Lowe: Gold Cup dream years in making
Bermuda's rise to the elite level of regional football has been anything but an overnight phenomenon.
Indeed, the nation's historic journey to the Concacaf Gold Cup began with a clear vision conceived several years ago and subsequently embraced by players, coaches and administrators within the Bermuda Football Association.
Among the significant stage posts along the way have been the formation of the Bermuda Hogges in 2006, the establishment of the National Academy in 2009 and the opening of the £1.3 million Clyde Best Centre of Excellence in 2015, all of which have contributed to the growing numbers of players in professional environments overseas.
While the non-believers might have once regarded the “Holy Grail” of the Gold Cup as an improbable dream, Maurice Lowe, the BFA technical development director, and his colleagues always had faith that the seeds of success planted a decade or so earlier would eventually bear fruit on the international stage.
“This vision isn't mine alone.” says Lowe, whose part-time post has demanded even more of his time since the island booked a seat at the top table of the regional game.
“Among the objectives of the previous BFA Executive Council's Strategic Plan in 2015 was to have a well-structured technical department, to make it to the final rounds of a regional competition and to become one of the top teams in our region.
“We've now seen our senior team achieve an exciting and momentous moment, but our under-20 boys, under-17 girls, under-15 girls and under-14 boys have all had some success as well. Our hunger hasn't diminished. We're pleased, but not satisfied.”
The shared vision that acted as a guiding star throughout the Nations League qualifying campaign has since evolved into something bigger, something far brighter, as Bermuda venture into the uncharted waters of the Gold Cup.
Qualification has inevitably led to heightened expectations and the goalposts, Lowe says, have shifted accordingly.
“Our big, bold vision for Bermuda football is for one or more of our teams to qualify for a World Cup,” Lowe says. “That's the barrier-breaking goal now.
“You have to be bold enough to speak of that vision and risk looking stupid. Part of leadership is sharing that vision and quickly recognising who within the inner circle buys into it because they're the people who can help create it.
“What we're now seeing is that circle growing. People outside our small circle are seeing some tangible evidence [of success] and are believing in those visions. The whole of Bermuda is on board now.”
Bermuda's passage to the Gold Cup appeared to have been blown off course when they suffered a startling setback after losing 3-1 to Aruba in their qualifying opener last September.
For Lowe, however, the defeat merely served as a learning curve on the road to qualification glory.
“The loss against Aruba humbled us,” says the 41-year-old. “A defeat does that to you. It makes you go over everything with a fine tooth comb. It was timely and we had enough time to recover from it.”
Bermuda responded by thrashing Sint Maarten 12-0 before edging past El Salvador 1-0 to set up a must-win match against the Dominican Republic in Santiago in March.
After falling behind to a fortuitous early strike from Enmy Peña, Bermuda rallied with goals from Zeiko Lewis, talisman Nahki Wells and Justin Donawa to not only qualify for the Gold Cup, but also League A of the Nations League.
Mouth-watering encounters against Mexico and Panama City now await the island in group B of the inaugural competition in the autumn.
“The final whistle [against the Dominican Republic] brought more relief than anything else,” added Lowe, who took on his role in 2015. “Everything we did [during the Nations League] was deliberate and so for it to come to fruition was surreal.
“From the outset of the competition we felt League B was a realistic gauge for where we are. League A and qualification for the Gold Cup was our barrier-breaker goal and we were able to achieve that. We now need to underpin our operation so we can attempt to stay at that level.”
Sustaining this level of unprecedented success will not be easy for an island with a tiny population of 65,000 and a player pool that is paltry in comparison to the regional heavyweights Bermuda will face during the next few months.
It will require the BFA to be creative, realistic and efficient with its resources, according to Lowe, who believes it is unfeasible to expect the programme to continue moving perpetually forward without suffering some setbacks.
“When we qualified for the Gold Cup we had a wish list that was full of ‘blue-sky thinking',” says Lowe, who has travelled with the Bermuda team for their Gold Cup campaign. “Credit to Mark Wade, our president, who is very careful to make sure we're not implementing programmes we can't sustain.
“We want to stretch ourselves so we can grow while making sure everything we implement is sustainable and at the right level for Bermuda.
“It's about recognising that we can't do or have everything other countries might have while still being able to compete with them. For the Gold Cup, we've added additional staff members, but it's Bermuda-esque in what we're doing. We have 13 staff members, which is more than we've ever had and double what we had just a short while ago. In comparison, Mexico has 55 and the United States has 63 for a 23-man squad.”
Qualifying for the Gold Cup arguably represents the greatest achievement in the history of Bermudian football, outweighing even the silver medal the island won at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1967.
Cricket, the island's national sport, achieved its own high-water mark when Bermuda reached the World Cup in 2007 in the Caribbean, although that proved to be the zenith of the ascent, with the team steadily descending the proverbial sporting mountain during the intervening years.
“Sport is very much like the old board game, Snakes and Ladders, and we're wary of the possibility of sliding back down — that's a reality,” says Lowe, a former Western Stars and Southampton Rangers batsman.
“We're aware of the cricket example. We're mindful of that. We will learn lessons along the way and it's about how quickly we can implement those lessons.”
Technology is another area that has helped Bermuda close the gap on bigger nations, although Lowe points out that the widespread availability of up-to-date information, video footage and statistical analysis on all nations, also works the other way.
“Technology is massive in everything we do,” adds Lowe, who has a full-time job as an IT network manager at Warwick Academy. “At one point we could find footage of our opponents, but they couldn't find footage on us. That playing field has been levelled.
“We do have a match analysis partner in Russia [Wyscout] who dissects footage we get on our opponents. We distribute that among our coaches and look for tendencies and patterns in our opponents' play and come up with a game plan to be successful.
“The players are wired for that. They're very much a technological generation. They're prepped and primed for technology; it's a part of modern football.
“Kyle Lightbourne and Ray Jones [the Bermuda coach and his assistant] have a really good eye for trends in football.
“They will say, ‘Check out the twentieth minute of the Champions League final [between Liverpool and Tottenham]. Maybe that's something we can use'. It's then up to me to take that pattern and filter in down to our entire academy.”
Having a place to call home in the Clyde Best Centre of Excellence, where the BFA moved its operation from its previous headquarters on Cedar Avenue, has also helped accelerate the growth of the national programme.
“It's helped tremendously,” Lowe says. “When I first started at the BFA we didn't have a training centre. We had to move around and our various teams were training at different locations, school fields, club fields.
“A lot of those surfaces aren't conducive to high-quality football. It's good for the National Academy players to leave the field and see the other teams working on the same things. That's what having a centralised training centre has enabled us to do. This training centre has played a big part in helping is achieve our goals.
“Most of these players have come through the National Academy. Many of them also played for the Bermuda Hogges, which was also a key plank in helping our football develop.
“Success hasn't just happened to us, like a flash in the pan. It's been years of work and progress.”