CONCACAF Watch: Belize finally hosting CCL match

After years of disqualifications because of stadium issues, the nation of Belize finally will host a CONCACAF Champions League match, writes Jon Arnold.

Despite Belize receiving direct entry into the competition, Verdes FC will become the first team to host a CONCACAF Champions League match in the Central American country when it faces Queretaro on Tuesday night. 

The first year of the CONCACAF Champions League, 2008-09, the Verdes were allowed in the tournament but played home matches at a neutral site.

Since then, teams from the nation have had to surrender their spot to another Central American team. Belize's FFB Stadium, the national ground, was deemed not to meet the confederation's standard. But after money from FIFA helped renovate the field, lights and dressing rooms, and after a false start last year when the Belmopan Bandits were set to play but ruled out after the tournament already had started, the CCL is finally coming to Belize.

"For us it’s very, very important, especially to play in front of the home fans in our country," Verdes forward Deon McCaulay told Goal USA. "I know the atmosphere is going to be very, very electric because it’s been a long time since we hosted a Champions League game. The players are excited to be looked at and seen at that level. It’s very big."

 

McCaulay is one of the few players from Belize to spend time playing outside the country, recently suiting up for the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks. He's back home on a professional deal, something that has been rare in Belize - a fact Verdes is trying to change.

"We have 99 percent professional players, meaning that this is their only means of employment. We pay them full-time salaries," said Ian Jones, the club's vice president. "It's a move that we have made because in order to complete internationally, we have to have our players be full-time footballers. We're the first club in Belize to have made such a move in the sense that we've desired to compensate our players sufficiently so that they don't need to have another job."

Not only has that allowed Verdes to draw the best of the best in Belize, the club also has been able to prepare for the CONCACAF Champions League in a manner other teams aren't able to - taking a full compliment of players to play friendly matches outside the country. Verdes happened to bring in a player from the Queretaro region and has been scouting both the Gallos Blancos and San Francisco, the Panamanian team that rounds out Group C.

Though the other sides in the group will enter the matches as heavy favorites, Jones is confident the investment the club has put toward its squad could pay off in both recognition and result.

"It sets a bar for a little county like Belize to show the world that we might be small, but we can be giants in football," he said. "Being realistic, we see ourselves possibly coming out of this group because we've watched many games of Queretaro and we see them as a team that we can beat. We've watched games of San Francisco, and we see them as a team that we can beat.

"Traditionally, in Belizean football whenever in the past when a club team would play an international game, we'd get pummeled. But trend has changed, starting from our national team right down to our club teams. We see this as a very, very important step to put Belize on the map, so to say."

McCaulay is a bit more cautious in his assessment of Tuesday's contest but does allow that Queretaro has been weak on the road and a boisterous crowd is expected at FFB Stadium, which is listed as holding 5,000 fans.

"I expect our team to come out with a lot of energy," McCaulay said. "All these guys are vey hard-working players, and I think we have to come out with that energy to let Queretaro know that we are a good team and are no pushover."

No matter how the club performs, Verdes FC already is taking a stand for Belize and making history in the process. The club is eyeing its own stadium it hopes could host CCL matches in the future in Benque Viejo Del Carmen, about an hour's drive from Belmopan where this year's matches will take place. For now, simply having matches in its own country is enough to celebrate.