Island Team Brings Hope and Glory to the Island
Honduras’ national football team has made great strides since its first international match in 1921 when it lost 10-1 to Guatemala. The “Catrachos” qualified three times for the FIFA World Cup: in 1982, 2010 and 2014. Football is a serious business here, so much so that in 1969 a football match between Honduras and El Salvador sparked riots that fueled existing tensions and ended up in a full blown war. That was almost half a century ago and now times have changed.
Central American football has made great strides in recent years and Costa Rica and Honduras have the best teams in the region. Honduras is ranked 63rd in FIFA world rankings.
Roatan has had a presence in these Honduran successes. In all three games that the Catrachos played in the South Africa World Cup in 2010, Georgie Welcome, a Roatan born striker, played a leading role. Welcome began his career at Arsenal, Roatan’s first division team.
Arsenal Football Team was started by Russell Borden, Darcie Martinez and Jay Hynds in 1997. “We were looking for a name and Russell came up with Arsenal, and since it was a popular team back then, it just stayed that way,” says Leyland Woods, the team’s first coach. Arsenal’s roots are in French Cay where they practiced on a sandy patch of land bordered by mangroves. “That was our home field, this is where we trained,” says Leyland Woods who is now the owner of the team.
At first the team played other Honduran non-federated teams. Arsenal beat other island teams to go to a tournament in Santa Barbara and then the islanders got a rude awakening: the Honduran rules football are determined by who you know and where you play. “Our opponents were late one hour to the game, which mean we won. They convinced us to play anyway and challenge this later. But when we did and lost, they said we couldn’t challenge,” says Woods.
This is how legends get made: the Santa Barbara team arrived cramped and tired
Arsenal was about to enter the dragon’s den of Honduran football. “On a rainy day in 1999 in Las Colinas we decided to federate the team,” Woods says, recalling that fateful day.
At first the owners tried to buy a second division team and move it to Roatan, but that involved permission from Honduras Football Federations and plenty of red tape. “So we just decided to federate in third division and move up to second,” says Woods. That took four years.
It was 2003 and Arsenal ended up playing against a Santa Barbara team in the finals to ascend into the second division. After tying 0:0 at home, the Santa Barbara team lost the second game 1:0 in Los Fuertes, but then challenged the result saying that the Los Fuertes field didn’t fulfill the minimum size standards. The Honduran Football Federation sided with Santa Barbara and ruled for the final game to be replayed at a neutral venue. When Arsenal got to pick that neutral field and they picked Trujillo, at sea level and about a 10 hours drive by bus from Santa Barbara. “I told them: ’you’re lucky there isn’t an accredited regulation field in Gracias a Dios, or that is where you would be playing’,” said Woods.
This is how legends get made. The Santa Barbara team arrived cramped and tired, not ready for the next morning’s match in hot Trujillo. Arsenal chartered a boat that took them directly from French Harbour to the Trujillo dock in less than two hours on a comfortable journey. Arsenal dominated the game and won 1:0. “Everyone [in Honduras] knew about this. We were famous before we even made it to second division,” said Woods.
In 2007 Arsenal almost made the impossible happen. They made it into the finals and challenged Deportes Savio to a two-game playoff for a spot in the Honduran first division. After losing 1:0 away the second game was played to a full stadium in Coxen Hole. The field was originally a privately owned baseball field surrounded by a temporary corrugated zinc fence: typical island ingenuity and improvisational style.
The entire island held their breath as Arsenal came within one goal of beating Deportes Savio and making it to the big leagues. “But we just couldn’t do it. We had no stadium that would qualify for first division. Perhaps the loss turned out for the best,” says Woods. A decade ago Arsenal, Roatan, and its owner just weren’t ready for the Honduran premiere league. There wasn’t enough money, not enough fans, not enough infrastructure to handle the success. “We would have to play in Tela or La Ceiba and the traveling costs would kill us,” says Woods.
Now two of eight teams in Honduras’ northern second division are based on Roatan. There are two fields qualified for division two play: the Coxen Hole stadium and the field at Lucy Point in Oak Ridge.
The Coxen Hole field, where Arsenal trains and plays every other week, slopes a drastic 36” from north to south giving a clear advantage to a team playing on the north side. “When we flip the coin we always try to lose so we could choose to play the second half down hill and with the wind behind our shoulders,” says Woods.
Woods envisions a Coxen Hole stadium for 1,500 fans, changing rooms for both teams, referees, and lights permitting games to be played on Saturday evenings – a prime time for attracting fans. Woods wants entire families to watch Arsenal play and enjoy music and meals after the game. “It wouldn’t interfere with church, beach, family,” says Woods.
They made it into the finals and challenged Deportes Savio to a two-game playoff
While the big obstacle in achieving this dream is cost, others share Woods’ vision. According to Woods, congressman Ron McNab has been promised Lps. 4 million from the central government to improve the stadium in Coxen Hole. Jerry Hynds, the new mayor of Roatan, is a football fan and promised support in improving football infrastructure on the western side of the island. “Once the stadium is there then the first division is an open door,” says Paul Jeffries, advisor to the team and owner.
