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  • Aaron Renehan

The Reggae Boyz at the Fifa World Cup: Jamaican Football on the Biggest Stage of Them All.

After the recent success of my last blog post (a whole 3 viewers), which focused on Caribbean football and in particular Trinidad & Tobago’s rise to international stardom following there miraculous qualification for the 2006 World Cup, I again decided to divert my attention to this often overlooked footballing federation and the raw and naturally talented national teams it has provided over the years.


Look no further than Jamaica's’ Reggae Boyz’ as they are brilliantly known. A nation which has possessed a number of great talents in world football, but in particular the fine selection of players which helped them gain qualification to their one and only World Cup in France, 1998. With all good teams comes a powerful force behind them, and this was exactly the case, with an appointment in 1994 which completely transformed the game for them. Sick of the mediocre playing styles of the past, the Jamaican Football Federation knew change was needed, and what we saw was the recruitment of Horace Burrell to become the new president of this organization. A man with a plan, Burrell was a previously well-established business owner who wanted to carry this successful and triumphant ideology into Jamaican football with one goal in mind, the Fifa World Cup!


With Burrell's new appointment, came a change in management also. Carl Brown who had led Jamaica to their first Caribbean Cup win in 1991 was somewhat 'unfairly' dismissed as some had argued at the time, by a Brazillian journeyman named René Simões who had just departed his 17th job in 16 years at Qatari side Al-Arabi, to head back to his native land. Through vast negotiations and a whole lot of convincing, Burrell managed to get Simões on board, as they both shared this whole-hearted wish to reach the greatest stage of them all. The start of an incredible footballing transition.


Rene Simões, Source: Jamaica Observer


This appointment slowly but surely changed the outlook towards football in Jamaica forever. Simões recalled how, “When I first arrived here, I remember the Brazilian ambassador telling me that the city is dangerous and he warned me to be careful… and I started walking around and I refused to have a driver and I started getting along with the people and I made so many friends...I was immediately drawn to the warmth and kindness of the people''. From the offset, Simões spoke of his intentions to qualify the national side for the next World Cup in 4 years time, which of course was greeted by looks of surprise and disbelief by the attendees and press of his inaugural speech at the Kingston and St Andrew Football Association in the country's capital. The man had drive no question, but did he have the quality of players to reach such an illustrious stage? This is when they got the help of UB-40!


Now you may be thinking, what the hell do English-born, reggae & pop band UB-40 have to do with Jamaica's qualification for their only ever World Cup. Well, it's not exactly as it sounds, but rather a term given to British-born players who have gone on to represent Jamaica in international football, a loophole which was justifiably used to strengthen the sides auxiliary. After WWII many Jamaican's had migrated to Great Britain to capitalize on job opportunities and for want of a better life in general. This 'Windrush Generation' would settle in the UK and eventually have children and even grandchildren of their own, who would, of course, have great familial ties to the motherland of Jamaica. So Burrell and Simões tapped into this marker and capitalized on FIFA rules, to bring these men into the squad and achieve this shared ambition of a place in the next World Cup Finals.


UB40, Source: The Guardian


We saw already-established Premier League players including Wimbledon's Robbie Earle & Marcus Gayle join the squad, Derby County's rising star in Deon Burton enter the mix, and probably the most familiar of the lot Frank Sinclair, who had guarded the Chelsea back-line since the start of the decade, who even at one stage was on the cusp of an England cap, deciding to represent the nation of his parents.


However, what this side also contained was an arsenal of fine home-grown players who were plying their trade in Jamaica's national league at the time of the World Cup. Names which include the likes of Ricardo Gardner and Theodore Whitmore, who subsequently would garner moves abroad at the conclusion of the competition.


Prior to this tournament in 1998, only 2 previous nations from the Caribbean had managed to qualify for the Fifa World Cup the most prized possession in sport, with those being: Cuba in 1938, who didn't even have to qualify but entered by default due to disputes over the tournament being held in Europe once again which led numerous teams from the Americas to pull-out and Haiti who didn't make it past the group-stages in 1974 losing all three games to Poland, Italy and Argentina. So for Jamaica, a nation who were deemed as minnows even potential whipping boys heading into the tournament, a chance to play on the biggest stage of them all at the Fifa World Cup was already an incredible achievement in itself, but nonetheless, they were definitely not going to go down without a fight.


