“[…] Listen, [Covid-19] is the factor. A lot of the teams in the Caribbean could not even train, further more play competitive football; and that has affected the Caribbean. It is clear! When you look at Central America and North America, they were able to play their tournaments as normal but we were hindered.
“[…] It affected us; that was the foremost factor in the standard of the competition coming from the Caribbean teams…”
Caribbean Football Union (CFU) and Barbados Football Association (BFA) president Randy Harris talks to Wired868 about the performances by Caribbean nations at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, racist abuse meted out to Soca Warriors players and officials by Mexican fans, and normalisation in Trinidad and Tobago:
Wired868: Does Concacaf have any policy in terms of its employees or officials needing to be vaccinated?
Randy Harris: What I can tell you is when the preliminary rounds of the Gold Cup were being played, all officials that attended the [Concacaf] Congress were able to get vaccinated through Concacaf. How many took it [I cannot say]—because it was not mandatory—but I believe many people took advantage of having access to the [vaccines].
Wired868: Did you get vaccinated yourself?
Harris: I took it before. I was vaccinated quite a while [earlier] with a number of players from our [Barbados] national select.
Wired868: What are your thoughts on the performances of the Caribbean teams at the Gold Cup so far?
Harris: It is clear to see that we in the Caribbean have a good way to go if we are to compete. We have to do more when we are administering football. It has to be more about the players and to be really about helping provide employment for a number of young players that would otherwise be unemployed. They have talent [that is] good enough to represent their countries and there should be some reward for that.
I am saying that until we have professional football—because we fully have the talent—we are not really going to reach the heights that we all aspire to. We have to do more and I think a lot of people still feel the answer is to bring in as many professional players [as possible] from overseas and things will happen for us. We really have to build the football here in the Caribbean first, otherwise we are not going to be consistent.
Wired868: How close are we to providing any sort of club structure in the Caribbean that would make us able to compete?
Harris: Well it is not going to happen overnight but we have to think of the future. We may not be able to start giving a player a sum of money that would support him annually, but if we start and we get support and we improve, we will get to that stage. The EPL didn’t just jump up in 1995; it was a process. We need the people in the Caribbean to get together and support the game.
Wired868: We’ve heard about a Concacaf committee for a Caribbean professional league for some time, what’s happening there? (Concacaf is on its second Caribbean Club Committee at present.)
Harris: The committee is still in place but the thing is Covid came and caused a lot of things to go in another direction. But it is still on the cards. Basically we are hoping that through broadcast rights—because [television companies] purchase them for the World Cup—whoever shows interest in the Caribbean for broadcast rights [should] also assist the development of the game in the Caribbean.
And they can do that in many ways. If we are looking at 2026, we can have an under-23 tournament looking to build teams to qualify for World Cup 2026. We need assistance and the assistance doesn’t always have to be financial; because we also need assistance in capacity building.
[…] We also understand that we need the support of the people who love football in the Caribbean.
Wired868: So the idea is to get the television company that wants the rights for the 2026 World Cup to be involved in Caribbean football in some meaningful way?
Harris: Yes… It is not just a matter of selling [our television rights] but of considering what are the benefits [we can get back], whether financially or in terms of building on the capacity for the region to administer football in a meaningful way.
We are hoping that they would not just be interested in the World Cup but they would try and [introduce] tournaments that will be of a standard that our young people would be happy to participate in.
Wired868: So then we can look forward to seeing regional national competitions again, which sort of died out in the last few years?
Harris: You say ‘died’ but don’t look at it that way. The Concacaf Nations League gives all of its members in the Caribbean an opportunity to play football, more football at that [higher] level than they were able to do before.
It gives an opportunity for more football against nations that are more developed than us, which gives us a chance to improve on our standards. But the thing is that is a senior tournament. What we need is a tournament to feed those senior squads in the future. The only way to do that is with an under-21 or under-23 [tournament].
