DEEP BAY, Antigua — Jamaica kickstart their CFU Caribbean Championship against French Guiana this evening with one thing in mind: the defence of their title.
In fact, the hunt is made more mouthwatering as they take aim at three back-to-back titles.
Game time is at 7:00 pm (6:00 pm Jamaica time) at the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium, a ground named after the outstanding Antiguan batsman.
Head coach Theodore 'Tappa' Whitmore, a former seasoned campaigner at the regional level, said he expects every game in the tournament to be testy with the Reggae Boyz being the current kings of Caribbean football.
"We are on a mission (as) we are defending champions... we came here to play five games and it does not matter if we play Trinidad, Antigua or French Guiana... it doesn't really matter as any team Jamaica play in the Caribbean, it's always going to be tough, therefore, we are prepared to play five tough games," he said after yesterday's training session at the match venue.
Whitmore noted that the approach is to take each game at a time, rather than to take a collective approach and anticipate results before a ball is kicked.
"We want to take it game-by-game, but we have a situation, as some of the players were out of competition for quite awhile, so we just want to get them back into that football mood. (Ricardo) Bibi (Gardner) is one of the players who just came back and who wasn't playing a lot of football," said the France 1998 hero, who immortalised himself at the world game with two classic goals in a 2-1 victory over fellow debutantes Japan.
Gardner, who was Whitmore's teammate on the historic World Cup team, will not earn a start today on his return to the Boyz' fold after a three-year absence, but there appears a future for the former Bolton Wanderers star.
"But he's (Gardner) here and he's improving with every training session and we just have to take it from there," said Whitmore.
Yesterday's training session was short but businesslike as the players were tutored during a two-team scrimmage and a match using half of the field. "I am very impressed under the conditions... we just have to remain focused and positive about the task at hand," added the former Tranmere Rovers standout.
Following the session, Whitmore has decided on Dwayne Miller for goal, to be guarded by skipper Shavar Thomas, Montrose Phinn, Demar Phillips, Xavian Virgo, while Andrae Campbell, Jason Morrison, Keammar Daley and Jermaine Hue to marshall midfield, while Ryan Johnson and Tremaine Stewart to take on the main goal-scoring duties.
Based on the way the rotation took shape in the session, there could also be significant roles later for the returning Gardner, Darren Mattocks and Rohan Reid.
Meanwhile, skipper Thomas said this year's championship has taken on added significance because of Jamaica's participation in the final round of the CONCACAF Brazil 2014 World Cup qualification tournament.
"It's very important for me personally and for this group going forward as we would like to showcase to the coaching staff what we can do, especially with the upcoming World Cup qualifiers starting in February... so for the most part the focus is to win the championship.
"We are all here and we are all professionals when you look around the group even the ones that are playing in Jamaica, as they know what it's about and what it takes. We just want to now start the campaign on a winning note," said the Montreal Impact defender.
Not much is known about French Guiana, a department of France like Martinique and not ranked by FIFA, but Thomas believes that the fact that they are influenced by the French should make them a worthy opposition.
Jamaica, ranked 50 by FIFA, will also do battle with another French-speaking opponent in Martinique and Cuba in Group B of the competition which kicked off last night with Group A action. In last night's match-ups, Trinidad and Haiti were down to do battle, while hosts Antigua and Barbuda were scheduled for a meeting with the Dominican Republic.
The four semi-finalists of the December 7-16 play-offs will book automatic spots to next summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup.