This year’s FIFA World Cup finals in Russia have almost everything: eight groups of four nations playing at twelve venues spread across the world’s largest country, the prospect of controversial video assistant referee technology, and, finally, a strong whiff of resurrected Cold War tensions. Only one thing, arguably, is missing — a standard bearer from the Caribbean.
But, in truth, it has been a while since the region had a representative at a final — in the shape of Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. And I suppose it’s also worth admitting that participation by Caribbean nations in World Cup finals has been rather patchy. Cuba was present in France eighty years ago, in 1938 (and received an 8–0 thrashing from Sweden), while Haiti made it to West Germany in 1974 and briefly led Italy by a goal to nil before losing 3–1 and then succumbing by 7–0 to Poland. It then took twenty-four years for Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz to qualify for France 1998, ending with a creditable 2–1 victory over Japan, followed by the Soca Warriors, who did well to hold Sweden to a goalless draw before losing twice.
But with no Caribbean nation present in Russia, there is certainly no shortage of Caribbean influence among those nations that have reached the final stages. This is largely a question of history, with the countries that once possessed colonies in the region or who maintain overseas territories there benefitting from a pool of Caribbean or Caribbean-descended footballing talent.
Take England, for example. Although, at the time of writing, the World Cup squad has not been officially announced, it’s quite probable that at least six of the final twenty-three-man group will be of Caribbean heritage. Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling is one of the few players to have been born there, originating from the tough Maverley district of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, before moving with his mother to London, aged five. More common is the experience of a player such as Daniel Sturridge, currently on loan at West Bromwich Albion from Liverpool. All four of his grandparents were Jamaica-born, and came to the UK as part of the “Windrush generation” of Caribbean migrants who settled in the 1950s and 60s. Family links remain strong, and Sturridge is a frequent visitor to Jamaica, where he has played an important part in funding an educational charity in Portmore.
The Jamaican football authorities have sometimes tried to recruit distant but eligible sons and grandsons into the national team, as was the case with Robbie Earle and Jason Euell in the 1998 World Cup finals. But all too often, the lure of playing for England is too strong, as when in 2015 left back Danny Rose declined such an invitation from the Jamaican Football Federation. He and Kyler Walker, also of Jamaican heritage, will probably have a part to play in Russia. But if Jamaica leads the way in boasting links to the current England squad — Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Nathan Redmond are just a few more with such connections — other Caribbean nations can also lay claim to generational footballing pedigree. Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne, for instance, is of Grenadian ancestry, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose father migrated from Guyana, is part of a larger footballing family including half-brothers Carl and Leon Cort, who played for the Guyana national team.
Where would French football be, you might ask, without the input over the years of Caribbean-born or Caribbean-descended players such as Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, and William Gallas? Like England, France was a major protagonist in the transatlantic slave economy, but rather than granting its former colonies independence, it incorporated them into the French nation as overseas departments. Players born in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guyane, or with parents or grandparents from these territories, are hence French, many of the latter growing up in the gritty working-class suburbs that surround Paris. Anthony Martial, who plays for Manchester United, is of Guadeloupean descent and was born in the suburb of Massy, not far from Thierry Henry’s hometown of Les Ulis, where the local football club has turned out a succession of stars, including Henry, Martial, and Senegal-born Patrice Evra.
The current crop of French Caribbean footballers originates from all over the French mainland, with most of them now second-generation migrants from the overseas departments. Real Madrid centre-back Raphaël Varane was born in the northern city of Lille after his father Gaston left Martinique in search of work in 1976. Alexandre Lacazette, who currently plies his trade at Arsenal, is known by friends as “Gwada”, in tribute to the island of Guadeloupe, from which his parents Alfred and Rose migrated to Lyon. But in a more recent development, players with French Caribbean roots are now facing increased competition from those descended from other parts of France’s former empire. Likely starters in Russia will be a formidable combination of Paul Pogba (Guinea), Kylian Mbappé (Cameroon), and N’Golo Kanté (Mali).
Holland’s unexpected failure to qualify means that spectators will miss out on that country’s plethora of Caribbean-descended talent. Of Surinamese background are Giorginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool) and Michel Vorm (Tottenham), while Leroy Fer (Swansea) has parents from Curaçao. They follow in an illustrious line of footballers from Suriname that includes names such as Edgar Davids, Frank Rijkaard, and Ruud Gullitt.
If most of the Caribbean’s footballing diaspora is concentrated in Europe, there are still small and sometimes strange outposts nearer to home. First-time Central American qualifiers Panama have recently featured players with such non-Latin surnames as Harold Cummings, Armando Cooper, and Alfredo Stephens. These are the descendants of Jamaicans who moved to the isthmus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. While many of the estimated 100,000 labourers returned home, some remained, and became integrated into Panamanian society. And next door, Costa Rica’s 2018 squad is likely to include ex-Arsenal forward Joel Campbell and Rodney Wallace, names that look back to the nineteenth-century migration of thousands of Jamaicans to work on a railway project.
So while there may be no Caribbean team in Russia this year, there are many players whose roots lie in the region, and its long history of movement and migration. Whoever wins the cup — and France is among the favourites — there will be much to interest viewers across the region, and many will of course support Brazil. But perhaps we should also not forget that it was Trinidad and Tobago’s 2–1 qualifying round victory that put the superpower United States out of the finals for the first time in thirty-two years . . .