Having received a bye during the previous round of CONCACAF qualifying, Theodore Whitmore’s young Jamaica side will need to be at their best to negotiate a four-team group that includes the mighty USA and take another step towards the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Given the Caribbean nation have been absent from the finals since 1998, Donovan Ricketts, the team’s veteran goalkeeper, spoke to FIFA.com about their chances of ending their drought.
With the start of the next stage of regional qualifying for Brazil 2014 just a few months away, the Jamaica No1 has set his sights high: “Becoming champions of the Caribbean isn’t that great an achievement, it’s something we should always be aiming for, truth be told. Getting to the quarter-finals of the Gold Cup wasn’t anything new either. The real accomplishment would be getting to Brazil, and it would be really disappointing to not get past this round.”
The imposing Montreal Impact custodian, newly transferred from Los Angeles Galaxy, has been handed a new role of team leader and mentor by old acquaintance Whitmore. And it is a task that he has approached with a combination of seriousness and joyful enthusiasm. “I still need to get into the habit of sharing my experience a bit more often with the youngest players, as that’s how they’ll make progress,” explained the 34-year-old.
“Theodore has been able to widen the pool of players available for selection, to prevent us being overly dependent on the foreign-based players. That's because sometimes they just aren't available. Our young players have therefore matured more quickly and learned to adapt to top-level football,” added the recent winner of the MLS Cup.
Since former Reggae Boys midfielder Whitmore took over at the helm in 2009, he has worked tirelessly to build a team capable of following in the footsteps of the golden generation that starred at France 1998. To achieve this, the young coach has focused on three key aspects: talent, organisation and determination.
Playing for him is like playing for a good friend. We don’t want him to lose his job, and we’re well aware that if we don’t keep getting results, that’s exactly what will happen.
He has also placed a firm emphasis on youth, turning to a group of players who ply their trade in the Jamaican league, especially when he is deprived of the services of national-team stalwarts such as Ricardo Gardner and Ricardo Fuller. The approach has already paid dividends, as his side claimed the 2010 Caribbean Cup, the fifth in Jamaica’s history, before reaching the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011.
“We’d all fight till the final minute for our coach,” said Ricketts. “Playing for him is like playing for a good friend. We don’t want him to lose his job, and we’re well aware that if we don’t keep getting results, that’s exactly what will happen. Theodore provides us with extra motivation just by being there,” continued Jamaica’s third-choice keeper back at France 1998.
One of the first names on the teamsheet during his nation’s qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010, the former Bradford City shot-stopper is looking forward to an opportunity to gain some revenge on the USA, following Jamaica’s closely-contested loss to the Stars and Stripes at the quarter-final stage of last year’s Gold Cup.
“This squad has taken shape over the past two years. The players know each other well and follow the coach’s message to the letter,” confirmed the Montego Bay native. “Everything is now in place for us to enjoy a successful campaign. The time has come to justify our supporters’ confidence and enthusiasm.”
“Speed is our main weapon,” continued Ricketts. “As our defence is pretty solid, when we play as a compact unit, we can launch some pretty effective counter-attacks.” Montreal’s new signing has plenty of experience of high-pressure situations, and the thought of further tense encounters down the road does not fill him with fear.
“There will be a lot of pressure because expectations have been raised enormously due to our recent results. We would really love to put a smile on the faces of the Jamaican people, but we shouldn’t really be thinking about that too much – we should just focus on doing our job on the pitch,” he explained.
In addition to the perennially powerful Americans, the draw for Round 3 – the penultimate phase of CONCACAF qualifying – threw up another tough couple of Group A opponents in the shape of Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda. The latter outfit produced the surprise of the previous round by eliminating Haiti.
“They’re a good team, and it won’t be easy," he said. "The Guatemalans are even better, so we know the scale of the task ahead. But we have to be ambitious.” And at almost 35, Ricketts has more than enough experience to realise that ambition can often serve as the strongest motivation of all.