The smile has returned to Jamaican football.

Ryan Thompson, wide grin gleaming like a beacon, best embodied a joy and spirit that helped the Reggae Boyz best USA and reach their first CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The goalkeeper was crucial in a string of results that has many drawing comparisons between the team and that greatest of Jamaican sides who reached the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™.

“It’s incredible to think we’re being compared to them,” Thompson, hero of the semi-final win over the United States, told FIFA.com. “What that team did back then was magic, and maybe we can match it now, or even go a little farther,” he added, on the verge of Jamaica’s entry into Russia 2018 qualifying.

Thompson, 30, recalls huddling around a blinking television set with friends and family when he was just a boy in Kingston. He consumed the exploits of those Jamaican 98ers with bulging pride. “I remember it all,” he said, a smile forming on his lips, the same smile he wore – whether making mistakes or rescuing his mates – at the Gold Cup. “Everyone in Jamaica remembers.”

When the keeper was called off the bench this summer for injured starter Dwayne Miller, a voice from the past urged him gently on. It was not a metaphorical voice. It was that of goalkeeper coach Warren Boopie Barrett, who captained the Jamaicans at France 1998. The old skipper is one of only a handful from the island who know the sensation of playing on the world’s biggest stage, and his counsel was treasured. “He kept us calm in the tense moments,” Thompson said of the former hero’s contributions. “He did it all and he’s still here. He let us know: life goes on, win or lose.” 

Long shadow
That famous 1998 side won over fans on French soil at the world finals, beating Japan before heading out in the group stages. They also set a high bar for future Jamaican teams. That bar cast a long shadow. Now, 17 years later, fair comparisons are being drawn between the team of today and those aging legends. 

The six-time Caribbean champions made history this summer. But they got a handful of hard lessons at the outset. Invited to take part in the Copa America, South America’s cup of nations, Jamaica lost all three of their group games. But the slim 0-1 scorelines hinted at a competitive fire that was not easily extinguished.

With a devastating counter-attack, they were sharper and more organised than previous incarnations. They also boast a raft of players with experience in England’s top flight, like dribbling sensation Joel Jobi McAnuff and muscular Leicester City man Wes Morgan. Giles Barnes, the former England youth international reviving his career in Major League Soccer, is a motivated striver who seems to embody the belief rife in the Jamaican camp. 

Strong start
Jamaica drew with Costa Rica, darlings of the last World Cup in Brazil, in their Gold Cup group before two victories saw them to the knockout stages. A win over Haiti in the quarter-finals sent them to their first regional semi-final and the party was on back home in Kingston.

They were expected to suffer against USA – hosts, holders and favourites to take the title. But the islanders took firm control of the game. They scored twice in the first-half, one a sensational free-kick from Barnes, to hand the Americans their second-ever loss at home to a Caribbean opponent.

The celebrations on the pitch in Atlanta were as inspiring as the team’s play. “I’ve never seen a team with such spirit,” said coach Winfried Schafer, a German with decades of top playing and coaching experience.

“Such a special moment," said goalkeeper Thompson, who plays his club football in USA’s third professional tier, before rushing off to embrace coach and mentor Barrett who beamed with pride from the bench.

Silver is gold
Jamaica were overturned in the final, losing to regional giants Mexico. But the Reggae Boyz have made a mark and now threaten to throw the CONCACAF race to Russia 2018 wide open. “This is gold for us, not silver,” said coach Schafer, looking forward to the qualifying opener against Nicaragua next month. 

Jamaica became the best movers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking thanks to their summer to savour. They moved up 21 places to 55th globally, two behind Nigeria and two ahead of Asian giants Japan, and are currently fourth in the CONCACAF zone behind powers Mexico, USA and Costa Rica.

“We’re not afraid of anyone," Barnes said proudly. "We’ve shown what Jamaica is all about and we’ve got a lot to look forward to." Barnes' message is a warning that should ring in the ears of CONCACAF’s big boys as the Reggae Boyz take aim at the world’s biggest stage once more.