“It Had Been 18 Years Since Saint Martin Had Won!”
November 16, 2019News
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma ravaged the island of Saint Martin and killed 11 people. Since then, local selection of football players has not necessarily developed under the best conditions. But recently the team has won two games at the last level of the CONCACAF League of Nations against Barbados and the Cayman Islands. What is the status of the sport of football in the reconstruction of the island? Read on for our in-depth interview with the team's coach, Stéphane Auvray, before the last group match in the Virgin Islands.
You are Guadeloupean and you grew up in Saint-Martin. How would you summarize your childhood there?
Insouciance. In the 1980s, in Saint-Martin, I was hitchhiking to get to training. My parents were at work - my father was a chef, that's why my parents moved to Saint-Martin. I stood on the side of the road. The soldiers often stopped and I got into the Jeep with them, on the benches, in the back. It could also be a neighbor or a guy I didn't know.
When did you realize you could become a footballer?
I did a soccer tournament in Barbados with Saint-Martin. I was twelve years old, four years younger than the other players. A friend of my father said to him: " You should send him to a residential school-soccer program in France."
As my father is from Normandy, I went to Caen. I did a tryout at the Jean-Moulin college in Caen, they asked me if I had a club and I said: "Bah, no, I'm coming from Saint-Martin." So I went to Stade Malherbe, where I joined the training center when I was fourteen. There was also Rothen, Gallas ...
How did it go?
The hardest part was the cold. You could not feel your feet! You're cold, so you're breathing badly. In Saint-Martin, you have an accent when you speak French. I tried to lose it, because French laugh at this type of accent. But I had personality. In terms of anecdotes, what I remember is that every morning one of us had to go get bread from the bakery. You knew that certain mornings you weren't going to have to ... But, with the youngest ones like me, you were sure to have to go get it ... Otherwise, I was going to hear about it.
What did you miss to break through at Stade Malherbe?
I think I hurried the process. I had no agent to advise me. And my parents did not know the world of football. With a little more patience, I think I could have joined the pro group. Finally, I climbed the ladder with Vannes from the CFA. The final of the Coupe de la Ligue against Bordeaux in 2009? Unfortunately, it is not a great memory. Within the first 15 minutes we were losing 3-0. (Laughs.) I'm only entering the second half, when I was an indisputable starter during the whole season, well you see the scenario ...
What are the best memories of your career?
The Gold Cups with Guadeloupe: a semi-final in 2007 and a quarter-final in 2009. We had a small bonus at the end, but the guys did not come with finances in mind. We came because we wanted to represent Guadeloupe and the Caribbean. Somewhere, it allowed us to emancipate ourselves from the political situation.
That is to say?
As a French department, we are not a FIFA member. We do not benefit from FIFA aids and structures. So you are still quite handicapped compared to the CONCACAF nations. But we had quality players and a great frame of mind, it was logical for us to go to the semi-finals in 2007. I especially remember the return to Guadeloupe. It was midnight, the airport parking lot was full because people were proud. We communicated and celebrated at the airport, it was sharing out of the blue. And then we continued success again in 2009.
A reference match?
The second group match against Nicaragua in 2009. We control our subject, we win 2-0. I scored, it should be pointed out because I did not score often. (Laughter.) I was in the right place, at the right time, to take over a cross from Aurélien Capoue. Behind, we had David Sommeil, it was the top. Jocelyn Angloma brought us experience. Mickaël Tacalfred was always solid in the back right, I'm really happy for him that he made this career in Ligue 1, he deserves it.
In 2009, you left the Nîmes Olympique during the season, this is the last time you play in Ligue 2. Why?
For family reasons, I thought it would be better to go home for a few months, so I went to see Mr. (Jean-Michel) Cavalli (the coach of the Olympic Nimes, at the time). I can never thank him enough. He's someone who favors human beings, and from the moment it affected the family, he said to me, “ No problem."
A few months later, I left for MLS. My parents lived in the United States. Having grown up in an English speaking area in Saint Martin and having an English speaking wife who comes from Trinidad, that helped me.
Do we speak English in Saint Martin?
It's a mixture of everything: you speak English, French and Creole. In the French part, you have a lot of French, in the Dutch part, you have a lot of Dutch and Americans. It's great, because when you are young, you learn to speak several languages.
You played at the New York Red Bulls, around the same time as Thierry Henry.
Yes, when I arrived in New York, I was at the hotel, and it was Thierry who took me away and brought me back from training. Being both from Guadeloupe, we often shared West Indian food. I rediscovered football by playing with him and Rafa Márquez in New York.
