MIAMI, Florida – With the advent of the Concacaf Nations League, teams from around the Caribbean have experienced improvement at many levels and one of those nations, Turks and Caicos Islands, is eager to return to the field with the start of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying for Qatar 2022.
“We can’t wait. We are really excited to start playing again and being together; traveling again and just being back on that platform means so much. We honestly can’t wait,’ said Turks and Caicos Islands DF Jepthe Francois in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
“It’s really special to play a World Cup Qualifier because there are not too many people that get to have that opportunity to represent their country in a World Cup Qualifier. I’m grateful and privileged to be able to do that. It’s really important to me and it means a lot,” added Francois.
In their history, Turks and Caicos Islands have been involved in five different Concacaf WCQ cycles, all ending with a first round elimination after a home and away leg.
But Concacaf’s new single game round-robin format for the first round of WCQ for Qatar 2022 will offer a chance to give Francois and his teammates at crack at some of the bigger teams in the region.
“It’s really motivating to think that you have that broad exposure. We’re from a small island, we’re really not on the map, not really known globally for soccer and stuff, so being able to play on that platform against quality teams is really good,” said Francois.
If there is one certainty when it comes to the National Team though, it is a strong bond felt between all the members of the squad.
“The atmosphere is great, there is a lot of positive energy. There is a lot of motivation. The guys lift each other. We really help each other when one of us is slowing down or lagging or lacking in some areas and try to lift each other up. It’s great to have that energy again, playing the sport that we love together, representing the country that we love. It’s really nice and a great feeling,” said Francois.
That brotherhood was on full display in November 2018 during week 3 of Concacaf Nations League Qualifying. After suffering two defeats to open CNLQ against Cuba and Guyana, Turks and Caicos Islands looked set to cruise to three points with a 2-0 lead over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines heading into the final 10 minutes.
Yet Vincy Heat turned the tables and scored two late goals to pull level, 2-2. But with just minutes to spare, Turks and Caicos Islands struck back with Francois tallying the winning goal in the 89’ for a momentum-shifting 3-2 triumph.
“Obviously in that game I remember my winning goal, but in that game, we went into it with the motivation of saying, ‘Hey, enough is enough. It’s time for us to put on some grown-man pants and give it our all and play hard, play for each other.’ At the end of the game we got tired legs and that’s what caused us to concede the two goals. But we dug deep and in the final moment I got lucky enough to score a last-minute goal and we got the three points,” said Francois.
It almost didn’t happen for Francois and Turks and Caicos Islands, as Francois’ initial attempt was a header off the post. However, FW Billy Forbes pounced on the rebound and fed a cross to Francois, who swept the shot into net. For the 21-year-old, it was his first goal with the National Team and a moment he’ll never forget.
“It was an amazing feeling. I could feel all the energy from the crowd. It was so overwhelming. When I first made the header and it hit the post and it came off, I said, ‘Oh my God,’ but when I got the cross and tapped it in, everything was just amazing. I loved the energy. It was just perfect,” said Francois.
It was fitting that Forbes kept the play alive for Francois’ match-winner. As the all-time leading scorer in Turks and Caicos Islands National Team history, Forbes is respected for the leadership he brings to Francois and the other younger players.
“Billy is really competitive. He has motivated us to push ourselves and go to the next level. He pushes us and keeps us going even if we want to give up. He is really important for us,” said Francois.
Turks and Caicos Islands completed CNLQ with four points and continued that momentum into League C of the 2019-20 CNL, finishing Group D with a 2W-0D-2L record. The ability to have regular competition through the CNL is a notion warmly welcomed by Francois and he hopes it stays intact for years to come.
“I think the Nations League was a great idea. It gives us a lot of exposure and it shows that the Caribbean has lots of talent and young athletes that are ready to go to the next level. I think it’s a great initiative and that helps young athletes like myself give us exposure to the world, so that we can make a career and living out of the sport and have a greater future. I think it’s a great initiative and I hope it continues for a long time,” concluded Francois.