Saint Helena’s Footballers set to Make Historic Trip

In our match programme against the Chagos Islands, we included a feature about another island team, Saint Helena, as they prepared for their first tournament in the 2019 Inter-Games Football Tournament, held in Ynys Môn (Anglesey) as a substitute for the lack of football being held in Gibraltar. Saint Helena finished the tournament 10th.

In the article, originally published on April 28th 2019, we featured a reduced article due to word limits. However, we’re pleased to now feature the full unedited article to continue to raise awareness of the team hoping to be at the next Island Games in Guernsey in 2021. Please note the article was written prior to the Inter-Games, and will feature in the past tense prior to events, a number of images from the games have also been added.

Credit to the author, Pat McGuinness. (@PatsFballBlog & @SHFAunofficial)

Life in the remote British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena has been changing since the much-anticipated (and long-delayed) opening of the island’s airport in 2016, making the island somewhat more accessible to the outside world. The airport’s opening heralded the more recent retirement of the Royal Mail ship St. Helena early last year, a vessel which was, for so many years, the South Atlantic island’s lifeline to the rest of the world. 

During the era of the RMS Saint Helena, a crowdfunding initiative on behalf of the Saint Helena Football Association (SHFA) unsuccessfully attempted to raise the funds necessary to take part in the 2011 NatWest Island Games football tournament, and the association also tried – and failed – to obtain membership of FIFA a couple of years later. 

Eight years on from their first abortive attempt to play in the Island Games, the SHFA are aiming to take part in the (unofficial) edition, the Inter-Games Football Tournament – or, more colloquially, in the style of “London 2012”, “Ynys Môn 2019” – which will be held on the north-western Welsh island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) this coming June, instead of in Gibraltar, which will be hosting the NatWest Island Games “proper.” Around 24 islands from across the globe are expected to send teams to take part in the Games in Gibraltar. 

Saint Helena sent a team to the Commonwealth Games on the Australian Gold Coast last April; this was followed by the Saint Helena cricket team which caused a stir when they finished third in the the Twenty20 World Cup sub-regional qualifiers in Botswana in November. And, at the end of last year, only the second-ever all-Saints team competed in the prestigious Cape Town-Saint Helena sailing race, finishing in a highly satisfactory sixth place in their class. The Inter Games will be the fourth international sporting event involving teams from Saint Helena in the space of just over twelve months, and the NatWest Island Games on the Rock will be hot on its heels, scheduled as it is to take place at the beginning of July.

The last time the Island Games were held in Gibraltar, back in 1995, eight teams competed in the men’s football competition; there was no women’s competition. (How times have changed!) Now, because of the inclusion (since 2001) of women’s football into the normal itinerary of the Island Games, a subsequent increase in teams taking part in both the men’s and women’s competitions and the pressure that brings to somewhere like Gibraltar, which has sports facilities galore but only two football pitches they can use, football was dropped from the schedule.

Into the breach stepped the Ynys Môn (Anglesey) Island Games Association (YMIGA), who offered to step in and hold the football competition as a dry-run for their hosting of the 2021 NatWest Island Games. The Island Games Association (IGA) executive committee approved the request, and the YMIGA then set about contacting other member islands to ascertain interest in Ynys Môn 2019, which is being regarded by the IGA as unofficial. The tournament will be officially known as the Inter Games, and the format – and the name – has been used before for sports which have been dropped from a particular edition of the Island Games.

The SHFA, together with the Saint Helena Island Games Association, immediately signalled their interest in taking part, and were informed at the beginning of June last year that the tournament will take place this coming June. They informed the general public of their intent via a press statement, which was released later that month:

“Following Gibraltar’s announcement that football would not be a part of the 2019 Island Games, Ynys Môn got permission from the Island Games Executive Committee to contact member islands and formally announce that they were intending to host the tournament in June 2019. We, the St. Helena Football Association, accepted the initial invitation to take part.

“We have since received notice that the tournament will take place from the 15th June to 22nd June 2019. We have also received costs of travel and accommodation. The SHFA has put together an average cost per player which is just under £4000 [since revised].

“Although this is a long shot, the SHFA is determined to make this happen.”