Wired868: To be fair, although Caribbean teams have been poor at this Gold Cup, we did much better at tournaments in the recent past (like 2015, 2017, 2019). Do you think the impact of Covid on Caribbean football is a major factor?
Harris: Listen, that is the factor. A lot of the teams in the Caribbean could not even train, further more play competitive football; and that has affected the Caribbean. It is clear! When you look at Central America and North America, they were able to play their tournaments as normal but we were hindered.
[…] It affected us; that was the foremost factor in the standard of the competition coming from the Caribbean teams.
Wired868: What about the visa issues that affected some Caribbean teams like St Vincent and the Grenadines? Shouldn’t we be accustomed to going to these tournaments now? Why are we still hearing about teams turning up short because of visa problems? Is it an administrative issue?
Harris: Anytime something like that happens, it is a little bit of both: administrative and sometimes we need to discuss things more with each other. A number of presidents and general secretaries in the Caribbean have a lot of experience and when we are not sure about certain things we can discuss it [with them]. So basically we need to help each other.
[…] The application process for visas has changed significantly over the past few years. Once our members understand the process, they will be able to move to suit it.
Wired868: And can you give any further details on the withdrawals of Curaçao and Cuba from the Gold Cup?
Harris: For the Curaçao part, they had a breakout of the virus and obviously players who were there could not continue. The FA of Curaçao agreed that they would withdraw from the competition.
Wired868: And Cuba?
Harris: I have not got a full report on Cuba but I was notified. The expectation was that Cuba would be one of the Caribbean teams that would carry the mantle, so to speak.
Wired868: Have you spoken to any officials in Cuba about what happened?
Harris: No… I have not discussed it. President [Luis] Hernández is in a better position to speak about what happened. I did not speak to him about that particular issue.
Wired868: Were there any high points for you from the World Cup qualifiers or the Gold Cup so far from the Caribbean?
Harris: Basically in the World Cup [qualifying series], I was happy to see the performance of St Kitts [and Nevis]. It goes to show that if we put some energy into our national teams that we will be able to compete. That was, to me, very significant—the qualification of St Kitts. It is an example that if we become more active we will be able to at least compete.
Wired868: Can you tell me anything that St Kitts and Nevis did that led to the improvement?
Harris: St Kitts has a pretty active association when it comes to playing overseas against quality opponents [in the Fifa match windows]. They have been doing that for a while and it is beginning to show. I am happy that a country like St Kitts, small as it is, is able to really play some football.
Wired868: Trinidad and Tobago players and officials, after our first Gold Cup game against Mexico, were subjected to a lot of racist abuse from Mexico fans. Concacaf made one tweet about it but that appeared to be it. What was your take on the behaviour of those fans and the response from the tournament officials?
Harris: Listen, I am the progeny of slaves and look where we have come. Racism should never be tolerated in football, no time at all. It is atrocious. And basically I know that Concacaf is embroiled with the proper presentation and management of the Gold Cup; but I expect that there will be some enquiries into the behaviour at the stadium.
It should not be tolerated. It should not be tolerated.
Wired868: Is there anything you would like to see done as the CFU president, in terms of the response to what happened?
Harris: No, I am not going to get into answering that question because I am part of Concacaf, and basically I know that something will be done about it. So I am not really as worried as other people. It is something that Concacaf stands against, so obviously there will be some action.
Wired868: In all of the other confederations in the world, their member associations start their World Cup qualifying campaigns at the same point—England starts at the same time that Moldova starts in Europe.
Is it fair that our Caribbean teams (barring Jamaica) don’t start at the same point as other teams in Concacaf (due to a seeding process that allows five nations to qualify automatically for the final round)? Is that the way that Concacaf should be?
Harris: That is not a fair question to ask me; that would be a fair question to ask [Concacaf president] Mr [Victor] Montagliani. I cannot answer for him. What I am saying is that as the president of the CFU, I support Concacaf because I understand what they are trying to achieve.
Basically there are issues that will make no sense me bringing them into the public domain. That will be a matter for the Concacaf top brass.
