Current captain Ricardo Gardner was a young member of the only Jamaica side ever to reach a FIFA World Cup™ finals, back in France in 1998. Since then, however, the 58-time-capped Bolton Wanderers utility man has seen the Reggae Boyz sink to 105th in the world and miss out on recent instalments of the Caribbean Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, 'Bibi', now approaching 30, chats about why he thinks Jamaica are still the best team in the Caribbean, the triumphant return of Brazilian maestro Rene Simoes to the touchline, and his high hopes for his country reaching South Africa 2010. Currently in camp outside of Kingston in preparation for their qualifying opener on 14 June, Gardner points to a "positive vibe" in the Jamaican side.
FIFA.com: Ricardo, after missing out on the finals of the
most recent Caribbean Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, does Jamaica
have something to prove heading into South Africa 2010 qualifying?
Ricardo Gardner: It's been a tough couple of years of us, but I wouldn't really call it a crisis or anything like that. We are a good team and we have some very good players. On the balance of the talent we have in the side, I don't see too many teams in the region who will be able to beat us.
Are Jamaica still the best team in the Caribbean?
We've been getting a challenge from some of the other teams in the Caribbean of late, like Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. But I still think that if you look down the line at the players we have and the talent we produce consistently, we are still the best footballing nation in the Caribbean.
First up in the qualifiers you will face Bahamas. As you are heavy favourites to win the series does that add a dimension of extra pressure? We will go into the game with the Bahamas as if they are the USA or Mexico - it's no different. Anything can happen and if we are not ready to go, the Bahamas can jump all over us and give us a hard time. Right now the vibe in our camp is good and our spirits are high [the Jamaicans are unbeaten in their last three friendlies]. We have a job to do and we are going to go out and do it.
How important is the return of former head coach Rene
Simoes to the side as the qualifiers for South Africa
Having Simoes back [he replaced Bora Milutinovic who was sacked late last year] to lead the team is a special thing. He is a legend in Jamaica and the players really respond to his way of working. Bringing him back was a great move by the FA and only good things can come from it.
And it will be a reunion for you as well...
Yeah, I played under him at the World Cup finals in 1998. I'm thrilled to have him back and I know he is the man to get us back to the World Cup, this time in South Africa.
As captain, how much motivation do you think you'll
need to offer up to your team-mates?
When you're the captain the rest of the players are always going to look up to you. But, like I said, the vibe in the camp is very positive at the moment so I don't think I'll need to do too much motivating. We are all ready to go.
You have been with Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier
League since 1998 and seen some very good years. This season, you
just avoided relegation at the wire...
It was a hard year for us, but we dug deep and showed our spirit and fight in the end. In the last four games everyone showed what they were made of and ground out the results we needed. It was a huge relief. Next season we'll just need to start fresh and get back to the things that we do well as a team.
Your role for Bolton is usually a defensive one, but it
seems you get the chance to play a bit of football in the middle
It's all up to the boss really where I line up, but I love to play football. In the back or in the middle, with the ball or without, I will be happy to be out representing my country and working toward getting us to the World Cup.
What would it mean to the people of Jamaica if you were
able to reach the finals again?
Trust me; the words do not exist to describe what it would mean for the Jamaican people if we were to get back into the World Cup finals. It means so much to everyone in the country, Jamaicans living off the island too. The country is going through some hard times at the moment and it would be a great gift for us to give to the people. We are all ready to do our part.
And for you personally...
Yeah, for me it would be a chance to get back to the finals ten years after the first time. I am a more mature player now and it would be a dream come true.
It seems like there is a special passion for football in
Jamaica. Why is this?
Football lives in Jamaica. From when we are all very young the game is everywhere... on the TV, in the streets, in the conversations. There is a special connection between our island and the game of football.