A 4-1 win over Ecuador on Monday saw The Bahamas bow out of the ongoing Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup on a high note, but for Bahamas Football Association (BFA) president Anton Sealey, the real benefits for the host nation will be felt long after the event concludes on Sunday.
As well as the economic and branding benefits of staging beach soccer’s blue riband event - an event televised in more than 180 countries around the world - authorities in The Bahamas are looking to position this laid-back island nation as a hub for the sand-based game in the Caribbean region. Having invested in the construction of a US$2.5 million, 3,000-seat permanent facility on the turquoise shores of the country’s capital Nassau, it is hoped the legacy of the World Cup will live on in the next generation of Bahamian soccer stars.
Ahead of Thursday’s quarter-finals, Sealey sat down with SportsPro to reflect on the success of the tournament so far and to share his thoughts on the future of soccer in the Caribbean, a much-maligned region whose embattled administrators are vying to turn a page under new Concacaf president Victor Montagliani.
SP: How has the tournament gone so far?
AS: The teams have all played exceptionally well. The usual suspects have acquitted themselves as expected, as you can see in the quarter-finals. Even the games in the earlier rounds were competitive for the most part. The facility has played very well; the sand is great. All the coaches and players have commented on the quality of the sand and the facility itself. Once the players are happy, once the coaches are happy, I think that’s half the battle done.
If there has been any room for improvement, it’s the fan attendance for the early games. I think that’s something we need to look at in future, the scheduling, because of the sun. It is brutally hot out there and I think the sun kept fans away for the early games.
For an event like this, people will come out as long as they’re playing, so even if we pushed [the games] back - say, kick off at five o’clock - that would have been much better. But of course, as in all these things, TV is a consideration; TV dictated the schedule and that was a little unfortunate as it kept crowds down.
But other than that, the experience and the facility - there are no bad seats. Everyone who has visited the facility and seen the games have commented both on social media and in the local press, raving about the facility. We’re very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish.
You’ve opted to build a permanent venue rather than hiring a modular one and dismantling it once the tournament is over. What role will the venue play for soccer in the Bahamas and how do you plan to utilise it after the tournament?
That was an intentional act. We wanted to maintain the facility because we realised, given the nature of our population and our demographics, there’s a situation here where our kids go to school in the United States or North America and Europe as early as 16. We have a tendency to lose our football stars. Those in the grass game, we tend to lose them to university and colleges, so it’s very difficult to maintain a cohesive national team sport on the grass. It’s very difficult.
But in beach soccer, of course, it’s not as difficult. One, you don’t require as much resources, as many players, and the players can play at a later stage in their career. In the grass game, a player of 28, 30, 32 now is at the tail-end of his career, whereas on the beach you can extend it into your early 40s, as you’ve seen here with the likes of Madjer and [Dejan] Stankovic.
Being a student of the Brazilian game, we know that the Brazilians start off on the beach. This whole facility was designed so that we can begin training our younger players on the beach, so that they can then develop the kinds of skills that you can develop on the grass - bicycle kicks and trick shots and so on - without the fear of falling on a hard surface. A higher skill level is developed on the sand, so it was intentional.
And beyond beach soccer, we thought the facility could be used for other disciplines such as beach volleyball, which is very popular, and even concerts. The facility will be utilised heavily. We do have an annual regional tournament we call the Kalik Cup, which is held over the holiday weekend in October. As a part of Concacaf, we are looking to develop four of these facilities in our region and we will have a circuit. This will be the anchor stadium, if you will, for that particular tournament. As we in Concacaf look to develop the game in the region, this facility is intended to play a vital role within the region, not only in the Bahamas.
The National Beach Soccer Arena in the Bahamian capital of Nassau.
Away from the tournament, what’s the current state of soccer in The Bahamas and the Caribbean?
In The Bahamas, much like in the Caribbean right now, it’s obviously not where we would like it to be. We’ve been through a number of peaks and valleys over the last two decades, I would say. You have the high of Jamaica qualifying for the World Cup, then you have a lull, and then you have Trinidad qualifying. I would say we are in a bit of a lull right now because our national teams within the region are not performing particularly well on the international scene.
We, as administrators in the region, are having to take a critical look at the development. We’re being encouraged by our president of Concacaf, Victor Montagliani. We are now investing in, through some programmes which he is instituting throughout the region, some development programmes. We are refocusing our efforts now on development, and not only on players but also administrators and officials, because we’ve been having, as you know, well-documented challenges as it relates to administration within the region. We want to make sure, as we refocus our development strategies, that administration is a part of that, with officials, coaches, etc.
We are in a phase now where we are looking to reorient our football in the region, so over the next five to ten years you will see our teams getting better.
Our facilities, our surroundings, our very nature lends itself beautifully to this game of beach soccer.
Are you genuinely confident that Montagliani’s reforms are the beginning of a new chapter and that the ways of the old Concacaf regimes are a thing of the past?
