitive in the Concacaf region as Bermuda has been for two decades.
Football, especially domestically, has had its problems. The sport is stigmatised by many of the social ills that plague young men in our country, and it is true that football often adopts the ostrich approach — head in the sand — when the going gets tough in that regard, prompting probing and often unanswered questions.
But here is a moment for Bermuda Football Association president Mark Wade and his team to hold their heads high and glorify in a sense of achievement against the odds. The time is also ripe to market the guts out of a squad that almost to a man represents the wholesome virtues a father looks for when a daughter brings a boy home to meet the family.
Visits in Mexico to the Azteca Stadium, which seats almost 88,000, and in Panama to the Estadio Rommel Fernández, with a more modest 32,000 capacity, await Lightbourne’s men — and they will be daunting tasks, too.
You do not survive the group stage of every World Cup finals you have appeared in since 1986, in the case of Mexico, unless you know a thing or two about playing football at the highest level.
In the case of Panama, they just last week held Brazil, the world’s third-ranked country, to a 1-1 draw in neutral territory in Portugal. This came on the heels of appearing in their first World Cup finals last summer, when they held the might of Belgium goalless for 47 minutes in their historic first game.
So we will be huge underdogs, but it is at home where we can make some noise, and it is no time like the present for the crowds of yesteryear to return to the National Stadium in droves.
For far too long, the Frog Lane side of the new stadium has resembled a mausoleum on international nights, so rare has more seating been required than what the main stand on the Roberts Avenue side can provide.
If not now for the BFA to put bums on seats where they are rarely seen, then never.
By then Bermuda will have already made its debut in the Gold Cup, with a minimum three games in June.
On present form, who would back against the Gombey Warriors?
We are the lowest-ranked team in League A and were given the worst possible draw against the top-ranked teams in pots one and two. But the campaign thus far has been nothing if not valiant, our prospects eliciting deference to the motto of the very same Special Olympians who got these fantastically uplifting past seven days rolling:
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”