Haiti vs Italy, 1974 World Cup, Source: Forza27


We have to take it all the way back to April 21 1996, to really understand the magnitude of what Jamaica had achieved to even reach the finals in France in the first place. The CONCACAF First Qualifying Round and Jamaica had just completed their 2nd 1-0 victory over Suriname in the space of 2 weeks, amounting to a 2-0 aggregate win over this Surinamese outfit, and thus advancing to the next round where they would face a tricky Barbados side. Jamaican striker Walter Boyd was the star of the show over the two games, scoring in both the Home & Away legs, helping his side to a 3-0 aggregate win with the other goal coming from another prominent goalscorer in Theodore Whitmore. 2 teams down, Jamaica had now entered the 1st stage of round-robins.


Drawn with continental powerhouses Mexico, along with Honduras and outsiders Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Simões' men knew that they had a difficult task ahead, to try and reach the 4th and final round. Stellar performances from a team that was 'on paper' still being strung together left Jamaica in pole position to win the group at the conclusion of Round 3, and they did this in style beating a world-class Mexico side including the likes of Blanco & Luis Hernandez by a single goal, coming from Ian Goodison who headed home at the near post. The Reggae Boyz had avenged their only loss of the group which came in the reverse fixture in the Estadio Azteca, Mexico City in front of over 100,000 fans. 4 wins, 1 draw and this singular loss meant Jamaica was just 1 round away from reaching their first-ever World Cup, but this time the atmosphere was different, a real sense of confidence radiated the country.


This revamped Jamaica side would now face CONCACAF's top dogs, which included; the USA, Costa Rica, Canada, El Salvador, and their old foe Mexico. As it turned out, this classy Mexican side would put the first dent in Jamaica's qualification hopes, completely dismantling Simões' new-look team 6-0, again in Mexico City, as Jamaica succumbed to their 2nd defeat here in just over 6 months, subsequently cancelling out any hype garnered from Jamaica's reputable opening day stalemate with heavy favourites the USA.


The next 2 group games followed the same pattern as the first 2, with Jamaica again playing out a bore 0-0 draw with Canada in Burnaby, before suffering another defeat, this time at the hands of Costa Rica, with Derby County's Paulo Wanchope guiding them to a 3-1 victory. Jamaica's World Cup dream was slowly slipping from their grasp. Jamaica's form the year prior had secured them the title of 'Best Mover' in the Fifa World Rankings, however, half-way into 1997, was all this hard-work and remodelling about to be undone?


A surge of momentum or even just a stroke of luck was badly needed, and this exactly what they got, as just a week after their loss to Costa Rica, a howler from the Salvadoran goalkeeper allowed Jamaica's Andy Williams' strike to pea-roll into the bottom-corner securing the only goal of the game and the Reggae Boyz' first group win.


This 1-0 win over El Salvador most definitely kickstarted Jamaica's campaign as their next two games finished with the exact same scoreline, beating both Canada and Costa Rica by just a singular goal. What really stood out though wasn't the scorelines, but rather the fact that Burrell & Simões' experiment was beginning to pay dividends, with these goals coming from recently called-up Deon Burton, a man born in Reading, England to a Jamaican father.


Burton turned out to be a pivotal player in this Jamaican side, grabbing 2 more goals in the following 2 games which both finished as draws against the United States in Washington D.C, and against El Salvador respectively.


Just like 1 year ago to the today, Jamaica found themselves matched against Mexico on the final day of group games. However, this time the Reggae Boyz did not find themselves in such a comfortable position. Jamaican fans, players and management were riding on the hope of a US victory over El Salvador thousands of miles away in Foxborough, Massachusetts. If this result played out, Jamaica would be making their World Cup debut in France, 1998.


Over 35,000 passionate Jamaican's draped in Yellow & Green packed into Kingston's Independence Park, with almost all guaranteed to be keeping a watchful eye over the events taking place in the Bay State. The game unfolding in front of the nervous spectators in Jamaica's capital did not give them much to cheer about, with no goals after 90 minutes resulting in a 0-0 draw, Jamaica's 3rd of this Hexagonal Stage. However, their team's display on the field seemed of little significance after Brian McBride grabbed a brace within the first 20 minutes in Foxborough. The anxiety levels around the ground had completely dropped, Jamaican fans were in party mode. The 3rd US goal sent Jamaican fans into complete jubilation, as they were just 40 minutes away from reaching the promised land.


Deon Burton, Jamaica vs Mexico, 1997, Source: Daily Mail Online


Chants of France!, France!, France! rang around the stadium. 2 Salvadorian goals in quick succession did not diminish the fans hopes, and when Predrag Radosavljevic sealed the victory for the US in the 82nd minute with a cool finish into the bottom left-hand corner of the net, Simões & Burrell's 'masterplan' had most certainly paid-off, Jamaica had reached The Fifa World Cup Finals! Not in their wildest dreams did fans of this previously unavailing nation, who's stars were usually produced in cricket or athletics think that they would be gracing the biggest stage of them all.


