Jamaica head into next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup riding high on a wave of improved form and increased hopes. The Reggae Boyz jumped up nine places in the latest instalment of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and now go into the much-anticipated continental showpiece with perhaps their best side since the one that made history in 1998.
“We are completely focused on the Gold Cup,” said national team head coach and former midfielder Theodore Whitmore, an influential member of the only Jamaican side ever to reach a FIFA World Cup™, 13 years ago in France. “We’ve not done particularly well in recent Gold Cup tournaments [the side went out in the first round in 2009 and failed to even qualify in 2007], but we’re not too far off the successes we achieved in 1998,” added the boss, who scored both goals in Jamaica’s only FIFA World Cup tournament win against Japan in those heady days at the tale end of the 20th century.
Whitmore, nicknamed Tappa during his playing days, took over the reins of the national team in 2009, and the 38-year-old immediately went about laying down the law. Insisting on discipline, shape, focus and a collective approach, he turned a young team of inexperienced players into champions of the Caribbean in 2010. The title was a fifth overall Caribbean Cup for Jamaica and their second on the trot.
Since then the Reggae Boyz have also managed an impressive 3-2 friendly win over El Salvador, paving the way to a current world ranking position of 55, one better than CONCACAF powerhouses and three-time FIFA World Cup participants Costa Rica and a jump of 42 places since 2007. “We’ve been working together as a team for the last three years or so,” said Dane Richards of Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls after being crowned top scorer at the Caribbean Cup in Martinique.
This team is rebuilding, getting stronger all the time and I think we can do big things.
“We have a core of experienced players who are leading the way and a crop of younger guys who are learning their way,” added the speedy winger, one of the fresh stars of a new-look Jamaica and part of a core of nine USA-based players called into the team for this summer’s CONCACAF showpiece in the States. “We are used to each others’ style of play.”
Although Jamaica’s best performances in the Gold Cup were a pair of semi-final appearances in 1993 and 1998, the team head into next month's tournament with unusually high hopes. “I think we can go all the way,” said Richards. “This team is rebuilding, getting stronger all the time and I think we can do big things.”
Coach Whitmore has an impressive band of players to work with in the States, where Jamaica are drawn alongside Honduras, Guatemala and Grenada in a manageable Group B. LA Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Rickets, recalled veterans Tyrone Marshall and Ian 'Pepe' Goodison (38) and Luton Shelton will all play their parts. Whitmore, who took his team on a training camp in Brazil to finalise preparations, has also stamped his authority by not selecting England-based stars Ricardo Fuller and Ricardo Gardner.
According to San Jose Earthquakes striker Ryan Johnson, it might not matter. “I think the players we have now are just as good as the ones from ’98,” he said, “And I think we can win every game we play.”