Montserrat: When the Caribbean island’s soccer team recovered from disaster

A boy poses on the collapsed electricity infrastructure 10 years after the July 1995 eruption
Montserrat’s capital Plymouth is a ghost town – abandoned after the eruptions

In July 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat began erupting on a massive scale. The consequences were devastating.

Large parts of the Caribbean island were covered in thick layers of ash. Sulfur dioxide fumes filled the air. They had to abandon the capital Plymouth.

Major eruptions continued over the next five years, eventually leaving about two-thirds of the island uninhabitable. Two thirds of the 11,500 inhabitants fled.

A once tranquil and bucolic place would never be quite the same again – much of it remains sealed off in “exclusion zones” and volcanic activity is still being closely watched.

Like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, Montserrat is one of the 14 British Territories (BOT); self-governing but ultimately under UK control.

Forced to leave their homes, around 4,500 Montserrats settled in England, mainly around the migrant communities in London and Birmingham.

Montserrat’s national consciousness remains scarred by cataclysmic disasters. But there is also a spirit of solidarity created through trauma and struggle. You can see it in its national football team, and UK players give back to their ancestral homeland.

Short gray presentation line

Montserrat played its first match in 1991, and only became a member of Fifa in 1996. For years they were among the worst teams in the world.

They won two of their 27 matches between 1991 and 2012, both against Anguilla, another BOT currently ranked 210th in the FIFA world rankings – with only San Marino below them.

In March 2004, when Montserrat was finally able to host home matches for the first time since the eruptions, it was in the first round of regional qualification for the 2006 World Cup. They lost 7-0 to Bermuda.

They have long been the underdogs of the international game, but that is slowly changing.

“It used to be shambolic,” says Alex Dyer, Montserrat’s joint-record holder of 21 caps.

“Not in a rude way, everyone did the best they could. We had no money, no facilities, no nothing.”

Dyer, 32, is a midfielder with Wealdstone in the National League and has played for Sweden, Norway and Kuwait. My paternal grandparents grew up in Montserrat. He made his debut in 2011.

That year, the team was ranked among the worst in the world. A little over a decade later they’ve reached rank 178, but their progress runs deeper.

“When I started we didn’t even have matching tracksuits,” continues Dyer. “It felt really disconnected, but at the beginning of the journey it was just a small nation.

“As we’ve gone on, he’s gotten better and better and exploded the last few years. We have a great sponsor who understands that we’re not a team that wants to play football and win games. They get the trip, and they get the island.”

Part of the problem was the lack of regular matches – Montserrat played just seven times between 2012 and 2017.

Things changed in 2018 with the launch of the Concacaf Nations League, offering opponents of a similar size and standard.

Since then there have been 18 games – and eight wins – all under Scottish coach Willie Donachie, who recently stepped down.

As the fortunes of the group have changed, more people have wanted to participate. Recruitment was not always so easy.

“It’s been a long, long process,” laughs 36-year-old striker Bradley Woods-Garness, who since making his debut in 2012 has helped recruit new players alongside old friend and team-mate Dean Mason.

“Sometimes I’d look for traditional Caribbean names from Montserrat. Sometimes I’d look in Football Manager. If I found a player, I’d message him on Facebook.

“Some people thought it was a joke, someone messing around asking if they want to come and play international football.

“But in the end when I have phone conversations with people and explain where we are now – what players we have on the board, where we are going and who we beat – it turned out well.”

New arrivals include Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor, who first played for Montserrat in 2015 when he was at AFC Wimbledon. Now their record is 10 goals.

Former Salford City midfielder Matty Willock, whose brothers Joe and Chris play for Newcastle and QPR respectively, made their debut in 2021.

Standards and results have improved beyond recognition. Montserrat came agonizingly close to qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup, the European equivalent of Concacafe, losing on goal difference to El Salvador, a 6.5m country ranked 100 places above them.

“There will be some losses, but we’ve been winning recently and the people of the island are over the moon,” says Dyer.

“It gives them a bit of joy and something to cheer for, and it inspires the younger generation of kids. When they get older, maybe they can hope to play for the country themselves.

“Before, you didn’t see any kids playing soccer. Now when we get over it, they have a whole production line. They may or may not be successful with soccer, but it gives them drive and passion.” I will use it in other aspects of life.”

Spending more time on the island has given the team a much deeper understanding of who they are representing and what it means, not to mention the passionate support they can count on. The players feel that their connection to the place has strengthened.

“Even though we’ve grown up in the privilege of a western country like England, going there is so refreshing because it brings us back to who we are in our DNA,” Dyer added.

“They still do tours to the less dangerous areas so you can see what happened. It’s pretty gruesome, but it’s part of the island’s history. It’s made it even more of a community and people look out for each other more than ever before.

“Once people see how proud they are of us, even when we’re losing games, we owe it to them to do everything we can for them.

“Our ship is football, but we have a lot of players who have done it outside of football, which is commendable, to help promote Montserrat. To show its beauty and what it is.

“The legacy of what we’re doing will last. That’s the most important thing for us.”

A place in the Gold Cup remains Montserrat’s target, but just one win from their opening four games in the 2022-23 Nations League means they face an uphill battle to qualify. It may not happen this time, but they are definitely on the right track.

“We can taste how close it is and now we’re disappointed when we don’t meet the standards we’ve set,” says Dyer.

“Even though we go into almost every game as underdogs, we have the confidence, the borderline arrogance, to know that we are a good team and can beat some of the bigger nations as well.

“You have good times and hard times, but everyone knows why we are here and what we are doing. Everyone is here to do the best they can for the country.”

Montserrat's Alex Dyer against Trinidad and Tobago in the Gold Cup qualifier
Dyer (right) for Montserrat against Trinidad and Tobago in the 2021 Gold Cup Qualifiers
A street scene in Plymouth after the eruptions, photo taken in 1997
A street scene in Plymouth after the eruptions, photo taken in 1997
A red telephone box is buried in volcanic ash and sand after eruptions on the Caribbean island of Montserrat
March 1998, the scene in the former capital of Montserrat, Plymouth
A pre-eruption postcard of Plymouth
A new capital of Montserrat is being built in Little Bay, near the current government center of Brades
Map of the Montserrat exclusion zone
Exclusion zones are still in place on the island