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‘Guyana inspiring a nation’

Warming up: Guyana players take a break during a training session at North Field, National Sports Centre, as they prepare for their friendly match against Bermuda at the National Stadium tonight.(Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

For Guyana, the significance of featuring at their first Concacaf Gold Cup, reaches far beyond the perimeters of the football pitch.

Like Bermuda, the Caribbean nation made history in March, beating Belize 2-1, to clinch a seventh-place finish in the Nations League qualifiers and seal their place in group D of the 16-team biennial competition, where they will face host nation United States, as well as Trinidad & Tobago and Panama.

However, while their qualification quite rightly sparked jubilation among the nation’s football fans, the lasting effect of the team’s performance this month may hold far greater importance off the field for a country plighted by poverty, crime, political tensions and corruption.

“For the nation, qualification was so big on so many levels,” said Michael Johnson, the former Birmingham City and Derby County defender, who took over as head coach of Guyana in June 2018.

“For youngsters to see their stars and people they know and can relate to on the international stage is massive. It creates inspirational stories that they too can achieve. Also for the country itself, it gives them an aim to really look at developing sport, particularly football with the infrastructure in place.

“We all know that there are considerable amounts of oil off the shores of Guyana and so it should be about realising how we can develop a structure, which allows a real development of sport, which will socially help with health and also with crime.

“If there are provisions for youngsters to go out and play football, that could be a whole load of youngsters off the streets.

“All of those issues make our qualification really, really huge both for the players to showcase themselves and prove what they’re capable of, but also the nation itself.

“Qualification in itself was a real accomplishment to get there for the very first time. That deserves accolades in itself but we want to go one step further because everyone always wants more and I believe with some fine-tuning we will be ready to do that.

“We are in a position now to make a real difference. No one gives us a chance to qualify, to even score a goal, but we’ll thrive on that; it’s a great tag to have. It’s great in life when you can prove people wrong.”

For Neil Danns, a former Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers midfielder, representing Guyana and securing qualification holds an even greater personal significance.

Having enjoyed a respectable professional career but never played internationally, Danns accepted an invitation to join up with the national squad for the first time five years ago at the age of 31, and represent a country he had never visited.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to get involved and be part of something I hadn’t done before,” said the 36-year-old, who scored a penalty in Guyana’s pivotal win over Belize.

“For me, it wasn’t just about the football. I had never visited Guyana, but it is where my grandparents are from and so it was a great opportunity to get to know the country and reconnect with my roots. I loved my first match and it gave me a sense of fulfilment that I had never had before. It was going back to a place where a part of me is from and experience that. Since then I’ve never looked back.

“That was the main thing for me; I had never had that connection before with the country. My grandfather passed away before I was born, so I never met him but this was a chance to go back and connect with him and where he’s from.

“The set up wasn’t as professional as what I had been used to throughout my career, but that emotional connection overrode anything else.”

That pride and emotion of representing the nation has been clear on the field with Danns make a telling contribution, scoring in all three of Guyana’s qualifying games.

He is now desperate for himself and the nation to keep defying the odds and make their mark on the big stage.

“The whole set-up has changed a lot since I got involved; it’s come on leaps and bounds,” Danns added.

“I’m 36 and I wasn’t sure if I would keep going in through this qualification process. However, since the first game I’ve wanted to be part of it and now I look at it and I’m amazed that this group will be representing the nation at a major tournament.

“Sometimes players at my age, that fire has gone, but I’m more determined than ever and I’m just inspired by what we’ve done. To qualify for the first Gold Cup has been unbelievable, not just for us but the whole nation. When we were there the atmosphere was something like I’ve never seen before.

“We all felt blessed to represent the country and we probably don’t quite realise just how big a deal this is and the affect it will have on the nation.

“To be part of that first ever squad to get to the Gold Cup is an incredibly special thing and I’m very, very proud.”

It was a sentiment echoed by captain Sam Cox, who is under no illusion of the magnitude of what he and has team-mates have achieved so far and the significance of what further success could bring to the country.

“This is definitely the biggest achievement of my career, without a doubt and to see where the programme was when I first came in, in 2015 to where it is now is incredible,” Cox said.

“Myself and Neil [Danns] were sitting in our room last night and chatting about how proud we are of what this squad has achieved for the nation. On a personal level, to be able to captain the country and represent the nation is a phenomenal experience.

“We all dream about playing in major competitions and so for all of us it will be an incredible experience. We couldn’t have asked for a better first game then to play a host nation as well, to lead the boys out in an historic event is unbelievable.

“Progress is a slow process but we are building in the right direction and I’m in no doubt we can keep building.

“It is about us making a difference on the field. If we can make our mark at competitions like the Gold Cup then you’ll start seeing progression, not just with football but across the nation and building socially with the youth.

“We have a million people back home rooting us on. This isn’t just for us, there’s a much bigger picture.”