Guyana. The name rises from the indigenous mists, meaning Land of Many Waters in a long-extinct Amazonian tongue. Inky rivers cut the dense rainforest like veins, criss-crossing tangles of jungle. Football, in this tiny country tucked away in the northeast corner of South America, is the lifeblood.

“Everybody plays in the streets here,” Vurlon Mills, a rising star in the national team, told "When there’s no work, a ball hits the ground and it’s game on. Boom, just like that.”

The country borders Brazil on its southern edge. Most people live clustered on a narrow strip of Atlantic coast in the north. Once a Dutch holding and later a British agricultural outpost, football came to Guyana on the waves. The Golden Jaguars, as the national team is known, pulled on their yellow shirts for the first time in 1905. Now, more than a century later, they’re rising again. A six-spot jump to 156th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is evidence of steps in the right direction.

“We’re at a crossroads!” Mills added, addressing the country’s curious position at a cultural and geographic nexus. Located in South America, Guyana plays its football in the Caribbean. It’s the only English-speaking country on the South American continent and it’s a member of both the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Union of South American Nations. “We’re not one thing or another,” he added, his creole patois hinting of the Caribbean islands that dot the waters past Guyana’s coastline.

Travel in and out of the capital of Georgetown is complicated at best. “We play our neighbours Suriname all the time, but getting farther than that is tough,” Mills said, good humoured about the complications of life as a footballer on the fringes. “Travelling anywhere down here is almost as hard as a training session. Three and four connecting flights. You need a day to recover!”

Guyana’s international trajectory mimic the rivers that carve the countryside, flowing north and then south – stagnating for long stretches. They went 16 years without playing a game after losing their first. But things took a turn early in the current century. Guyana only just missed out on qualifying for the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and, in November 2010, they reached an all-time high ranking of 86 globally. In 2012 they pulled off their biggest achievement to date when they knocked Trinidad and Tobago out of the running for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and reached the second group stage in CONCACAF qualifying.

In those heady days the Jaguars boarded planes, changed flights several times, and arrived bleary-eyed in Mexico City to hear their national anthem played through the loudspeakers at the Estadio Azteca, venue of two World Cup Finals. It was a long way from Providence Stadium, the cricket ground in Georgetown where they play their home games.   

“Those were incredible times,” said Mills, a creative central midfielder short of stature but loaded with tricky footwork born on the bumps of Guyana’s rough streets. “Teams like Costa Rica, like Mexico, are the next level. I loved it. You've got nothing to lose and everything to prove,” said the player, who was substituted off in a 7-0 hammering in Costa Rica. “When the crowds are huge and hostile. You learn something about yourself.”

A lesson it was for Guyana, who earned only one point in the group, from a draw with El Salvador. They scored five times in the course of six games and conceded 24, even though their line-up include former England-based star Carl Cort, local favourite Ricky Shakes and current captain Chris Nurse of the Puerto Rico FC in USA’s second tier.

New league, new number
A win last month against neighbours Suriname sees Guyana, coached by former Trinidad and Tobago boss Jamaal Shabazz, on the move again. Out of the running for Russia 2018 after losing to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Mills still sees reason for optimism.

“This new league of ours has changed things,” he said, of the eight-team GFF Elite League established last year. It’s the closest thing to professional in the country. Slingerz – the side that Mills captains – are out in front and favourites to take the inaugural title. “Things were disorganised before, but this new league gives the local guys like me a chance to play at a high level, and to be seen. The national team player pool will keep growing now.”

With the unmistakable guile of street football and a new dawn of professionalism and structure, Mills is convinced the Golden Jaguars are on the cusp of a balance, so difficult to reach. “A lot of the guys weren’t exposed to the basics early,” he added, an Atlantic wind crackling the phone line. “But that’s changing. The tactics and the smarts are starting to bleed through.”