Concacaf's Gold Cup kicks off on Saturday, and if it ends as 13 of the previous 14 editions have, either the USA or Mexico will win it. But the new wrinkles and some of the added intrigue to the regional championship come on the other end of the competitive spectrum.
The 2019 edition marks the first time the tournament will feature 16 teams instead of 12, as Concacaf decided to widen access to smaller member associations and lower-ranked countries in the region. Given the end of FIFA’s Confederations Cup and the launch of Concacaf's Nations League, which begins in September, the tournament’s overall significance has changed, but with expansion comes a golden opportunity for the "lesser" squads to compete against stronger competition on the international stage.
One of those getting that chance is the island of Bermuda, the British territory with a population of around 65,000 that is bracing for its first Gold Cup.
The Gombey Warriors (reflecting the island’s African and Caribbean culture) are ranked 175th in the world by FIFA. They ended fifth in the qualifying stage for the Nations League, which was good enough for a spot in this summer’s competition. Bermuda will face Costa Rica, Haiti and Nicaragua in Group B, and its people know this is a chance to both celebrate an impressive sporting achievement while also playing on a previously unattainable stage.
“These young men have done the country proud, and we are all looking forward to supporting them on this journey and into the future,” says Premier David Burt, the country’s leader and youngest head of government. Now 40, Premier Burt, who has personally known these players throughout their lives, hosted a farewell reception for them last Saturday.
“Some of them used to work for me, others are my constituents," Burt said. "I’ve known them since they were a lot younger so it’s personally gratifying to see their growth and their development.”
Premier Burt was also proud that eight members of the squad play in the Bermudian Premier Division, and thanks to slow but steady development, this number should grow in the future.
“In 2005 and 2006, the government made significant investment in our footballing here in Bermuda," he said. "And I guess, in one way, we are seeing the return of this investment.”
Burt also stated that his government gave $100,000 to Bermuda’s FA toward this campaign and had sponsors support fan associations with travel so they can cheer the team in Costa Rica, Texas and New York, where Bermuda will be playing its group matches.
There is still, however, work to be done in order to strengthen soccer on the island.
“Our local game is struggling for a number of reasons, as some of the younger kids recognize that they have the opportunity to live in the United Kingdom (due to being classified as a British Overseas Territory Citizen or BOTC) and do their footballing there with some of the programs so they can get exposure to some of the bigger clubs," Burt said. "So a lot of them leave at a really young age.”
But Burt believes that thanks to the evolving work done in terms of scouting and development by the community-based clubs from the Bermudian Premier Division and other organizations, the new crop of talent will keep growing and, more importantly, choose to stay and enrich Bermuda’s programs.
For now, the entire focus is on this summer and the current squad.
“For us, this summer is huge," Burt said. "Without a question this is one of these very special times, and for me, I feel so proud to be the leader of the country when this happens, and I can’t wait to support them at this Gold Cup.”
One of the players he will be rooting for is 27-year-old Dante Leverock, the team’s captain and commanding center back, who can’t quite hide his excitement as he gets ready for Sunday's opener vs. Haiti at Estadio Nacional in Costa Rica.
“It’s a marvelous feeling to qualify for the first time,” Leverock said. “A monumental achievement for the whole country and the boys are very excited to make it. Even for myself, it’s a major accomplishment. This is by far the biggest tournament of my career.”
Leverock's tale echoes the story of many Bermudian players and the tremendous sacrifices they have made in order to reach this point. After attending St. Mary’s University in London on scholarship back in 2012, Leverock's career has taken him all over (from the USL, to England, to Estonia and most recently to Ireland with Sligo Rovers), and for him, this nomadic career has made him a more rounded human being and a better player.
“I’m very proud of my career and mostly for finishing school and getting my bachelor's and then pursuing professional football, because education was always important to me,” says Leverock. “But now I am living the dream, waking up everyday to play football and getting paid to do it. I’m very blessed.”
Despite the excitement over the Gold Cup, Leverock believes Bermuda is not just here to make up the numbers and fully believes it can surprise a few people.
“Our goal, quite simply, is to get out of the group stage," Leverock said. "We are underdogs on paper, but we’ve done our homework and believe that we belong here, so all we need to do is show what we can do and that this isn’t a one-off thing for us.”
And when you look at their group, Leverock’s sentiments are not completely unrealistic. After the clear favorite Costa Rica, second place is up for grabs, and Bermuda, which has already achieved big victories by beating El Salvador last year and the Dominican Republic this past March, has a chance to ruffle some feathers.
While beating these kinds of opponents may not impress a U.S or a Mexican fan, it’s worth remembering that the island does not possess the gigantic resources other nations may have. And what’s even more impressive is what it has achieved with a pocket-sized talent pool. Bermuda is so small compared to other rivals that when it faces Mexico on November 19 in the Nations League, it could potentially play in an Azteca Stadium that would fit considerably more people than the island’s entire population. While it’s true that the size of a nation doesn’t necessarily determine the success of its soccer infrastructure, it’s still worth marveling at Bermuda's efforts. The expansion of the Gold Cup and the creation of the Nations League may not be as beneficial for the larger, more established nations, but the smaller ones now have something more tangible and realistic to aim for in seeking a bigger spotlight.
“Our association has been waiting for opportunities like this for a very long time,” Bermuda head coach Kyle Lightbourne said. “From a coaching standpoint, we can prepare a lot better now and make it more competitive for our players. All of this is making it better for a small nation like Bermuda.”
Having represented his country from 1989-2004, Lightbourne is an icon of Bermudian soccer, and his career, like Leverock's, took him around the world, including to all four professional divisions in England. It was with the national team where he made historic contributions, though, including his late winner against El Salvador in a 1994 World Cup qualifier. Knowing too well what it means to carry the hopes of a nation–he also had a short, albeit significant career with the national cricket team–Lightbourne is not leaving any stone unturned in training, aiming to have his team more than ready for the Gold Cup.
“We are a small nation, but we are a very demanding nation,” Lightbourne said with a smile. “They don’t want us to stop where we are and be satisfied for just qualifying. And I guess you’ll see at the tournament how passionate our fans can be, so this our chance to really deliver.”
Bermuda’s biggest goal, however, goes beyond the Gold Cup. The ultimate dream is a spot at the World Cup and becoming the smallest nation to ever reach the highest stage. Qualifying for Qatar in 2022 is simply unrealistic, but the 2026 tournament to be held in North America offers a slightly brighter pathway. Thanks to expansion to 48 teams, there will be more spots available in the region and Lightbourne feels that Bermuda’s chances–though still miniscule–are slightly rosier. Plenty can happen over the course of two qualifying cycles.
“I think 2026 is a great opportunity for smaller nations to have a realistic chance of making it to the World Cup, and just like the Nations League, it’s going to help us get to a new level, playing against better teams and being able to raise our standards,” he said.
For now, though, beating Haiti on Sunday is the only thing on this team’s mind. Who knows? Perhaps confidence percolates through the squad in time for the second fixture against the group’s Goliath, Costa Rica.
The odds, of course, are not in Bermuda's favor. Chances are its first Gold Cup stay will be brief. But this dedicated team is not concerned with odds or opinions. This tiny island has enough self-belief to dream big.