Boyz should know they have nation's supportSaturday, September 04, 2021
It was always going to be tough for Jamaica's Reggae Boyz at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City as the octagonal stage of Concacaf World Cup qualifying opened on Thursday night.
Jamaican football experts hoped for at least a draw but knew the powerful hosts have rarely ever fallen short at the Azteca.
As it turned out, the Jamaicans came very close to a draw and a prized point. Eventually, fatigued legs, gone rubbery in high altitude Mexico City's notoriously thin air, let them down. The highly talented, increasingly desperate home team got the goal in the 89th minute of normal time for a 2-1 victory.
Coach Mr Theodore Whitmore and his men have a right to be proud despite defeat. Most would have been playing in Mexico City — 2,250 metres (7,381 feet) above sea level — for the first time, yet they held up well and stuck to their plans until those final fateful minutes.
To appreciate how difficult it is to match Mexico in the Azteca, it's useful to look back to Jamaica's triumphant final round of Concacaf qualifiers in 1997. That was ahead of this country's only participation at a senior men's World Cup Finals tournament — France 1998.
In the equivalent fixture on April 13, 1997, Jamaica, coached by Brazilian Mr Rene Simoes lost 0-6 to Mexico in the Azteca — a game that began at midday.
The Reggae Boyz would bounce back to win three of their five home games in the '97 qualifiers, while drawing the other two. Crucially, apart from Mexico, their only loss away from home was to Costa Rica in San Jose. They drew away from home with the USA, El Salvador, and Canada.
Back in '97, Mr Simoes and his squad had developed a reputation for invincibility at the National Stadium. 'The Office' was how it was eventually nicknamed after numerous home games without defeat. For the most part, the squad back then was home-based and gelled.
A difference now is that members of the current squad are mostly overseas-based professionals, some born and grown in Britain. Many have never played at the National Stadium, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic which has warped competitive sport here and elsewhere over the last 18 months. Team gelling – made harder by travel and related complications linked to the pandemic — has been extremely difficult.
However, the high level of professionalism and football awareness among this group of players represent big positives in the push to qualify for the Fifa World Cup in Qatar next year.
The away game against Mexico now behind us, Jamaicans will get a chance to gauge their team's chances for eventual World Cup qualification tomorrow, when Panama are hosted in the National Stadium — empty because of COVID-19 — and again on Wednesday, when the team travels to Costa Rica.
Quarantine restrictions in Britain linked to COVID-19 mean some British-based professionals will only be able to face Panama because of club commitments. Mr Whitmore must 'juggle' team selection as best he can.
Yet, despite the challenges ahead, this newspaper is confident that this squad can overcome the odds. Jamaicans will not be physically in the National Stadium tomorrow as the Reggae Boyz take on Panama, but our players should rest assured we will be there in spirit.
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