No doubt the 'greatest day' in Jamaican sporting history, as it was referred to by Prime Minister at the time P.J Patterson, he had no choice but no declare a national holiday for the next day as the natives had entered complete party-mode, invading the pitch following the final whistle, whilst grown men rejoiced in floods of tears, even the crime rate within the country had phenomenally decreased the very next day. Sheer ecstasy... roll on France 98'.


Unfortunately, it was not going to be all sunshine and rainbows heading into the tournament, especially for a certain Jamaican striker 'Walter Boyd', who's 5 goals in the early rounds of qualifying were of undeniable importance. However, in what many deemed as a complete injustice, Boyd was left out of the 23-man squad who headed to France that summer. This ultimately led to Simões receiving numerous death threats in the build-up to the tournament opener. This along with a documentary titled 'Reggae Boyz, which was aired on Channel 4 the day before Jamaica's inaugural game highlighting the complete contrast in the side between the flashy English-born mavericks brought into the squad, in contrast with the conventional home-grown players who conducted their business in a more modest manner. Both incidents generated problems within the camp, as Simões would reveal years later, but nonetheless, things were swept under the rug and sensible heads prevailed, as a rousing rendition of the national anthem from players and management prior to their first-ever World Cup game against Croatia at the packed out Stade Felix-Bollaert in Lens, showed signs of unity and camaraderie.


Jamaica headed into this Group H clash as firm fan favourites, against fellow World Cup debutants Croatia, who were also witnessing a 'golden age' of footballing talent including the likes of Boban and famously Davor Šuker. Although the Jamaican fans who had made the long-mile trip from the Caribbean to Europe to watch this game, warmed the hearts of football viewers across the globe, it was ultimately Croatia who would steal the glory. A 27th-minute tap-in from Croatian all-rounder Mario Stanic got his side off the mark, but this was cancelled out on the stroke of half-time by Robbie Earle who etched himself into Jamaican sporting history forever, securing their first-ever goal at a Fifa World Cup finals, latching onto a pin-point cross from Ricardo Gardener to head home. A goal which was very reminiscent of Messi's vs Manchester Utd in the Champions League final 10 years later.


In the 2nd-half, eventual bronze-medalists Croatia would assert their dominance, with strikes from Robert Prosinecki and tournament Golden-boot winner Davor Šuker sealing the deal for the Europeans, and thus leaving all Jamaican's utterly disappointed.


Jamaica vs Croatia, Source: Pinterest


Things were not going to get any easier in the next game as this is the World Cup after-all, with Simões' men poised to take on an excellent Argentina team, whos frontman Gabriel Batistuta nicked them the points against Japan in their opening game. Frankly, it would be a master-class again from two Argentinean attackers, firstly Ariel Ortega whos fancy footwork and divine dribbling ability left Jamaican defenders dead in their tracks, ghosting past them on two separate occasions to give The White and Sky Blues a 2-0 advantage by the 55th-minute. Secondly, it would be that man Batistuta, one of the most feared strikers in world football at the time, who would add insult to injury as his 10-minute hat-trick from the 73rd-83rd minute, completed a 5-0 romp of the Reggae Boyz, which subsequently ended any hopes they had of reaching the next round.


Batistuta Completes Hat-Trick, Jamaica vs Argentina, Source: The Irish Sun


Complete underdogs heading into the competition, some argued whether they would even put any points on the board, so the final group game against a fellow eliminated side in Japan, gave Jamaica a great shot at redemption. Stade de Gerland in Lyon was the venue for this concluding group game, with thousands of Jamaican fans still in attendance, cheering on their beloved team, which really put the side's achievements into perspective, as the love shown from the crowd was nothing short of magical.


A classy finish from Theodore Whitmore (now-current manager of Jamaica) in the 39th minute, sent the loyal fans into a frenzy. And it was this man Whitmore, hilariously referred to as ''possibly the most unlikely looking footballer in the entire World Cup'' by BBC commentator Barry Davies, who secured a brace in the 54th minute, as Jamaica took a 2-0 lead. Masashi Nakayama did grab one back for the Japenese with 15 minutes to go, however, it was too little too late, and Jamaica had pulled off the most famous result in their history. The World Cup dream ended in such a beautiful fashion. The fans rejoiced.


Theodore Whitmore, Jamaica vs Japan, Source: Pinterest


In many years to come, the Jamaican national football team who turned their wildest dreams into a reality in 1998, will forever be dubbed as the 'golden generation' in their native land. Whether they grew up on Jamaican soil or shared parental heritage it is no doubt that these men will never have to buy a drink again on this famous Caribbean island. They completely engaged the entire population for the duration of their tournament stay, whilst also capturing the hearts of millions around the world...oh, and their kits weren't too bad either!

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