If you visit Georgetown, capital of Guyana, chances are you will witness a friendly argument about which sport is number one in the country. Some will say cricket is top, others will insist that it's football, but the one constant you will find is the Guyanese people's passion for sport.
A FIFA Com-Unity team travelled to Georgetown earlier this month to fire up discussions and attempt to get to the root of this particular puzzle. The truth, as they found, is that both sports can operate harmoniously together and, as if to prove it, one of the national team players, goalkeeper Jason Lloyd, is the son of the famous world-class Guyanese cricketer Sir Clive Lloyd. This move from one generation of cricketers to another of footballers would fit with the football enthusiasts' view that the former sport has peaked and reached its full potential.
Although Georgetown this year acted as a host venue for the 2007 Cricket World Cup and football in Guyana is nowhere near that kind of achievement, and the building blocks are in place and success will come through hard work and wise planning. The signs are there already and, over the past two years, Guyana's national team have borne this out by shooting up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking from 185th position in February of 2004 up to 90th in August of this year.
The FIFA Com-Unity seminar presented a tremendous opportunity to bring together all parties concerned about football, sport and the community. At the opening ceremony, guests listened to the government's perspective from the man dealing with both cricket and football, Guayana's sports minister, Dr Frank Anthony. The minister told the gathering: "Football in Guyana has yet to reach its full potential and therefore we have to put in place a strategy, a vision, a mission to know what needs to be done in football. A five year plan has been requested from all the sporting federations, including football, to take sport forward." Dr Anthony added that "coaching programmes should be implemented and football reintroduced back into the schools curriculum". Amazingly, sport has not been practiced in Guayanese schools since the 1980s.
For his part, the Guyana Football Federation president, Colin Klass, stated that: "We must seek to identify what is needed and how to create unity. From this Com-Unity seminar, the tools you have given us will unite us and we will reap the benefits from this new found unity. This is something that we have strived for many years and through Com-Unity we can now achieve it. If each of us take one thing and apply it, Guyanese football will enter a new arena."
'A more professional approach'
National coach Jamaal Shabbazz also spoke at the three-day seminar, recalling the lessons of his past 24 months in the job and setting out the direction in which he is taking the team. He said: "When I arrived from Trinidad and Tobago I searched around and called some ex-players back to the national squad. We also looked for foreign based players to incorporate into the national team process. In general, we took a more professional approach and assembled a team of experts, never ever seen before here in Guyana. Attitudes changed and although funds were tight the players were fitted with team uniforms, training camps were organised and proper equipment utilised".
A series of eight international friendlies were also arranged and earlier this year some interesting results on the pitch showed the impact made by these measures when Guyana twice beat a Guadeloupe team that had just shocked the football world by reaching this year's CONCACAF Gold Cup semi-finals. During Shabbaz's short reign, the number of Guyanese players plying their trade abroad has rocketed from five to 20. The coach explained this phenomenon: "When you look at the region the Guyanese players are quicker than their opponents and their keenness is also evident as they will often start training sessions at five in the morning."
Guyana's big opportunity will come next year in the FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers. They were given a bye in the upcoming first round, in 2008, and a couple of good results will now see them through to the 12-team group stage. The fact is this is one of the greatest opportunities in the history of Guyanese football, and perhaps even a chance to settle that long-running dispute about which sport really is number one.