MIAMI, Florida – Sometimes in football it takes a very painful event to learn a valuable lesson. Such was the experience for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines last November 18.
Going into the finale of their 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League group in League B, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines required a win at winless Dominica to win the group and clinch their first Concacaf Gold Cup berth since 1996.
But the dream ending took a sour turn with a 1-0 loss, and combined with Suriname defeating Nicaragua, the Gold Cup slipped through Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’s fingers.
In the locker room following the Dominica match, the team needed a leader, and fortunately, 30-year-old captain Cornelius Stewart was there to provide guidance.
“A lot of the players had their heads down and asked, ‘Why did we mess up?’ I told them that this was part of football and sometimes you have to learn from it. This was our learning process because the team is a young team and they had not experienced this kind of disappointment, so I was telling them to pull their heads up, that we still have the playoffs and we can come back and do this,” said Stewart in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
The disappointment from Dominica has transformed into motivation for next summer’s Gold Cup Prelims for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who are one of 12 teams vying for three spots in the 2021 Gold Cup. The newly revised single elimination format will present challenges, yet Stewart feels like it could prove beneficial for his side.
“It can be good for us because you might have a good game and you eliminate one of the top teams and move on to the next round. For us we just have to be ready for it and take it one step at a time. We are going to be playing game after game, so we will be more in form. It can be good for us because we’ll have match fitness going into the Gold Cup if we make it to that stage,” said Stewart.
Should Saint and the Grenadines reach the Gold Cup, it would be their first appearance in the tournament since 1996. More importantly, Stewart believes the Gold Cup can be a showcase for the younger generation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines players.
“When we lost against Dominica, it was so disappointing, but now we have a second chance. We are focused on getting to the Gold Cup because of how big it is. This is where we want to go. We have a young team with a lot of young talent, so maybe they can go there and be seen and get a contract and improve their skill and craft. In life you always have hiccups and we have learned from it. We are ready to go again,” said Stewart.
In the meantime, Stewart has been steadfast in imparting his wisdom to the young players to complement the efforts of Head Coach Kendale Mercury.
“The coach came in and added discipline. It was important for us to work on hard work, fitness and discipline. We know we have some raw talent in the group, but for me as a captain and an experienced guy, I use my experience to get the guys together and stay focused. We have learned from the Nations League we can do a lot of things and we have potential. We just need discipline, a lot of hard work and we should be fine,” said Stewart.
In addition to the Gold Cup Prelims in 2021, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines will also be busy with the First Round of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying for 2022. Drawn into Group C with Curacao, Guatemala, Cuba and British Virgin Islands, Stewart believes Vincy Heat can be in the mix for the top spot.
“I think people are seeing it as the Group Of Death, but in football there is no Group Of Death; it’s who has come to play on that day. I think we are ready for the challenge. We know that we are going to come up against some tough teams, some well-structured teams, but we are also well-structured, so we are ready for this group. Some people may doubt us and think we are not good enough to compete, but we are going to prove everyone wrong,” said Stewart.
On a personal level, Stewart is one of the most-capped players in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines National Team history (43), so whether it is a Gold Cup qualifier, Nations League or World Cup Qualifying, suiting up in the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines shirt and hearing the national anthem always brings out the strongest of emotions.
“Sometimes when I hear and sing the national anthem, I cry. That’s how special it is to me. I am happy and I feel blessed from the day they gave me this captain’s armband. I always wanted this responsibility so I could guide these young players using the experience that I have had. When I was 18, I was on my own, traveling the world, different places and different experiences. I’m 30 now and in two or three years somebody will have to take over and keep things going. It is always a special feeling when I put on this jersey,” concluded Stewart.