It is a matchup between two teams yet to get a victory in Concacaf Nations League qualifying and a game in which even the winner will have to begin its Nations League journey in League C, but don’t tell the players involved that Saturday’s Sint Maarten versus Saint Martin clash isn’t important.
“It definitely means a lot. I honestly don’t remember the last time the Dutch and French side played against each other in an official match like this,” Sint Maarten midfielder Jaine Lindo said. “It’s been a long time, so I know people are excited about that.
“Obviously the biggest thing is bragging rights. That’s the main thing. It’s the last game, so neither of us have gotten a win in the last three games, so this potentially could be the first win, unless it’s a tie. But if someone wins, it’s not only going to be the first win of the campaign but then also bragging rights until we play again.”
Lindo isn’t alone in not remembering the last official match between the two sides of the island. Neither the RSSSF or Caribbean Football Database has logged an official match between the two sides, neither of which are FIFA members but both of which joined Concacaf in 2002 and later became full members of the regional confederation.
Not only are the island neighbors—with Sint Maarten representing the Dutch side and Saint Martin the French—clashing in organized competition for the first time since anyone can remember, it’s also a game in which the football teams have shown how far they’ve come since Hurricane Irma. A March 2018 New Yorker story said damages to the Dutch side of the island totaled as much as $3 billion. The French side also suffered significant damages.
St. Martin midfielder Nicolas Chalmet recalled the troubles the team had finding appropriate training sites months after the storm had hit.
“After Irma, it was quite difficult for St. Martin to build up because there were no facilities at all. After the hurricane, even a year after the hurricane went through, the condition of training wasn’t easy at all,” said Chalmat, who currently plays in New Zealand and isn’t part of the squad for this weekend’s game because of the distance. (“It’s not next door,” he deadpanned.)
Still, both Chalmat and Lindo are always eager to travel the long distances and do the best they can, even without top facilities, for the love of their homelands and the growth of the game in a place where soccer hasn’t always been the top priority or even the biggest sport. That could be changing.
“You’ve got two sides: The French side and the Dutch side. Being in Europe, we played soccer straight away,” said Chalmat, who was born in Paris before moving to the island as a teenager. “On top of that, St. Martin in the Caribbean we’re really close to Latin America. Latin people love soccer, so you’ve got two big influences where in Europe and in Latin America, soccer is like a religion for them.”
Lindo recalled being on the island during the World Cup, when the Dutch side is full of fans outfitted in the orange of the Netherlands national team and the French side wearing Les Blues shirts. The Nations League is helping locals get excited about their own national teams, even with each suffering big defeats early in the qualification process.
St. Maarten dropped 13-0 and 12-0 results to Haiti and Bermuda before posting a more respectable 2-0 loss to Dominica last time out. The -27 goal difference puts it at the bottom of the table, 11 goals behind the French side which dropped a 3-0 result to Guadeloupe in the first game then lost 10-0 to St. Kitts and Nevis and 5-2 to Grenada.
“I think we have the talent, it’s just a matter of people have to understand that it’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to be a 20- or 25-year project when we get to the point we can compete with Haiti, compete with Jamaica and those islands,” Lindo said. “But I think we can. It’s just a matter of time. When we see the results, the 13-0 and the 12-0, it’s a process. We’re getting that process started now.”
There will be growing pains and continued struggles for both federations, but a rivalry win this weekend at a neutral site in Anguilla would be a big achievement and help generate some needed momentum as each side looks to take soccer from niche sport to obsession.
“With timing of the hurricane and it’s basically back up, they’ve done an amazing job getting into Concacaf, getting into the Nations League and getting things right,” Lindo said. “People are starting [to get interested] now that they’ve seen us play three games. The first two games weren’t great results at all, but I feel like the last game against Dominica, I was able to play in that game, and you could see that we were so close to winning that game. After that, people saw it and came to watch the game because it was the first home game. The interest kind of sparked after that game.
“Now that each side has their own local team and it’s actually developing and getting better slowly but surely, people will get behind that more and it will become, in my opinion, the most important sport on the island.”
Jon Arnold is a journalist based in Texas who works as Goal's Concacaf correspondent and appears on the BBC World Football Phone-In. Follow him on Twitter.