Guyana were one of the success stories of the first group phase of the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The Golden Jaguars surprised everyone, themselves included, by deservedly winning their section and eliminating favourites Trinidad and Tobago, world finalists as recently as Germany 2006. 

Nevertheless, the Guyanese have found the going far harder in the next round of qualifying, where they are up against yet more of the region’s heavyweights. Kicking off their Group B campaign in the intimidating surroundings of the Estadio Azteca, they acquitted themselves well in going down 3-1 to Mexico, only for disaster to strike in their next game, a 4-0 home thrashing at the hands of Costa Rica.

Lying bottom of the four-team pool, the pointless Guyanese have no margin for error in their upcoming double-header with El Salvador. Looking back on their slow start and ahead to a crucial few days, coach Jamaal Shabazz discussed his side’s qualifying adventure in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.

No substitute for experience
Though reluctant to offer up excuses, Shabazz reflected first of all on the circumstances that led to the debacle at home to Los Ticos.

“We made a very big mistake in terms of logistics,” he explained. “After the game against Mexico, where I felt we played very well, we caught a plane at 3 in the morning and arrived in Panama at 7. We had to wait for two hours before flying to Trinidad and Tobago, where we made another stopover, this time for five hours, before finally setting off for Guyana. When we arrived we still had an hour’s journey to the training camp, and by the time we got to our rooms it was 11.30 at night. We were exhausted.”

The Costa Rica match came just four days after Guyana’s visit to the Azteca, giving Shabazz’s players little time to recover properly. That said, the coach also believes his charges failed to take the game seriously enough: “It was down to our inexperience and we paid the price. On top of that we got carried away with our performance at the Azteca and underestimated Costa Rica. Even though we deserved to get here, we forgot that this is a very different ball game. It’s been a learning experience. That’s not an excuse. This is just another experience for us.”

If we don’t pick up some points in these games, we’re out. 

Guyana coach Jamaal Shabazz on the upcoming games

Those defeats have left the Golden Jaguars needing to take something from their visit to San Salvador on Saturday to avoid being all but eliminated. Aware of the urgency of the situation, coach Shabazz is hoping his side can show their claws.  

“This is our last chance,” he said. “If we don’t pick up some points in these games, we’re out. We need to fight hard to get a win and though we respect El Salvador, we have nothing to lose. Our desire to come out on top is much stronger than our fear of defeat.”

Nonetheless, there is no question of Shabazz getting carried away with himself at this stage of proceedings: “We have to be realistic. With the exception of Jamaica, the Central American teams are better than the Caribbean ones, and that’s a handicap we’re trying to make up for.

“We are the future of Caribbean football, which is a big responsibility that should help us get stronger and allow us to give our very best. Four points would be ideal, but we’d be satisfied with two. We live in the real world, and the important thing is to avoid defeat and stay alive. That’ll be our objective.”

Hopes for the future
Despite the caution, the Trinidadian-born coach and his players are looking forward to their next engagements. “We’ve brought in some new young players, and we put in a very encouraging performance in a friendly with Bolivia, only going down to defeat late on. We are very motivated. The players understand that we’ve stepped up a level and they’re enjoying this adventure. Every moment is special.”

Having learned some harsh lessons from Guyana’s opening games in the group, Shabazz has a very specific plan in mind for Saturday’s high-stakes duel: “We need to be compact and show them the same respect we showed Mexico. Against Costa Rica we thought we could play a more attacking game and we paid a very high price. We’ll keep our shape and choose the right time to attack. I’ve got no doubt that we’ll carve out some chances because we’ve got very talented players.”

Yet whatever happens from now on, as far as their coach is concerned, the Golden Jaguars have already taken a major step forward in their footballing development.

“It has been a great adventure and it will help the players in the future,” he said, rounding off our chat. “They want to win, but they also want to attract the attention of clubs in the region and beyond. There’s no professional league in Guyana and this is a great opportunity for them to earn contracts. It’s a very worthwhile experience because it will open the way for us to become a better side and more experienced, relaxed and professional with it.”