The rise and stall of Jamaican football
Members of the 1998 Reggae Boyz team.

As Jamaicans, we should be enthusiastic about the entirety of our cultural exhibitions. Unfortunately, many dismiss Jamaican football as unimportant, even though it is now our most popular sport. However, we need to remember the country's glory days participating in France's 1998 World Cup Finals. Then, we all cloaked ourselves in the fabric of Jamaican pride in celebration of the accomplishments of those great athletes from our tiny island.

Since the days of our 1998 excursion at the pinnacle of world football it seems the country has never been able to recover the magic formula. It has been 24 years since Jamaica paraded its footballing skill to a global audience.

I accept that qualification to play in the World Cup Final is not an easy feat to repeat for little Jamaica, but who would have expected an over-two-decade drought.

As I write, Jamaica is involved in Qatar's upcoming 2022 World Cup qualification rounds. But, unfortunately, the team is doing poorly and may not qualify for this year's extravaganza. Therefore, I have decided to “fold them and walk away”, as per Kenny Rogers, with five games still to play.

The loss to Mexico has assured me that this current Jamaican team cannot satisfy its fans' lust for success. Of course, I will watch all the remaining matches with great expectations of the team doing well and showing improvement as I am, indeed, a loyalist. But I know that we won't be at the big party in Qatar.

Instead, I have started looking ahead. Our football administrators must meet and establish strategies to make it to the next finals. The next World Cup, 2026, will be in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. The Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) must present Jamaica and its Diaspora with a master game plan to 'shell' down North America with our football and culture.

But what is the international football pedigree of a small country like Jamaica? And, why such high expectations? The answers lie in the history of football in Jamaica.

International football is a function of regional clubs whose players make up the national teams. The oldest football clubs were said to have been formed in the United Kingdom in the 1860s and included Sheffield FC (1857), Stoke City (1863), and others. The first football club in the Americas was the Lima Cricket and Football Club of Peru founded in 1859.

Jamaica was in the mix with its first football club, formed by the Kingston Cricket Club, established in 1893. It's a pity this football club is no longer around. It would have joined the many still existing football aggregations with over a century of existence under their belts. However, the Jamaicans were only 25 years behind the English pioneers of the game. One would assume that we would have already accrued the requisite technical skills to be a football powerhouse by now.

Alas, this is not to be.

Football enthusiasts have realised that making a successful international football team takes much more than an early presence in the game. Success in football relies on other factors, like talent, size of the player pool, international exposure, technical knowledge, coaches and coaching quality, and, most of all, money. So, of course, as a small country with limited resources it was always going to be an uphill climb.

However, Jamaica is such a phenomenal little piece of planet Earth that one discounts them at one's own risk. Remember, the world considers us to be “little but tallawah”.

Jamaica's football adventure took a further tentative step with the formation of the Jamaica Football Association (JFA) in 1910. However, the country's venture into international football didn't take place until 1925. The first game was a friendly tournament against our Haitian neighbours with whom Jamaica later played several games. The JFA became a member of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) in 1962 and subsequently changed its name in 1965 to the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF).

Football clubs gradually became more established in Jamaica with outfits like Kingston, Melbourne, Kensington, Lucas, St George's Old Boys, and others. In addition, Jamaica began playing games against regional teams like Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and Suriname. At the time, Jamaica played home games at its premier cricket ground, Sabina Park.

In the period leading up to Independence in 1962, numerous football clubs burgeoned in the island. Clubs like Railway, Santos, Boys' Town, Cavaliers, and the illustrious House of Dread, to name a few. These clubs played a considerable role in developing our future national talent. Moreover, the clubs and high schools eventually made up the Jamaican national team's traditional farming systems.

Football, during this time, had to compete for support against everyone's favourite game — cricket. Most football teams and games were Kingston-based, and it took some time for the game to take hold in the rural parishes. Thus, Jamaica patiently readied itself to take on the world.