Both were from Barcelona. You feel that they are always in the understanding of the game. How to commit players? How to pass? How to hide your passes? How to build triangles? They may not even know it for that matter, but I learned a lot from them about the importance of thinking and using the brain. Especially with Rafa, because Rafa has less athleticism, so he really has to be super smart on the field. Finally, by rubbing shoulders with them, you see things and you have ideas that you did not have before. I could not benefit from it as a player because I was already 30 years old, but it really made me want to share it with the youngest.
After obtaining your coaching licenses, you opened your academy in Kansas City, where you played before going to New York. How are things going?
It has been almost six years since I opened the academy. All my best youngsters, I send them to Sporting KC in MLS. There are nineteen young players who trained with me and joined the MLS franchise. It is work that is bearing fruit. And then, Saint-Martin contacted me in January 2019 and it started with a workforce review during the last qualifying match for the Gold Cup.
What were your objectives in taking charge of the selection of Saint-Martin?
Get Saint-Martin out of anonymity, help young players to progress and produce quality games. I submitted a project to the president explaining to him that we had to have the support of outside players to raise our performance level and help the young players to be exposed. They accepted my project, so I have the right to select ten players out of territory for each game. Inevitably, you see the difference. We won two out of five games in the League of Nations.
Are you the one who recruits players in Europe?
Yes. The team consists of players from Saint-Martin, but for many their background is Martinique, Guadeloupe or Guyana. We focus on players who have a true relationship with the Caribbean. The best known is Wilfried Dalmat. The players evolve in National, in CFA, there is one in Greece. Through networking we make it happen.
Are the players ready?
Yes, they are ready, but I am very careful. My speech is sporty towards the end. Before, I ask them: " What is your relationship with the Caribbean? Why would you want to play for us?" I ask about their state of mind. I do not expect a particular answer, it is more a feeling when the player gives me his answer. I have to feel that it comes from the heart and that it is really important for him.
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma ravaged 95% of the island. How did you experience this drama?
I was in the United States. You want to help, but you don't know how. You call your friends, they are unreachable. When you manage to reach them, they tell you that the situation is precarious, that there is no drinking water. So you have a feeling of frustration at not being able to help. I have a friend whose roof was only built last year. Before, his family lived under a tarp. Even though it took a while, I appreciate that evetually the insurances and the systems worked to rebuild houses and restore their home.
Where is the reconstruction of football infrastructure more than two years later?
We were fortunate to have two new turf fields just before Irma, and everything fell apart - that's the case. We train in Marigot, the center of the French part of Saint-Martin. It is dirt ground. With the senior national team, we train in the Dutch side, because their turf field survived the cyclone.
And you play your home games on the island of Anguilla.
Yes, we do about fifteen minutes by boat. We play on their land, it's not extraordinary, but for a West Indian field, it works ... It means that on that one, there is grass. With us, it's not just soccer fields to build. I heard that it would be done by 2020. Our neighbor, Saint-Barth, was fortunate to receive a private donation from the president of Chelsea, Roman Abramovitch. As he lives there, he wanted to give his contribution, and the land was rebuilt in three months.
What is the frequency of selection training?
I have an assistant coach to whom I send the sessions. He trains players twice a week. Then we have a physical trainer who also trains them twice a week. Saint Martin progresses at an accelerated speed. What stands out is that the French player development is so good that my players need little time to get to know each other.
How do you see the establishment of the League of Nations?
For Saint-Martin, it's super positive. It opens doors to allow our young people to go to university in the USA or in CFA in France. Before, even if you had good young people, you didn't know how to expose them. Since the level was very low, there was no interest for other Caribbean teams to make friendly matches against Saint Martin. And then, with the League of Nations, you don't have the concern of " how are we going to get around ". Transportion, accommodation, and travel costs are covered by CONCACAF.
What is the level of the local championship?
There was a championship last year, but it has yet to resume this season. We will not lie, the level is very low. On the other hand, you have players with high potential. My right-back, Emmanuel Richardson, who is 17, he does not play a championship match, but in the League of Nations, he always stands out.
Is there a football culture in Saint Martin?
There was one. In the 1990s, Saint-Martin was able to be at the level of Guadeloupe. In the 2000s, a phenomenal gap was created. We won a match last month, it's been eighteen years since Saint-Martin had won! We come back from afar. Barbados, the Cayman Islands, these are nations which benefit from aid from FIFA with players playing in the USA and England. So bringing two wins against them is really exceptional.
So on Saturday you beat Barbados 1-0 "at home". Was there an audience?
Maybe 200 people. You should know that people have lost interest in football. Because they had imperatives to settle after the cyclone. And also because of the level of selection. It's also our job to keep them coming back.
After the first year, the balance seems positive, then?
People had to recognize the quality of our football. That a group has been formed. That we managed to take points. It's the case. The next objective is to target promotion in group B during the next phase of the League of Nations.