Football is essentially a straightforward game. Put the ball into your opponent’s net more times than they put it into yours and you win. That simplicity can become lost at times amid the pressures of a league or tournament campaign, or by the tournament rules themselves.
In the final few minutes of normal time in a Caribbean Cup qualifying match in early 1994, the law of unintended consequences was there for all to see. Barbados and Grenada played out an incredible ending to their key clash where it was in the interests of first one team and then the other to try to score an own goal.
As settings go for a sporting farce, the beautiful island of Barbados is not a bad one. The sparse surroundings of the National Stadium in the St Michael’s district on the northern edges of the Bajan capital Bridgetown in early 1994 were the scene for what became one of the strangest games in international football.
The Caribbean Cup may not sit highly in the hierarchy of global football, but for many a local nation, it represents a vital opportunity for some competitive international action against their neighbours, large and small. Until the recent inauguration of the CONCACAF Nations League, it was the only prospect many of the smaller Caribbean national teams had of competing in meaningful football outside a frequently all too brief flirtation with World Cup qualifying every four years.
For Barbados and Grenada, the qualifiers in 1994 represented a realistic chance of making it through to the finals in Trinidad & Tobago later that year, and the prospect of testing themselves against the stronger Caribbean nations. Drawn into a three-team qualifying group along with Puerto Rico, each team had realistic hopes of making it through by topping the group. It was well-matched and competitive, and the fine margins would have a part to play in the drama of the final few minutes in Bridgetown.
Each team would only play the others once in the group, with all three matches taking place over the course of five days in late January 1994 in Bridgetown. The hosts began in disappointing fashion, going down 1-0 to Puerto Rico. Two days later, Grenada took on the Puerto Ricans, with the match ending goalless after 90 minutes. A point apiece, right?
In hindsight, the tournament organisers, the Caribbean Football Union, must have wished they’d kept with convention and treated the draw in the usual way, but instead they decreed that there must be a result. Golden goal extra-time would be played to determine a winner, and if necessary, a penalty shootout would follow. So far, so reasonable. But there was a twist.
When Grenada scored in extra-time to seal a golden-goal victory, ending the game then and there, they ensured the group would go down to the wire. But the record books show that Grenada won 2-0 rather than 1-0. The bizarre decree from the tournament organisers was that any extra-time golden goals would count double.
The thinking behind this curious rule is rather vague; presumably the intention was to emphasise the “golden” nature of the winning goal and reward teams for triumphing in a close match. What is clear, though, is that this unusual and short-lived rule would be responsible for the strange scenes that followed.
Going into the final match, Barbados sat bottom of the group but knew what they had to do to qualify. Had draws been treated in the normal way, Barbados would have been out, unable to catch group leaders Puerto Rico. The Puerto Ricans would’ve been on the verge of qualification, but instead they now knew there was no way they could be the one to make it through, thanks to their extra-time defeat and the fact that it counted as a 2-0 defeat. For Barbados, it all meant that victory over Grenada by two goals would see them through. A Grenadian win, or indeed a Barbados win by just one goal, would send Grenada through.
The hosts settled better in the early exchanges, perhaps emboldened by the clearer task ahead of them. Sure enough, Barbados worked their way into a 2-0 lead, a scoreline sufficient to see them progress to the finals at Grenada’s expense. But it was a precarious lead, as one goal for Grenada would put them in the driving seat.
As the match progressed towards its conclusion, the Grenadians pushed on in search of the single goal that would send them through instead. In the 83rd minute they got their goal, making it 2-1, changing the qualification picture. As things stood, Grenada were going through, and it was Barbados’ turn to throw everything forward in an attempt to re-establish their two-goal lead.
The clock was against them, however. With only seven minutes left, they had little time with which to rescue their situation. For the next few minutes, the Bajans tried what they could to force a decisive third goal for their team, but to no avail. It was at this point that a new strategy presented itself.
With just minutes left, and Grenada holding firm having retreated to an ultra-defensive formation to see out the game, hopes were slim of grabbing the clinching goal. Needing a two-goal victory, Barbados could take their chances in the final few minutes or seek to take advantage of the enhanced golden goal rule. If the game went to extra-time then confusingly a single golden-goal score would give them the two-goal advantage they required.
