The Premier League is rolling towards its conclusion, and the fate of all clubs will be decided by the remaining fixtures yet to be contested. However, as the 2014-15 campaign approaches the finale, another league is about to commence. Tomos Knox interviewed Damien O’Bey, to give us more insight.
The league in question is perhaps not as well-known nor as rich, but its title still evokes relative pedigree. The Barclays Premier League may be the most-viewed league on earth, but the Saint Helena Football League – located on the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena Island – is equally remarkable, in that it is the most remote league on earth.
Lying 1,200 miles away from the African continent, Saint Helena is a small island situated in the South Atlantic Ocean with a population of just under 4,000. Perhaps best known for being Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile – the Frenchman died on the island in 1921 – Saint Helena’s remoteness means that it is both arduous and expensive to travel. An airport is currently being built and is scheduled for completion in 2016. It is hoped amongst locals that the airport will bring along with it a better future for Saint Helena, as the island’s population is decreasing rapidly due to the young men and women being unable to find work on-island.
Football on the island is fairly basic. A senior league runs from May until November and there are also junior competitions, but cricket is the dominant sport on Saint Helena. Despite this, former Saint Helena Football Association secretary Damien O’Bey insists that the island’s inhabitants retain a love for The Beautiful Game. Now The St Helena Sentinel’s chief football writer, he is optimistic about football’s future on the island, although he acknowledges that there are problems that need addressing.
“Football is certainly a sport that Saints (St Helenians) enjoy, in terms of popularity it’s probably the most popular sport on St Helena based on numbers who participate and watch”, he says. “There are other sports which have higher participation numbers, but have fewer spectators.”
Despite the popularity of the English Premier League, islanders retain their enthusiasm for the Saint Helena Football League. It may only be an amateur league, but it is fiercely contested and supporters are always to be found on the island’s only football pitch: Francis Plain.
“Due to Saint Helena’s small population the anticipation and high levels of enthusiasm is felt throughout the Island.” O’Bey explains. “The league is normally a highly competitive event, with between 3 to 4 teams vying for the title each season.”
However, the Saint Helena Football Association receives no funding whatsoever from the English FA, despite being a British island. This means that money can often be in short supply. Also, problems with bad weather meant that the league lost almost 8 weeks last year, which proved incredibly problematic for the SHFA.
“Having just the one pitch to play all of the island’s outdoor sports can throw up problems with maintenance and the time available for each association to complete their respective sports”, O’Bey comments. It is an opinion shared by many. But, due to St Helena’s mountainous and rugged terrain, it would be extremely difficult to build another pitch.
It also seems that St Helena’s footballing community have aspirations on a more international scale. As recently as 2011 it was proposed that the island should send a team to the Island Games, an Olympic-themed tournament for islands all over the world. Amongst its more notable members are Bermuda, Greenland, Gibraltar, Isle of Man, and Saint Helena’s south westerly “neighbours”, Falkland Islands. St Helena are members, but have never sent along a football team. Sadly, due to the sheer costliness of such a project, the proposal amounted to nothing – with financial difficulties playing an integral role in the downfall of the dream. All the same, islanders remain hopeful that with the airport, and cheaper travel, the Saint Helena national football team will compete in the Island Games.
“With the airport on its way, an opportunity should open up for St Helena to have a football team represent them at an international event.” Damien O’Bey says, optimistically. However, O’Bey believes work would need to be done in order to have a team of a good standard. Competing in the Island Games would mean contesting versus professional footballers.
“Great amounts of training will be required for a team to reach the standard capable enough to participate in such a competition.” He concedes. Despite this, Saint Helena have a good grassroots system in place, and it is no surprise that football on the island is played to a high standard, undeterred by the meagre population.
“There is quite a good youth setup in place for football.” States O’Bey. “ After-school clubs are hosted on a weekly basis in various districts on the island during the football season, and leagues for various age groups are contested alongside the senior league.
According to Damien O’Bey, the next step is to form a national team that could compete at the Island Games or another similar tournament. And, as the airport nears its opening, this may be sooner rather than later. The Saint Helena FA have also contacted FIFA recently, and with Gibraltar, another British Overseas Territory, part of UEFA, there is no reason as to why they would be unable to join the global governing body. However, it remains unlikely that they will join.
For Saint Helena and its community, a national football team would be something that would be able to take pride in. As of yet, the island’s national cricket have been making strides since joining the ICC, so the same could go for the football side, albeit on a smaller scale. These are exciting times for Saint Helenian sport. The future is bright.
Written by Tomos Knox
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