ST. LUCIA Football Association [SLFA] president, Lyndon Cooper has had to navigate through some troubled waters lately. Perhaps the most contentiously was the general discontent expressed concerning the country’s non-participation in the current World Cup Qualifiers (WCQ).
Over the past months, this latter development has stirred up quite an uproar in local football circles and the wider region.
Government officials have also publicly voiced their dissatisfaction with the decision and to compound matters, a group of national players staged a protest outside the SLFA base in the midst of the fracas that ensued.
And now, Cooper is pressed with having to deal with the most challenging aspect of his administration – in seeking to bridge the gap between the SLFA’s unit and the beleaguered players.
Notably, this period in the development of local football will most assuredly determine the future tenure of the SLFA boss. He disclosed that no sanctions will be taken against St Lucia, either by FIFA or CONCACAF and the course is clear towards the overall development of local football.
Cooper prides his ‘administrative legacy’ on the gradual development of the national youth league and St. Lucia’s youngsters moving from the Under-14 to the Under-17 level making significant waves in regional football.
The VOICE recently sat down with Cooper who has been at the helm of the SLFA for the past 10 years, to get his take on some pertinent issues.
VOICE: Given the contentious circumstances that have risen over the past weeks, since the announcement of St Lucia’s non-participation in the WCQs, would you say that this has been one of the biggest challenge of your tenure as the SLFA president?
Cooper: No, the biggest challenge for me as the SLFA president is the registration of clubs and leagues into a FIFA ‘connect system’ as part of the compliance when it comes to the development of football internationally.
We had a lot of challenges and it took us in excess of six years to at least bridge a level of normality to the registration of clubs and players within the FIFA structure.
VOICE: If you were to re-visit this latest matter, would you have handled it differently and avoide all this controversy?
Cooper: I would do everything differently. I would have come out earlier and indicate our non-participation …because all the other factors were part of a process.
What I feel the country or the players thought was that we were withdrawing or we were not saying anything. But that was never the intention, the intention has always been to improve on the development of the game, especially in St Lucia.
It must be noted that we have four national teams and the Senior National team is only a ‘flagship’ and not necessarily the lifeblood of the organization.
VOICE: What has been the responses from FIFA and CONCACAF on this issue; and have they offered advice or given support to the SLFA in dealing with that matter?
Cooper: When the letter was dispatched to CONCACAF concerning our inability to meet our obligations…I kept up regular contact with the football agencies. From the first week in March, I had been on the phone with FIFA at least twice a week and with Concacaf at least once a week. We were trying to see how best we could find a solution to our inability, at that time, to commit to our participation.
FIFA has made it abundantly clear that the matter against the SLFA, when it comes to our non-participation in the WCQ is now closed and settled, so nothing comes out of that. Concacaf has also indicated to us that they understand and they are looking forward to our continued participation in Concacaf tournaments.
VOICE: There has been strong objection from a group of former national players to this latest scenario. And one of the contentions is that the SLFA took a decision from about three years ago to not participate in the WCQs, what is your take on this allegation?
Cooper: There is no truth in that. I have heard this issue being perpetuated by the ‘enemies of the SLFA’. At no time did the SLFA make any decision three years ago. What I said was that the decision to participate in the Qatar World Cup was made by Concacaf, about three years ago. Concacaf made the decision by seeding the five teams for eight months after the Russia World Cup.
The format was redone after we played the Nations League, because that competition is a qualifying round for the Gold Cup and the Russia WC teams. So, at the time, it became extremely impossible because about 20 plus teams were playing for one or half a slot.
VOICE: While the SLFA has made strides with its youth league and women’s league, especially the remarkable performance of St Lucia’s Under-17 team at Concacaf junior league; the big contention is that not enough is being done to elevate the standards of the Senior National Team?
Cooper: There is absolutely no truth in that. Those who are saying that are persons who are disjointed, who have not understood what the development plan is and persons who have personal grievances against the SLFA.
When we came from the Nations League, and we moved from second to third division after spending close to $1millon for team preparation, we took a policy decision to strengthen the team. We basically engaged Caledonia, in the T&T league to take six or seven of our national team players so they could play for the club and give them the ‘elite training’ so as to strengthen our national team.
We were contributing in excess of EC$7,000 or EC$8,000 to the budget to keep those players in training. There is also a relation between the SLFA and the Free Kick Foundation to use those scholarships at another level. Those are interventions that we have created because we understand the level and quality of the teams that we are going to compete against.
VOICE: Would you say that St Lucia’s relegation from Div. II to Div. III has posed a certain setback to the senior national team’s progress and development into a more compact and formidable unit ?
Cooper: Of course it did, we spent the biggest set of monies on a senior team in the history of football and we were relegated. So, you do not expect the policy makers to go and strengthen the team?
That’s the reality of it, we paid over $60,000 over the eight months for players’ stipends and allowances. From a policy standpoint, we agreed to strengthen the team and we made the intervention and that’s why we sent the players to Trinidad to step up the game and we contributed to their salaries. That is an indication that we were already going to implement the interventions.
VOICE: Another of the contentious issues is that there is limited prospects for junior players after they have attained a more mature age, the SLFA terminates them and they don’t get to senior national representation.
Cooper: There is no truth in that. There is a development plan, we take the players from as far back as Under-14. When they compete at the CFU Under-14 level, the following year we put them into the Concacaf development Under-15 league.
We then do an evaluation and we get ready after the Under-15 for the Under-17 World Cup. When we get to Under-17 WC this is ‘big football’. We are not an association that is not ‘result oriented’, we are …the results must come. So, it’s not an issue of they are no longer there, if they cannot compete regionally they will not be able to compete internationally.
We have gotten to a point where the senior national ream has to be a winning team…there is nothing about taking the nucleus of the Under-23 team to the senior level. We had to change the selection policy, where …the selection of a senior national team male and female has to be done within the wider world and it’s no longer exclusively to a local domestic competition. We have moved past that because players over the last five years have been selected on their performances for club, district and country. So, we have had to open up the selection policy as to who makes the team…and in going out to compete against professional teams we have to bring in our professionals.
VOICE: Moving ahead, how much of a task or challenge would it be for the SLFA ‘to mend’ straying relations between your executive, technical staff and players?
Cooper: There are rules of engagement with regards to the executive …and the work of the SLFA continues. The SLFA has to run an organization and not an event, and if there are six or seven national teams, where the biggest results are is where the investments are going to be.
Selecting a national team is the job of the head coach and the technical director- that’s their responsibility. My job as head of the organization is to ensure that policies are formulated and people abide by the policies. Based on their recommendation, we need to strengthen the senior national team, both male and female.
VOICE: At this juncture, what would you say are the immediate plans for the SLFA?
Cooper: We have already commenced national training for our Under14 boys and girls’ selection …the CMO has given us the green light and we are expecting to start the club competitions in the next two months. We have requested all league first and second division clubs to seek permission from the CMO. Next month, we will make a formal request to the CMO for permission to commence our competition under strict protocols.
VOICE: You have always said that the ultimate goal of the SLFA is to take a national team to the World Cup, irrespective of gender or level of competition. Is the SLFA still committed to that pursuit?
Cooper: That is part of a strategic plan that has been approved by FIFA last year, and that is what the plan is. Whether it is an Under-15, Under-17 or Under-20, or Olympic or Senior team the plan is to take a team to the World Cup. This is foremost on the agenda for the development of football in the country.