Jamaica will arrive in Mexico for the FIFA U-17 World Cup as colourful outsiders, among no-one’s favourites in a challenging group. This doesn’t bother coach Wendell Downswell, a coach who oozes the laid-back cool that has become the endearing trademark of the sun-splashed Caribbean island.
“People all over the world love Jamaica and Jamaicans,” said Downswell with a smile as he prepares his young charges for the physical and mental strains to come. “We have a proud sporting tradition and I think we can win the fans over in Mexico. We can capture their hearts with our football."
While the country’s sprinters have traditionally been the envy of the world, and their senior Reggae Boyz went to the FIFA World Cup France 1998™, Jamaica's success at youth level is far patchier. In their only ever trip to a FIFA U-17 World Cup, in New Zealand in 1999, they conceded ten goals, scored none and went home with their tails tucked after three games.
It’s a dream come true for our boys.
Downswell, though, has confidence and hope, not to mention an enduring passion for the game of football. A former international in the 1970s, he is now technical director at the local club where he spent his playing career, Reno FC. And in addition to being the man to oversee all youth development on the island, his time spent as coach of the senior Jamaica side, between 2004 and 2006, yielded a Caribbean Cup title and a place in the quarter-finals of the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“We have some challenges as a team,” the coach, who is in a better position than anyone to judge the merits of this fresh generation of Jamaican competitors, told FIFA.com. “Some players are taking their school exams right now, so it’s a tricky time. We had to cancel a preparatory trip to Spain, and that was a disappointment, but we are looking forward to the World Cup,” he said, hoping for big things from his trusted star trio of Jason Wright, Kemo Wallace and Omar Holness.
Argentina, France await
Far from viewing their participation in the tournament as a holiday, Jamaica and their coach are eager to spring a surprise down Mexico way. After a tour of Brazil and a raft of games against some top U-20 sides, the Jamaicans – who hosted the CONCACAF preliminary rounds – are fighting fit. “In attack we are quite good,” said Downswell, who broke down in tears of pride when his team booked their place at the tournament, beating fancied Honduras in Montego Bay en route to the semi-finals.
Defence is a different story, according to the coach: “We need to focus more on getting a goal or two and then tightening up at the back, controlling the game." This is easier said than done with such young players, but it is something Downswell has been working on. “We’ve had psychologists working with the boys,” he explained. “And, on some of our travels, they have already been exposed to the pressures of the big occasion. I think they will be ready. We won’t be overawed.”
One could not blame the upstart islanders for being a little nervous heading into the finals in Mexico, as their first round opponents include France and Argentina, with the latter – having won everything else on offer in the international arena – setting their sights on an elusive U-17 gold. “They are big names, that’s for sure,” said Downswell, a striker in his playing days. “But we’re looking forward to measuring ourselves against them. It’s a dream come true for our boys.”
The coach is planning a pair of friendly games after the team arrives in Mexico, before their opening game against Japan in Monterrey on 18 June, a contest Downswell sees as crucial. “This is the only game we are thinking about,” he said. “Not Argentina, not France, only this first one. All of our energy and desire is for this game.
“If we get that positive start,” he said, hope building in his voice, “we can roll on from there. And then, who knows what?"