I believe in Victor’s ‘One Concacaf’ philosophy, where he’s trying to get away from these sub-regional bodies - not that we do away with the bodies, but just focus on being one Concacaf, one region, rather than having these sub-regional legislative bodies, which is, in his opinion, stifling the growth. I am a massive supporter of that because he is targeting development and releasing development funds. You’re going to see us reaping the rewards of that focus.
I think the region is embracing it. It wasn't easy but I think as the programme has unfolded and been explained, more and more people are buying into it and I think going forward it’ll bode well for the region, not only in the north but also the Caribbean region as well.
Montagliani is not only addressing the national game but also the club game, with the creation of a new competition structure, including a separate tournament for Central American and Caribbean teams. Do you think those reforms are enough to yield meaningful benefits for the club game here and in the Caribbean region as a whole?
Yes, of course. The main focus Victor has is to ensure that not only clubs but national teams get more games. You can train for as long as you want but until you get into an actual competition against another side, that’s how you measure progress. Victor’s aim is to ensure that national teams in particular get more international games, so I think that is tremendous for us.
Certainly, clubs will by extension get more games, too, and the more you play, the better you get, of course. Countries like us who, from a World Cup standpoint, play once every four years up until now, we stand to play some 30-odd games, which is unheard of. You can do so much with that.
Local fans and overseas visitors enjoy the action.
What impact do you expect Fifa’s impending expansion of the World Cup to have? The very notion of expansion has polarised opinion but it should at least increase qualification opportunities for smaller nations like The Bahamas.
Well, obviously I think the expansion of the competition is a great thing. I was always fearful that it would extend the competition too long - people can get football fatigue. But when I see that they were able to extend it by a short period of time, it was great because, as you said, it affords more countries the ability to participate in Fifa’s premier competition, which is what you aspire to do.
That said, the three-way Concacaf bid for the 2026 World Cup raises the prospect of the United States, Canada and Mexico all receiving automatic slots, which could leave fewer places for other nations in the region to qualify despite a likely increase in the number of places for Concacaf.
I’m not quite sure if they’ve decided on the number of slots per confederation. Given the history of our football, those countries were going to qualify anyway - maybe not Canada - but I think Concacaf stands to gain some additional slots. But I think it will be an anomaly for this year . We’re talking about going forward and I don’t think any of the countries within Concacaf will feel that they’ve been harshly done by.
If Canada is part of the co-hosting trio then their fans deserve an opportunity to see their team play in the World Cup, so I have no difficulty with that. But I think it’s a great opportunity for smaller nations within Concacaf and particularly the CFU [Caribbean Football Union] to qualify one or two teams out of the Caribbean, which would be tremendous for us.
Back to this tournament. It was a very competitive bidding process for this particular edition, with around a dozen countries vying to host it. What were your reasons for bidding and what did you want to achieve first and foremost going into this?
Certainly, first and foremost, it was the economic impact I thought it would have for the community and our country. That was my main reason for pursuing it. Besides, I know that we were capable of doing it and doing it at a high level because we have a history of doing that and I’m confident in the ability of our people to execute.
From a sporting standpoint, our facilities, our surroundings, our very nature lends itself beautifully to this game of beach soccer. And it wasn't a tough sell to the government. I assured them as to what this could be, I showed them some footage of past editions of the World Cup, and I got my executives to buy into it. We submitted our bid and fortunately we were successful.
Bahamas FA president Anton Sealey (second from right), pictured here with his fellow organisers.
At what point will you know the extent of the economic impact and whether you’ve managed to achieve a return on investment?
The immediate impact is certainly financial. We’ve had 15 teams staying at a hotel, and not just any hotel, a luxury resort. It’s not Motel 6, with all due respect to them! They’re eating out almost every night, visitors are taking taxis here and there, purchasing souvenirs, so you can measure that sort of stuff.
Beyond that, each match has been televised around the world to over 187 countries I’m told. That is a marketing element that the Ministry of Tourism could not afford to purchase. To the extent that these things are happening, there is no question that the economic impact will be felt.
We certainly have the facility. We’ve invested in the facility, a facility that can be used again and again for multiple events, so while we may have spent a few dollars, I think the return on investment will be much higher than we’ve expended. You look at this, this an extended, 14-day event. There will be a tremendous impact on the economy from this event.
Obviously this event is a Fifa production and a Beach Soccer Worldwide production, but what is the level of investment from a local perspective?
An event of this magnitude, it depends on the host country. The Bahamas is not the cheapest country in the world. To do business here, it requires a bit of investment. What we did here was probably twice as much as what was spent on other ones. But I think the big difference is that we have a quality stadium that is going to be left behind here. When you factor in our spend on this event, you must factor in the fact that that includes the stadium, but I think the spend here was around US$6-8 million.
I think about two thirds of that was spent by the government. That was not the intent but as you know, just prior to this we suffered two major hurricanes. With the sponsorship that we had anticipated, of course priorities were reoriented after the major hurricanes, so we were not able to realise the level of sponsorships that we had anticipated. Fortunately the government of The Bahamas stepped in, along with Fifa, and made up the breach to enable us to execute this event to the level that we are doing it now.