‘Cause all I ever had: Redemption songs’ is a lyric that fans of reggae legend Bob Marley will instantly recognise. Compatriot Zhelano Barnes, full-back of Jamaica’s national U-17 side, was not even born in 1980 when the gentle tune was a regular fixture on radio playlists worldwide. 31 years later, having scored in front of a supportive crowd in Monterrey’s Estadio Universitario, it is quite feasible that the 17-year-old was cheerfully humming the song’s chorus in his head.
For up until the 89th minute of Jamaica’s match with Argentina, the Caribbean nation had never managed to notch a single goal at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. In their tournament debut at New Zealand 1999, they failed to find the net in three group matches. Against Japan in their opening Group B match at this year’s event, the Reggae Boyz were still unable to break their duck, losing the encounter 1-0. When the opportunity arose to make amends against La Albiceleste, Barnes decided to take centre stage.
“It’s the stuff dreams are made of. It’s just amazing to create history for Jamaica, a country that I love more than anything else. I could never have imagined that I would be the first Jamaican to score at the U-17 World Cup,” recounts the baby-faced defender. “Obviously, my joy and pride were a little bit tempered by our defeat. But I didn’t think we actually deserved to lose.”
The historic goal was indeed late in coming. Despite a solid performance, which included numerous unconverted chances, Jamaica found themselves two goals down, and were only able to save face in the final moments of the match.
Midfielder Cardel Benbow raced to the byline to pick up an incisive through ball, dragging a handful of Argentinian defenders away from goal in the process. He delivered an accurate floating cross towards Barnes in the centre of the box, which the No18 met perfectly with his left foot to slot the ball into the back of the net, before turning away to joyously celebrate.
“It’s just impossible to describe what I felt at that instant. Moments like that are surreal – they’re just so out of the ordinary,” recalls Barnes with a wide grin. His elation at having scored was certainly obvious to the watching fans, as he chose to savour the moment by running towards the crowd and diving head first onto the turf, rather than grab the ball and race back to the centre circle, as many other footballers would have done.
“I think I owed that to the Mexican supporters. They’ve given us brilliant backing in the two matches we’ve played. I’m just so surprised that a little island like ours, with its 2.8 million people, has been able to get the crowd going in such a way,” he said.
“Especially as we were facing Argentina, who always deserve respect. But it’s worth remembering that we’re a great little country. It’s the homeland of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt, after all! I would imagine that fans here can see that we wear our hearts on our sleeves.”
After the match, Jamaica coach Wendell Downswell had only positive things to say about Barnes: “It’s a dream come true for him, and it’s also great news for our country.” Turning to the next and final group match against France, his message could not be any clearer: “Mathematically, anything is possible, so we just have to go for it.”
Barnes, for his part, is of the same opinion. “Everything is still to play for, and we’re going to fight with all we’ve got. Whatever happens, we’ve formed a really close-knit group here, and we’ll all be working hard for each other to ensure we get a result.”
All that remains is for the Jamaicans to select an appropriate Bob Marley song to provide some motivation in the changing room prior to the decisive match. ‘Get up, stand up and don’t give up the fight’ would seem like an ideal choice.