Wired868: You are also Barbados football president and I thought Barbados did a quite decent job—if not quite a good job—in the World Cup qualifying campaign. What went wrong in the Gold Cup preliminary round?
Harris: There are some issues. One of them I think was a psychological thing. I thought that the whole atmosphere of the evening and what was happening overwhelmed our team. But as far as the performances are concerned, I think the head coach (Russell Latapy) would have to comment on those things.
Wired868: When you speak about the things that were happening that evening you were referring to the storm?
Harris: Yes, obviously if you are going to play and in your country there is a storm that is not expected to do any damage and then technology makes it possible for you to see exactly what is happening in your country—and this is the morning of the match. And you are seeing ordinary people whose roofs on their houses are being blown off. I can go on with excuses. But the thing is we have to pick up. We saw a situation and things fell apart but we have to pick up ourselves.
Wired868: Were there any players in the squad who were personally impacted by Hurricane Elsa?
Harris: Not directly; but our situation in Barbados, people have relatives and friends that they care about who would be affected. But I have heard no comment that any one of them had a direct association with it.
Wired868: There are two nations in the Caribbean with normalisation, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti. Haiti’s normalisation head, Jacques Letang, quit recently. What does Concacaf make of the situation in Haiti?
Harris: Well I don’t want to speak for Concacaf but the situation in Haiti is that Fifa is looking for someone to replace the resignation; but basically that is a Fifa issue. Fifa is the one that makes the decision to set up normalisation and they are fully in charge of the situation.
Wired868: And your view on the situation in Trinidad and Tobago is the same? Do you have to add anything on how normalisation is going in Trinidad?
Harris: No, it is a Fifa matter. Basically, Trinidad has to heal. You see normalisation worked in Guyana and other places in the world. All you have to do is support the normalisation committee for the time period [which] would effectively make the administration in Trinidad something to be happy about.
After two years, the football people of Trinidad and Tobago can elect the person who they think is the best person to lead Trinidad. Normalisation is just to put the association on track because something has happened that Fifa felt needed some help.
Normalisation can come anywhere; it can come to Barbados next week. The point is that we want to see the football move forward in Trinidad because we know Trinidad is a leading light in the Caribbean. If we have to support each other, it means we want to see Trinidad to do well. But in order to see that happen, we have got to get together.
Wired868: When you say we have to ‘get together’, what do you mean?
Harris: I mean as I said earlier, Trinidad has to heal, because of what has happened in the last year and a half. I am saying if Fifa installs a normalisation committee, Fifa is the main financier of football in Trinidad and Tobago—just help the people and support them; make it work and Trinidad and Tobago football, as far as the administrative side, is going to get back on track.
Wired868: Now the members of the TTFA are saying they want to help but they don’t know what the normalisation committee is doing since they are not reporting to them in anyway. Do you have any response to that?
Harris: Tell me something, have these people reported to the media or to the people who are running the show right now? There is a difference.
Wired868: They have not had a formal meeting with anyone, including the [TTFA] members.
Harris: Yes but […] there are regulations that allow members to call for a meeting and discuss any issue that it feels is important to discuss. And it will work for the normalisation committee too because they will get a chance to tell their story. So it would be a win-win situation.
But in the main, people have to want to see that Trinidad and Tobago football is on a pinnacle. You have the talent to do well.
Wired868: Would you like to add anything about football in the region?
Harris: All I want to say at this time is I am hoping that citizens in the Caribbean will try to cooperate with the authorities and try to minimise the chances of all of us or any of us catching the Covid-19 virus. If we can do and we can keep the numbers down, it gives sports a better chance of being able to resume and that is my concern.
As the president of a football association, I am here to manage football and we are anxious to get to some stage where we can play competitive football and have some fun again.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read the response to this interview by UNC senator and former Trinidad and Tobago international football captain, David Nakhid, who knocks CFU president Randy Harris’ supposed ‘subservience’ to Concacaf.