Thirty-five players from the island’s nine clubs put themselves forward for inclusion in the final squad of 20, and training got under way in September, taking place twice a week despite a four-week period of inactivity due to inclement weather which saw the island’s only football pitch at Francis Plain waterlogged and led to the suspension of the nine-team league, which was eventually won by Harts, who defeated reigning champions Rovers 1:0 in a play-off after both teams finished level on points. Rovers gained their revenge on their rivals, winning the Knockout Cup by four goals to two.

The SHFA had forwarded another application for FIFA membership to the headquarters of football’s governing body early last year, and whilst awaiting FIFA’s response, Nick Stevens said that they had been “trying to become affiliated with FIFA, but so far we have been unsuccessful. This is frustrating for us, as football is a major part of life here on our island of 4500 people and sport is our biggest pastime.”

“Our committee strongly feels that if we do get affiliated with FIFA, it will create [..] opportunities for our players to compete internationally. We certainly have some very talented youngsters who could easily play professional football. They just need the opportunity to show what they can do.”

Sadly, the Saint Helena team must for now make do with attempting to compete at the Inter-Games; their latest application for FIFA membership was rejected in a letter received by the SHFA last September, which stated that the application was dismissed as Saint Helena is not a member of CAF, nor does it represent an independent country recognised by the United Nations. 

Undaunted, the Saint Helena national team have been busy preparing for the Inter Games; they are currently training four days a week, and at the beginning of February played three practice matches in the space of four days against local selections, winning all three convincingly: 12:0, 9:2 and 12:0. Rico Benjamin – who scored at least three goals per game – Matthias Young and Brett Isaac were in particularly prolific form, with the domestic season’s top scorer, Ronan Legg, scoring a hat-trick in the first match. 

Since the end of February, the team have played another half-a-dozen friendlies against local opposition at the island’s only football pitch at Francis Plain, taking on not only local selections but also a pitch increasingly pock-marked with rabbit-burrows. Dealing with two adversaries at the same time has done the Saint Helena side’s technical skills no harm, nor their confidence; they won all six matches handsomely. But, on the flipside, the SHFA were also indirectly the victim of theft at the tail-end of February when thieves stole 300 litres of fuel and a car battery used to power one of a set of mobile floodlights – owned by a local man and used by many community groups on the island – the team had been using whilst training. 

The SHFA will be bringing a backroom team comprised entirely of locals, as Stevens and the association’s committee felt that the players would be better able to relate to them than to coaches from outside the island. The chairman has noticed the difference in the players since they began training intensively, and is optimistic about his team’s chances:

“We are aiming to shock a few people. I am happy with the coaching team we have here, and we’ve got the boys playing a good standard of football. We have already shocked the local footballers as to how much we have improved the standard of the squad in terms of fitness and [the standard of their] football.”

Ten teams will be competing in the men’s Inter Games tournament: together with Saint Helena, hosts Ynys Môn (Anglesey) and the Norwegian island of Hitra, Shetland, Orkney, Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney entered the hat at the end of January. (Six teams, meanwhile, including Gibraltar’s women’s team, will be playing in the women’s tournament.) The Saints were not given a hugely favourable draw when they were drawn in Group C together with Guernsey and Shetland, two teams with a proven Island Games track record. Unperturbed, SHFA chairman Stevens said upon receiving news of his team’s schedule that he was “feeling a little emotional [and] just seeing the fixtures gave me such a buzz.”

So, Saint Helena will be one of those teams lining up on the football pitches of Anglesey next June, but they will need the help of the general public to achieve their goal.

The response on the island of Saint Helena to their fledgling national side’s appeal for funds has been phenomenal; around £50000 has been raised so far (an official amount shall be made public at the beginning of May), and that is some effort for an island with a tiny population where the median wage-earner takes home £158 per week, where the cost of living is extremely high and a large percentage of adults end up having to work abroad in order to make ends meet. However, the island’s wallets can only take so much, so the SHFA have set up their own crowdfunding appeal on gofundme.com (St. Helena football team to Ynys Mon 2019; see link below), should anyone living abroad wish to make a donation. 

They have set a target of £20000 for their crowdfunding initiative, and an overall target of £80000 in order to cover the cost of sending a team of twenty players, plus four officials, to Wales, with a percentage of this to be invested in the island’s infrastructure, such as a set of portable goals and new kit for local youth teams. They’ve passed the half-way point of their overall target; it would be a huge boost to football on, and the people of, Saint Helena if their national team could make its bow in Wales.

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