The Benna Boys were sent off to do battle against the United States in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers by prayer, pan music and best wishes from a handful of supporters on Friday.
The 18 locally-based players and the 10-strong management team will be met in Sarasota, Florida, by seven England-based players. The team will spend two weeks in camp at the IMG Training Center, ahead of their historic game against hosts USA on June 8, in Tampa, Florida.
Confidence was expressed all around, by the team and the management staff and by the well-wishers, that the footballers would prove to be formidable opposition for the United States when both sides meet in the next round opener at the Raymond James Stadium.
Among those showing public support for the team was Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.
“My presence here is indicative of the importance I attach to this mission,” PM Spencer said. “This mission is a mission that has to do with patriotism, nationalism and taking Antigua & Barbuda to the next level, not only on the field of play.”
The prime minister urged the team to be united on and off the field, to believe in the power of prayer, and to believe in themselves.
PM Spencer, an avid football fan, drew applause when he told the team to believe they could “take on a giant and bring (him) down to earth,” an obvious reference to the odds. All international reports have described Antigua & Barbuda as the minnows in the group that also includes Jamaica and Guatemala.
If there is any wavering or any doubts in the camp, it was belied by the calm, cool face presented by every member of the travelling party.
Team Manager Fernando “Nando” Abraham, however, expressed disappointment that scores did not take the time to see the team off. He asked for support, saying “continue to rally around us and continue to encourage others to rally around us.”
Other speakers at the short ceremony were Director of Sports Mervyn Richards and Winston “Pin” Hewlett. Both are former national players and coaches.
Hewlett, who indicated that he was not in the best of health, told the team it was an honour for him to address them. His message was simple: give of your best.
Before the proceeding began, Reverend Nigel Daniel of the Moravian Church huddled with the team at the check-in counter, and prayed with them and for them.
The sight of the uniformed group gathered in a circle with heads bowed and arms locked in the midst of the bustle caused people to stop and express hope that the squad would return to Antigua on June 9 the better for wear.
A contingent from Halcyon Steel Orchestra helped to set the stage for the send-off.
The team is Molvyn James; Keita DeCastro; Olson Forde; Karanja Mack; George “Sowa” Dublin; Akeem “Leppy” Thomas; Luke Blakely; Troy Dublin; Quinton Griffith; Lawson “Boy Blue” Robinson; Kimoi Alexander; Tamarley “Ziggy” Thomas;, Randolph “Etty” Burton; Stephan Smith; Peter “Big Pete” Byers; Kerry “Arab” Skepple; Lloyd Jeremy; and Ranjae Christian.
They will be joined by Marc Joseph; Marvin McCoy; Josh Parker; Mickele Leigertwood; Keiran Murtaugh; Dexter Blackstock; and Justin Cochrane, who are all English players with roots in Antigua & Barbuda.