The key elements in keeping Arsenal running in the black are sponsors and ticket sales. The ticket prices to the game are a flat 50 Lempiras. “We started with 100 Lps. but we had to go backwards,” says Woods. Around 400-500 people come to each Roatan game, but according to Woods the team would need regular attendance of 1,000 to make Arsenal a profitable team.
Sol Gas, Serranos, Island Shipping, Galaxy, and Madeyso are the Arsenal sponsors and have their logos displayed on team’s shirts. Half of the additional cost is covered by Woods out of pocket, mainly from his Tropical AC cooling company. “If we got the acknowledgment we wouldn’t have enough space on the shirts for other sponsors,” says Woods.
The biggest expense are travel and referee salaries: Lps. 15,000. “We try to have three local referees at our games to reduce that and just have a main referee from the coast,” says Woods. Arsenal is considered a consistent upper tier team in Honduran second division.
The salaries are a bit higher and the opportunities to get noticed and picked up by division one teams are greater. “We tell our players: ‘You gonna get your shoes, but it’s all about sacrifice and dedication if you’d like to be a professional player. You gonna sacrifice you body, time, money to be a professional,’” says Woods.
You gonna sacrifice you body, time, money to be a professional
The higher salaries paid by Arsenal are noticed by mainland players. “That brings a bit of resentment from other division two teams,” says Jeffries. The controversy and a bit of resentment mobilizes fans. “We fill the stadium when we come to play on the mainland,” says Woods. Still “They [mainland teams] are still complaining about the expense of traveling and playing on Roatan.”
While Arsenals motto is “one island, one team, one love,” with the majority of Roatan residents being born on the mainland, locals fans often end up cheering for the visiting team. Things get especially rowdy when Roatan plays a home game against Social Sol of Olanchito – place of origin of many new Roatanians. “Sometimes our fans are outnumbered by theirs,” says Woods.
TOUGH ISLAND PLAYERS
While a few Roatan-born players are branded for lack of discipline they are also known for being tough and quick. “Island guys don’t get hurt. They don’t need a masseuse after the game, you don’t need to be injecting them,” says Woods.
Some of the most talented island players come from Santa Helena and Pandy Town. “In Santa Helena there is nothing to do, so guys just focus on football,” says Jeffries. “They are tall, physically strong, they are tough people. They work hard and play hard,” says about Santa Helena players Woods. Already Roatan and Arsenal have produced several great football players. Georgie Welcome, a striker originally from Coxen Hole, played with Arsenal from 2004 to 2008. Welcome represented Honduras many times and played for the country in World Cup in 2010. He even played a season at FC Monaco. Georgie started in the national Honduran selection while playing with Arsenal – a second division team, a first in Honduras’ football history.
Several other Arsenal players made a name for themselves on a national and international stage. Edrick Johnson from West End is now a back up goalie for Olimpia. Shannon Welcome, a forward form French Harbour, plays for a second division team in Greece. Kenzi Abbot from French Harbour played for a first division Tocoa.
The 2007-08 were the glory days for Arsenal with Georgie Welcome, Shannon and Jose Anthony
The 2007-08 seasons were the glory days for Arsenal with Georgie Welcome, Shannon and Jose Anthony all playing together. “We haven’t recuperated this caliber of players,” says Woods. Arsenal also started Jose Anthony ‘El Caballo’ Torres who has played a record number of times in the national selection of Panama. Yet keeping good players, especially good strikers, is a difficult task for Arsenal as for any division two team. “Every time we get a good player they buy him out,” says Woods.
Coach Pasquale Mendez RIP developed the core of Arsenal players between 2003 and 2009. The current coach is Hernan Contreras was an Arsenal player and a manager before stepping into coaches’ shoes.
Arsenal’s strongest lines are defense and mid field. They are usually lacking in strength of forwards and goalies with the best players scooped up by division one teams. “We are a pretty young team,” says Woods. The 30 Arsenal players on the roster average 22 years of age so the future looks promising.
Many changes in island and Honduran football lie ahead. FIFA is pressuring teams for significant changes. This will likely result is the first division going from ten to 12 teams and the second division teams dropping from in number from 28 to 18 or 20. Next season the second division players will be considered professional, not semi-professional as they have been up to this point. Arsenal will be required to sponsor a women’s team.
There are now two division three leagues on the island: eight teams play in Roatan Municipality and seven in Santos Guardiola Municipality. There are six fields certified for division tree play on Roatan: Sandy Bay, Coxen Hole, Los Fuertes, Punta Gorda, Diamond Rock and Lucy Point.
In 2017 Arsenal was joined by Dortmund Los Fuertes in division two. Dortmund is owned by Ray Mayorquin who founded the team in February 2011. With two strong division two island teams the future for Roatan football looks bright.