Jamaican football received its big break when the country hired the respectable Brazilian Jorge Penna as coach in 1965. So, for the first time, the national team prepared to enter a World Cup qualifying competition in 1966. Penna's team successfully advanced to the final round before being blown away by the more experienced competitors.

Since then, until the late 1990s, Jamaica has had a chequered run in World Cup competitions. In the second World Cup of 1970, Penna's successor, George Hamilton's team, lost all matches in the qualifying round. In 1974 the entire team was suspended for indiscipline. In 1978 Cuba eliminated the Jamaican team in the first round. In addition to this downward spiral, the Jamaican team did not compete for a World Cup spot in 1982 because of a lack of funds.

And things got worse for the Jamaicans. Fifa suspended the JFF for outstanding affiliation fees, rendering the country ineligible to participate in the 1986 World Cup qualifiers. The Jamaicans then made a valiant attempt to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, but were unsuccessful. It was the same result in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

However, everyone acknowledged that the Jamaican team had improved immensely and had unearthed many talented players along the way. The names of the great footballers of this era are so many. I will only mention a few, like Lindy Delapenha (the first black immigrant player in England), Gill Heron (the first black player in Scotland), Allan “Skill” Cole (the first Jamaican to play in Brazil), and Herbert “Deigo” Gordon, the so-called Black Pearl. A spark was fast becoming a fire as Jamaica positioned itself to make an impression on world football.

But something was missing. The lit fire needed fanning.

With the appointment of Captain Horace Burrell as the JFF boss, everything changed. Burrell, equipped with the rigidity of army culture, replete with skills in logistics, management, and administration, saw the bigger picture. He intended to conquer the football heights with bravado and personality.

Burrell knew that Jamaicans had a wholehearted love affair with Brazilian football, so he travelled to Brazil to get a coach. Accompanying him was David “Boggo” Haughton of the Pelicans Football Club.

I will share a lovely story about their trip to the unknown. The delegation emerged from the airport in Brazil to be picked up by a driver sent by the Brazilian Football Association. You know these guys who hold up a sign with your name at the airport. Unfortunately, they were tired, wanted to relax, and found the driver a bit too talkative and opinionated.

After agreeing with the Brazilians for a top-class coach, Messrs Burrell and Haughton were picked up by the same driver and taken to the airport. They were shocked to see the talkative 'driver man' strapped in the seat beside them on the airplane. The disappointment was real on their faces. They thought that Jamaica was about to get a good coach. But, instead, the Brazilians had saddled them with a mere driver. As expected, the driver never stopped talking for the entire flight home. Messrs Burrell and Haughton were worried. Had they got a "six for a nine"?

Unknown to the two gentlemen, the talkative driver man was the distinguished Brazilian Professor René Rodrigues Simões.

After Simões Jamaica's football has taken an embarrassing nose-dive. This deterioration has been a result of limited funding, poor management, a conveyor belt of coaches, poor coaching, and a lack of local talent development. As a result, as previously mentioned, after 24 years the team has not qualified for another World Cup and has failed even to win the prestigious Concacaf Gold Cup. However, I give them credit for reaching the finals of the Gold Cup on two occasions.

Captain Burrell relinquished the JFF presidency in 2003 to Creston Boxhill, who ably managed to bring Jamaica football to a new low. Trying to operate in the shadow of Captain Burrell was a nightmare for Boxhill. Since then, the consensus of the Jamaican footballing public has been that the JFF is straight-out incompetent. However, in all fairness to the JFF, financial constraints seem to hamper the effectiveness of their operations. One wonders if the current JFF President Michael Ricketts will be able to deliver another World Cup finals to football-hungry Jamaicans. 

Rohan M Budhai is a tax consultant, writer, and history enthusiast. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or mariobudhai@yahoo.com

Horace Burrell
Rene Simoes
Rohan M Budhai
Rohan M Budhai

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