Jamaica are bringing back the glory days. Over a decade since their intrepid voyage to the world’s biggest stage and the FIFA World Cup™ in France in 1998, the Reggae Boyz have turned to an old hero to revive their fortunes. “We have a hungry young group with plenty of quality,” head coach and former captain Theodore Whitmore told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
A similar hunger inspired Whitmore and Co to make Jamaica only the third Caribbean nation to reach a World Cup finals, in what he describes as “truly one of the best moments” of a career that brought him to England and stints with Hull City and Tranmere Rovers. “Every four years we used to sit down with our friends and family back home and watch the World Cup, so to actually be there with a Jamaica shirt on was an amazing feeling,” added Whitmore, who went on to collect 105 caps for Jamaica between 1993 and 2005.
Nicknamed Tappa, the tall, brawny and talented midfield schemer helped carve a bit of history for the Boyz that summer in France, scoring both goals in the islanders’ only win, 2-1 against Japan in Lyon. “That was just perfect. A lot of great players go to the World Cup and don’t score,” said the man who was named Caribbean footballer of the year and also won the Caribbean Cup as a player in a busy 1998. Brought in as a caretaker boss after the unsuccessful coaching runs of Rene Simoes and John Barnes, it seems that Whitmore has finally carved out the national team job for himself. “I have the full backing of the FA,” he said.
Now 38, the coach led the side to a second straight Caribbean Cup title (their fifth overall) in Martinique earlier this month, with mainly local and USA-based players. “We didn’t have the likes of Ricardo Gardner and Ricardo Fuller,” said Whitmore of his former team-mates, among the big Jamaican stars plying their trade overseas. “But we have a bunch of young boys who work hard and get in line. You need to be hungry when you pull on your national team jersey. You have to feel the pride behind it.”
Discipline has never been a watchword of Jamaican football, or the whole of the Caribbean for that matter. But Whitmore’s youngsters proved they were more than just flash, speed and athleticism with a disciplined performance in Martinique that culminated in 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over always-improving Guadeloupe, and a place at next year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Jamaica scored 12 goals at the finals, making them the best attacking team by far. And in 26-year-old New York Red Bulls speed merchant Dane Richards, they have one of the finest up-and-comers in the Caribbean. “He’s really become a man now and he earned his reputation,” said the coach of the Caribbean Cup’s top player and scorer.
“We’ve been building a new core for the last two years and playing together as a team,” tournament top scorer and player Richards explained to FIFA.com. “Jamaica is rebuilding and I think this team can do big things. We’ll be aiming to win the Gold Cup too.”
The last decade has been a lean time for Jamaican football, but Whitmore insists heady days are just around the corner. “We’re not far off from the successes we achieved in 1998. We just need to keep moving in the right direction and find the right balance,” he insisted now with six months to go before the Gold Cup, a tournament where Jamaica went out in the first round in 2009 after failing to qualify in 2007. And although he argues that the Reggae Boyz are still the top team in the Caribbean, Whitmore knows there is work to be done.
“We have some players to look at and a few areas on the field where we still need some work. These are the kinds of things we need to concentrate on,” concluded Whitmore. He knows not to get ahead of himself. “We can’t look too far ahead,” he warns. “Nothing is won yet. Right now we will be totally focused on the Gold Cup, and after that we can look to Brazil 2014,” he says, only just keeping his excitement of a return to the World Cup in check.
And who better to show this next generation of Reggae Boyz the way to the Promised Land than a hero of those salad days? A smile comes across in his voice when asked whether he occupies the role of hero to some of his young charges. “They know what I’m about,” says the coach, who was still clocking minutes for local side Seba United as recently as last year. “Every once in a while, I tie on my boots and show them how it’s done.”