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- Cayman Islands head coach Ben Pugh talks to FIFA.com
- The former Ipswich Town academy coach talks about his journey
- He previews his team’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers with Suriname and Canada
The Cayman Islands have never won a FIFA World Cup qualifier in their entire history.
But that could finally change in the near future thanks to a 31-year-old from Shotley, a small village outside Ipswich. Ben Pugh took over as national team head coach and head coach of the Cayman Islands Football Association (CIFA) in July 2019. At that time, the team hovered just above the bottom of the FIFA / Coca-Cola World Ranking in 206.
After six games in League C of the Concacaf Nations League in 2019, the Cayman Islands, a group of islands with a total population of about 65,000 people, recorded four victories – a 3-2 victory over Barbados, the most notable – before Pugh turned 30. This successful campaign has led them to rise to 193. in the latest release of the ranking.
But what is behind this rise, and who exactly is Ben Pugh?
After working in Ipswich Town for eight years in a range of roles focusing primarily on youth development, Pugh was offered a job coaching a club in the Cayman Islands and it felt like the perfect time for him to take all his lessons and experiences and put them on trial.
Success with the club led him to become an assistant with the national team before joining the top job in July 2019. He has helped write the philosophies and playing style of CIFA, which is implemented at all age levels. His emphasis on youth is fully reflected in the national team, which is actually a U-23 side with players all the way down to 16 and 17 who train regularly with the first team.
“It has been an excellent life and learning experience,” Pugh said FIFA.com. “Living in another country comes with its own challenges, but it was a risk I was willing to take to try something a little different. I have had opportunities here that I might not have had at home. We have traveled to places like the US Virgin Islands, Barbados and Sint Maarten. Playing teams like Barbados, Suriname and Canada is a really good challenge for me personally and for the team.
“I had no real expectations, both of the island and of football. I was open-minded and wanted to take it as it is. When I got here, I was pleasantly surprised. The island is a really good football venue, from all levels from the Under-8s all the way up to the senior league.
“The standard of the game was better than I thought it would be. There are good technical players here who want to move on and play abroad. The football culture showed how we did it in the Nations League. No one expected us to win “Some games and we won four. It’s something we can definitely build on in the future.”
The next challenge for Pugh and Co to build on comes in the form of four FIFA World Cup matches to be played in March and June against Canada (73), Suriname (141), Bermuda (169) and Aruba (200). Their journey begins with tough tests against Suriname and Canada.
“They are two excellent teams, but it gives us the opportunity to play against excellent players. Suriname has got about 20 players across Europe. I think they might surprise a few people too. It’s a great challenge I look forward to and I embrace.
“From our player’s point of view, these are experiences that they may not get back or that they will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives. Canada have a Champions League winner in their team. as opposed to something we are worried about.
“I do not think that Caribbean football is well documented in terms of seeing what players can do. These games give our players the platform for people to watch them, and maybe one or two potentially get a chance to play football at a higher level from behind them. ”
The Cayman Islands have a full-time professional in their ranks. Elijah Seymour is currently trading in Romania with CS Tunari.
“We have a small pool of players to choose from, but a big advantage is that we can train regularly with them. We supplement it with a few players we have abroad.
“For the last four or five months, we’ve been training two or three times a week. We tend to do evenings because most of our players have full-time jobs, and that comes with its challenges because a couple who work in “construction and work in the heat all day, and we ask them to do a session. We have to adapt it a bit to meet the player’s needs and what’s best for them.”
For a team that is extremely unlikely to qualify for the World Cup and who first wants to qualify for a first ever Concacaf Gold Cup, how does Pugh measure success?
“It’s about breaking down the small barriers. The island had not won a game in almost ten years before our Nations League victory. It is important to take small steps forward. We have never won a world championship qualifier, so hopefully we can get a result in one of these games and make a little bit of history there and move on.
Can we qualify for a Gold Cup? Yes; it is extremely difficult. It would be an incredible feat, but it is not impossible if we prepare properly. We have a three-year plan in place that started with the Nations League.
“If we can build a team around our younger players, in two or three years we’ll be in a much better place. Tick the small boxes as we go and make small pieces of history – they are all steps to the bigger goal. ”