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'God gave me a sign!'

Rene Simoes reflects on early trials of shaping the Reggae Boyz for France '98

Deputy Sport Editor

Sunday, May 14, 2017

WHEN Rene Simoes proclaimed that he intended to achieve what was thought to be the impossible then, he had his share of doubters.

Many Jamaicans believed that the little Brazilian man with the bushy moustache and a penchant to quote from great philosophers had lost his mind because he dared to dream. He dared to believe.

Simoes' mission when he arrived in Jamaica for the first time in 1994 at the insistence of Jamaica's football boss, Captain Horace Burrell, was this: To take the tiny Caribbean nation to the FIFA World Cup. Few at the time thought it possible. Fewer gave him a chance at succeeding.

But the Brazilian claimed he was acting on the order of high authority — God almighty. With inspiration like that, anything is possible.

It didn't take long for Simoes to ignite a flame of nationalistic spirit around his cause — convincing those inside football, the government, corporate Jamaica, and the wider society that his ragtag football team had a place in France 1998.

His is a story of what dreams and legends are made of, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Jamaica's historic qualification to football's showpiece is a story told many times and is a tale that inspires to this day, but nobody enjoys telling it more than the chief architect himself, Rene Simoes.

On a recent visit to Jamaica, which he claims as his second home, he took the Sunday Observer on a trip back in time as he reflected on the rough and tumble start to what was to become an amazing journey.

“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, and I still have so many friends,” Simoes chirped.

“I was immediately drawn to the warmth and kindness of the people… and that is what I miss the most when I am not in Jamaica,” he said with a smile.

Having mingled and fallen in love with the people, Simoes tapped into the pulse of a country desperate for something out of this world to inspire them.

They needed something to lift them up above crippling crime and violence, and the general disillusionment with the lack of opportunities and wreaking poverty.

Simoes, like the biblical Moses, was ready to lead his people across the Red Sea.

When he announced in an air of pomposity at a Kingston and St Andrew Football Association (KSAFA) shortly after arriving in island that he will take Jamaica to the World Cup in France, his words triggered more than just the curious gaze. Some in attendance were stunned by them.

“When I came in yesterday (Wednesday), some people remembered the speech I made at the KSAFA presentation, where at the end of it I said we will be there in France 1998.

“So to be there was something prophetic as God gave me a sign, because as a human being, you couldn't say something like that because the conditions we had here were not good,” Simoes recollected.

When the much-travelled Brazilian realised how poorly organised the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) was, he knew that had to change, and fast.

“I took the federation from the gymnasium close to the National Stadium where they operated from and I told everyone that I will not stay here, and I never spent an hour in the room there.

“I remember the general secretary was signing papers in his car, and I said 'no, that's not the way... that's not professionalism and that's not what a company or a sponsor is looking for,” Simoes said.

The Brazilian messiah knew things had to change, so having established an office, he and JFF president Burrell approached the government for funds to take a group of players to Brazil for training.

No surprise, the door was slammed shut in their faces.

“We went to the government for money to go to Brazil and they said, 'no man, you are making a mistake and what if you don't qualify for 1998. our credibility will be down and we would never get re-elected.'”

“Then I knew I had to make a decision; I knew I had to take a risk because success is in risk. So I said we need to get the players sponsored and in 30 days we had all players sponsored in the Adopt-A-Player programme,” Simoes beamed, delighted by the memory.

After the Adopt-A-Player programme kicked in, the general attitude of the government and the private sector started to soften, clearly believing that the possibilities are not as far-fetched as previously thought.

Simoes' marketing skills and his non-stop hammering for the sake of what by this has come to be known as the 'Road To France' campaign had started to bear fruit for his Reggae Boyz.

“When I met with Captain Burrell in Brazil, I said we have to make these players international, we need proper nutrition. And we went for Grace Foods and we got a bus for transportation, and we got an airline, and none of these things were there before.

“When you talk to businessmen, don't go there and ask him what can you give to me, don't beg. When I went to sponsors I asked them, 'do you want to go to France 1998?'”

“You have to tell business people what they want to hear, we don't want to be beggars.they want to see professionalism; what we do is a business and not a charity,” said Simoes, who runs a chain of upscale restaurants called O Camarao Arte Bia in his native Brazil.

The charismatic Brazilian shared that at first few hotels outside of Jamaica would admit his roughneck footballers, and he went about changing that.

“We went to the Cayman Islands and we couldn't find a hotel to stay there — no one wanted to accept the Jamaicans. So I took the phone and I talked to the guy at the hotel and I told him I am a Brazilian coach and that I would guarantee him that when we left his hotel he would thank me a lot, and the guy took the risk.

“So I called the players and I told them the situation is this and the line is that, and when we left the hotel the general manager gave us a report because we behaved good,” he shared.

Simoes, who also coached Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica, said with the changing image and perception of his team, many barriers began to come down as they toured the world playing matches and participating in tournaments all geared to the lofty desires of France.

“One day we were at the Le Meridien Piccadilly in London — and they don't receive sports teams there — and I called and said we have at least 20 hotels we have stayed and we could fax reports from them, and we ended up staying there, a six-star hotel at the time.

“But what happened here was a change of behaviour and wherever we went we had no problem at all… there was no money, but there was a good mentality in the programme and the money came as a consequence.

“If you have a team that no hotel wants, then no one will put money in this team, but if you have a team that the Le Meridien in Piccadilly will accept, then that is something else,” he noted.

Simoes, who became famous for his t-shirts that bore the immemorial message “Jesus Saves”, said a team is as good as its image off the field and he undertook the job with the help of the JFF team to build an attractive brand.

“The programme was not only a programme for football fields, the programme is perception, one that is accountable, one with credibility,” he noted.

The players, who at the time were all local-based amateurs, over time bought into the transformation process and played their part in improving self and their views on the wider world.

“I used to encourage the players to learn something new every day, so at the end of the year you would have learnt 365 new things and this is how you upgrade,” said the 64-year-old.

On the 'Road To France' journey, which was dotted with obstacles of varying degrees on its course, Simoes said at no time he thought about quitting, even when public opinion went against the programme for one reason or another.

“I was born in a place in Brazil that is very poor, and I must say that my family was the first planned family in Brazil. My father met my mother and he said to her, 'I want 12 kids', and he did get his wish.

“But from I was young I said I wanted to be extraordinary, and if you want to be extraordinary, you have to do extraordinary things… I was able to pay the price and leave where I was born and ended up working in seven different countries, travelled to 85, and I have been to about 500 different cities. And why was I able to do that? Because I paid the price as a kid.

“I never give up and Bob Marley taught us that. I remember when they shot up his house and he got shot and he came for the show the next day, and when asked why he came after everything, he said the bad boys are not taking a holiday, so why the good guys should take a holiday. So why would I want to give up? It never passed in my mind to give up,” Simoes stressed.

Simoes, who returned as head coach in 2008 for the failed South Africa 2010 campaign, no longer coaches on the field. Instead he works as a mentor of coaches with the Brazilian Sports Coaching Society headed by Villela da Matta.