And this is how one of the strangest phases of play in football came about. Barbados realised the best way to maximise their chances of getting the single goal they required was to take the match to extra-time. And how could they ensure it went to extra-time? By scoring an own goal.
In the 87th minute, after vainly trying to grab the winning goal in conventional fashion, Barbados defender Terry Sealey and goalkeeper Horace Stoute took matters into their own hands. They played the ball between themselves in the Barbados goal mouth initially to waste as much time as possible, before Sealey thumped the ball past Stoute and into their own net to equalise for Grenada. At 2-2, the match as it stood was now headed for extra-time and the possibility of a double-scoring golden-goal.
And yet this wasn’t even the strangest thing that happened in the match that day. There will still a couple of minutes to play and another goal in the remaining moments would change the picture again in Grenada’s favour. Any goal, in fact. As if things weren’t already weird enough, the Grenada players, having not initially cottoned on to what Barbados were doing, now realised that if they could muster a goal – any goal – before the end of normal time, they would win the group and qualify for the finals.
Just consider that for a moment. A Grenada win would see them through, and so would a single-goal defeat. Grenada could now attack either end of the pitch to score either for or against themselves to secure qualification. The only result they didn’t want was a draw, giving Barbados 30 minutes in which to secure their two-goal advantage.
The final few minutes pushed this already crazy denouement into new realms of the bizarre, as Grenada attacked at both ends of the pitch seeking the goal they needed. The Barbados players had to defend their own goal – and the Grenada goal. In a total break from the norms of football, there was no clear view of which team was attacking which end, as instead one team sought to score at either end, while the other team sought to defend both.
The aforementioned Sealey stationed himself alongside the Grenada goalkeeper, as Barbados desperately sought to see out the final minutes of normal time without any additional scoring, manically defending both goals. By hook or by crook, they did so; Grenada unable to force a winning goal for either team in the time that remained. The teams were headed for an all-or-nothing double-scoring golden goal extra-time, which surely must have given the tournament organisers heart palpitations for the madness they’d inflicted through their ill-thought-out regulations.
As sure as night follows day, there was only going to be one outcome to all of this. After only four minutes of extra-time, Barbados scored their winning goal when Thorne found the back of the net, rifling the ball home from a tight angle. The score immediately lurched from 2-2 to 4-2, giving Barbados the two-goal margin they needed. There was some laughter amongst the watching crowd, not entirely comfortable in celebrating fully under the circumstances.
For Grenada, the unwitting victims of this farce, there was simply deep frustration amidst the disappointment. Through no fault of their own, they’d been almost forced into a situation where their best bet was to try and score an own goal against themselves.
“I feel cheated,” was the understandable post-match verdict of the Grenadian manager James Clarkson. “The person who came up with these rules must be a candidate for the madhouse. The game should never be played with so many players running around the field confused. Our players did not even know which direction to attack: our goal or their goal. I have never seen this happen before. In football, you are supposed to score against the opponents to win, not for them.”
No penalties or censure was handed down by the authorities to Barbados, since they were genuinely trying to achieve a positive outcome for their side, given the tournament regulations. Barbados hadn’t cheated as such; they had used the rules of tournament to manufacture a way of maximising their opportunities. It wasn’t their fault the rules were as they were, although they may have taken a few liberties with the spirit of the game. The double-scoring golden goal was used five times through the 1994 Caribbean Cup qualifying process, before being hastily abandoned for any future tournament.
Barbados duly took their place in the Caribbean Cup finals in Trinidad & Tobago just a few months later, in April 1994. If there is any solace for the unfortunate Grenadians it is that Barbados didn’t profit hugely from their progression. Draws with Dominica and Guadeloupe sat either side of a 2-0 defeat to the Trinidadian hosts, leaving the Bajan Rockets third in their group and eliminated.
Those drawn group games in the finals didn’t go to extra-time; no golden goals – double-scoring or otherwise – were used as the tournament thankfully reverted to a more conventional approach, the organisers no doubt hoping the truly bizarre occurrences in the qualifying games in Barbados would be quickly forgotten.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams