Let's strengthen the base of Jamaica's football

Saturday, January 18, 2014

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NEWS that three Jamaicans were top 10 picks in the first round of the 2014 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft brought smiles.

Goalkeeper Mr Andre Blake, from the University of Connecticut, formerly of Clarendon College and Jamaica national age-group teams, was the first pick. He goes to the Philadelphia Union.

Mr Andre Lewis, a midfielder, was the seventh pick, going to the Vancouver Whitecaps, while Mr Damion Lowe, a defender — son of former Reggae Boyz star Mr Onandi Lowe — is the eighth pick, going to the Seattle Sounders.

This continues a steady flow of Jamaican recruits to the MLS, which is rapidly gaining respect and recognition globally. Indeed, from virtually a standing start just a few decades ago, football in the United States and Canada is growing quickly in terms of mass popularity and the corollary media and financial support.

It's a trend that Jamaica's top local clubs are well aware of, having for many years profitably traded top players to their North American counterparts without fuss or fanfare.

This newspaper suspects that increasingly in the future, entrepreneurs in Jamaican football will be looking more to the 'next-door' North American market to place young, talented professionals than the glorified clubs in faraway Britain and the wider Europe.

The nurturing of Jamaican footballers is far from ideal.

Unlike the developed football world where clubs are truly professional organisations with developed youth academies, Jamaica has had to rely mainly on its high schools to guide young footballers. The same is true of other sports.

It is what exists and will have to do for the foreseeable future.

A big problem from our vantage point is that too many of those talented young players are falling by the wayside after leaving school. A few such as Messrs Blake, Lewis and Lowe meet the requisite academic standards and get scholarships to universities, a few are identified by talent scouts and join overseas clubs and some get on to the rosters of the top semi-pro Jamaican clubs.

Many others end up playing for under-resourced, disorganised, little-known community clubs in obscure leagues. Too many of those players, faced by the harsh realities of everyday life, simply give up.

We are aware that the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) has talked about restructuring and 'professionalising' the club structures. Presumably that will reduce the waste of talent now taking place. But the JFF needs to get beyond words.

The JFF should also encourage young footballers by providing as much exposure as possible regionally and internationally. Calendar international age-group tournaments for Under-17s, Under-20s and Under-23s help.

But also, the JFF needs to proactively find exposure for its young home-based players in friendlies against Caribbean Football Union member countries, for example. We need much, much more of those initiatives which brought young Jamaican and Trinidadian national teams up against each other last year. Let's also get regular competition against Barbados, Guyana, St Lucia, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Haiti, et al. It's expensive. But where there's a will, there's a way.

Don't get us wrong. It's good and no doubt profitable to be taking on powerhouse France as they prepare for the FIFA World Cup using Jamaica's 'best players' — whoever those are. However, priority attention must be paid to strengthening and broadening the base of Jamaica's football.

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