The year was 1998; blocky monitors showing rolling green pastures with the new Windows 98 operating system adorning the most advanced corporate offices. A plucky pair of PhD’s launched a tech company in Menlo Park, California – they called it “Google”. And while the melodies of Tanto Metro and Devonte wafted through the airwaves in Jamaica, everyone was falling in love with our national football team. The Reggae Boyz made history by becoming the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to qualify for the FIFA World Cup; we were also the smallest nation to do so. So remarkable was our accomplishment that many other small nations took us as their example to try and emulate our success in subsequent years. We were at the peak of our powers in the late 90’s and that World Cup appearance proved it. Now, two decades later, with a much better equipped squad, there was initial optimism that Jamaica has peaked again. But following two poor results out of two in this year’s qualifiers, there are major questions being asked of Jamaica’s World Cup credentials already.
Is this team good enough?
In a word, “yes”. In a sentence, “they do on paper.” But let’s go through that in two paragraphs.
Beginning with the local players; goalkeeper and captain Andre Blake is genuinely one of the top shot stoppers in the region. Damion Lowe is another leader on and off the field and he marshalls a defence that typically features Kemar Lawrence and Alvas Powell. There is a healthy number of young midfield talent in the pool including, Tyreke Magee, Lamar Walker, Peter-Lee Vassel, Jahshaun Anglin, Kaheem Parris and Kevon Lambert to name a few. If we include Devon Williams and players who haven’t featured for a while like Andre Lewis and Omar Holness, we can see the depth available to us in the middle of the park. And finally the front line is in good shape with Leon Bailey, Corey Burke, Shamar Nicholson, Junior Flemmings and co. spearheading the team.
In ‘98, Jamaica fielded some overseas players hailing from England that were dubbed UB-40’s, as a nod to a British reggae band of the same name. With the greatest respect to some of those players, while they were useful for Jamaica’s purposes, they weren’t exactly stars that were setting England alight. The difference between those and the current overseas players is that the players coming in this time are genuine quality.
Liam Moore and Ethan Pinnock have come in to help sure up the defense. The former is the captain of his Reading team and already has 200+ appearances for them. Meanwhile Pinnock was a crucial cog in Brentford’s promotion back to top flight football for the first time in 74 years. The centre back (who’s cousins with former Reggae Boy Nyron Nosworthy) was named in the English Championship’s Team of the Year last season. The arrival of former Manchester United wonderkid Ravel Morrison, Preston North End cult hero Daniel Johnson and Fulham’s Bobby Decordova-Reid is akin to the parousia of Fitzroy Simpson, Darryl Powell and Robbie Earle.
The likes of Michail Antonio, Andre Gray, Kemar Roofe and Jamal Lowe will fully understand the assignment. Lowe brings pace and guile while Gray is a solid forward with strength and tenacity; Antonio is the near mythical combination of all those attributes while Kemar Roofe led the line for Scotland’s Rangers FC in Scotland en route to an unbeaten season.
Are these players really up for it?
Watching the club season, one can only guess at the motivation of players at different points during the campaign. But as football fans, we can all appreciate the majesty of the World Cup and what it means to be a part of that. Ordinarily, you can assume that the fans and players are aligned in international football because all creeds and colours of the domestic competition band together to cheer on the nation with a unified verve. That may not be as straightforward in Jamaica’s case.
It’d be easy to question the commitment of the expatriate players given that until told or given the impression otherwise, they were in line for representing another country before Jamaica. The argument goes; “if they were good enough they would have played for England [or wherever else]”. And sure, that’s a valid point, perhaps true enough, but it’s not so cut and dry. Michail Antonio actually revealed he wanted to play for Jamaica for years but only recently got the call. Bobby Decordova-Reid spoke glowingly about his Jamaican connection and growing up in a household full of ‘yaadies’.
Our Boyz may be automatically accepted as Jamaican enough for the gold jersey, but that doesn’t mean the attitude is right with all of them. As a people we clamour for the adoration and recognition that comes with success, but the mental fortitude is not discussed in equal measure. On top of that, the pressures they face beyond the pitch cannot be overlooked. Just a few months ago, the players were at odds with the Jamaica Football Federation, to the point of both sides threatening action against the other. Some players have not been back since and others struggle to get minutes. There may be more bubbling under the surface the viewing public may not know. The words of Leon Bailey over a year ago now seem more prophetic than daunting. Bailey – who is yet to feature in the campaign due to injury – said the only thing [or people] that would prevent Jamaica reaching the 2022 World Cup finals, is the federation.
Is the coaching (staff) good enough?
René Simões is celebrated as a genius in Jamaica for what he accomplished with the national team in 1998, and rightly so. He took a ragtag team of players and turned them into history makers, that’s no small feat; and now, one of his former charges is being asked to fill his shoes. Our World Cup hero from that ‘98 campaign, Theodore ‘Tappa’ Whitmore took the hot seat first in 2007 and he’s been in or around the coaching staff for the better part of a decade now. In that time Jamaica has done… well.. not a lot. Aside from two Caribbean Cup titles, all Jamaica has managed with Tappa at the helm is a Gold Cup final appearance in 2017. Not to sound ungrateful, but is that really the best we could do in all that time? During his time away from the senior team, Whitmore served as the coach of the U-20 team in 2015, and despite the CONCACAF qualifiers being held in Jamaica, the team failed to win a game, and only scored 2 goals (in one match) across three matches. There was enough faith placed in him to be given a 4 year contract back in 2018.
With that said, Whitmore isn’t in the best working environment with the chaos and uncertainty never far. While he deserves his plaudits for his efforts, one must seriously wonder, “is this the best we can do?”
Who shoulders the blame?
Football in Jamaica currently feels like living in an aged, rundown household with an extended family. There’s the parents, the children, even the cousins come around every now and then. They enjoy each other’s company but quite often running or short-term repairs are needed. This is the state of Jamaican football. The breadwinner is the coach, Tappa, the rambunctious kids are the players, with cousins being expats, and the landlord? Well, that’s the JFF.
Should the federation get any blame? In a word, yes. René Simões said after the 1998 World Cup that he was disappointed. And it’s not because we failed to get out of a group with Argentina, Croatia and Japan. Simões let himself down because in his words, “going to the World Cup was like building a house from the roof down [there’s no foundation to build on].” Now here we stand, with our faces skywards, arms raised out wide wondering why it’s all come crashing down around us, but more importantly, wondering when it will all be fixed.