Theodore Whitmore is a quiet man. He glosses over his glories humbly, but the Jamaican icon carries himself with the cool confidence of one who’s done and seen much. It’s safe to say the head coach of Jamaica’s national futsal team will be the only man at the upcoming Caribbean Futsal Championship who knows what it’s like to stride the tallest peaks of the football world.
“You can bring something to a game, any game, with what you’ve seen at a high level,” the 43-year-old former midfielder told FIFA.com on the eve of the tournament in Havana, where Jamaica take on the hosts, Guadeloupe and St Maarten. “I like to get out there on the training pitch and mix it up. When the boys see you still got it, that it’s more than just talk, you get respect.”
Whitmore commands great respect in Jamaican football circles. His name carries weight and he’s recognised all over the island. A skilful passer in his playing days, he amassed over 100 caps for the Reggae Boyz, a side he went on to coach for four years. He played in England with Hull City, but his legend was cemented in earnest in 1998. He went toe-to-toe with legends like Davor Suker and Gabriel Batistuta, Ariel Ortega and Hidetoshi Nakata in Jamaica’s only-ever trip to a FIFA World Cup™. When he faced Japan in Lyon, Whitmore’s name went up in lights at the Stade Gerland. He scored both in a 2-1 victory - Jamaica’s only win at a World Cup.
Considering such highs, you might think an indoor hall named after Cuban boxing hero Kid Chocolate, used mainly for volleyball and table tennis, something of a come-down. You’d be wrong. “I fell in love with futsal,” Whitmore corrects such a notion, a sudden spark in his low voice. “The first time I saw the game I was hooked on it. The best players in the world, a lot of the ones you see at the World Cup, they come from a background in futsal.”
An indoor variant of football, futsal is played on a hard surface with a small weighted ball and teams of five. It focuses on technique and quickness. And it’s right up Whitmore’s alley. A big man, over six feet and thick of frame, he played with an uncommon grace. His nickname,Tappa, used by all who know him, grew from his silky touch in pick-up games in his native Montego Bay. “The old guys in the street would watch me and they’d shout ‘look at the boy there tappin’ the ball around,’ he said with a low laugh. “So Tappa it was, and it stuck.
“In futsal you have to use the small spaces,” said Whitmore before departing for Havana, where Jamaica will play in their first-ever regional qualifier for a FIFA Futsal World Cup. The top-two finishers move on to the CONCACAF qualifiers in Costa Rica for a chance to reach the Futsal World Cup in Colombia. “In Jamaica we rely on physical strength and speed and long balls too much. But that stuff goes out the window in futsal.”
Fertile ground for futsal
It’s early days for the indoor game in Jamaica, but in a country that consistently produces players of high technical ability, it might be a match made in heaven. Whitmore foresees organised futsal leagues, players devoted, specifically, to the five-a-side discipline. But that’s all in the future. For now: he’s taking 16 footballers, all from the local leagues, to Havana and hoping for the best.
“Futsal is just a baby in Jamaica right now,” said the coach, who selected a handful of players, like Fabien Taylor and Kemeel Wolfe, with senior caps to their name. “We’ll see if we can get the pace of the game. Then we’ll know if we’re going in the right direction.”
What they lack in futsal experience, the Jamaicans make up for in enthusiasm and raw talent. “It’s a whole new ball game and I want it to grow,” said Whitmore. And when asked if he, at 43, might step off the bench and onto the court at Kid Chocolate Hall, the old legend is evasive. “No. No,” I’m just down there to coach,” he added playfully when asked why his name is on the official squad list as an eligible player. “Pretty much, I’m just going along to coach,” he concluded. “I think.”