Without a win in the final round of qualifying for next year’s FIFA World Cup™, Jamaica’s hopes of reaching the global extravaganza are slim. They face a must-win clash against in-form superpowers USA on Friday with most local fans having already written them off. Mathematically though, the last-place Reggae Boyz are still alive. And as Winfried Schaefer – the team’s second coach of the campaign – would be first to tell you, football is not played on paper, or on blackboards.
“We have to win,” the German-born coach, who has led Cameroon’s national team, Thailand and German outfit Stuttgart, told FIFA.com. “We have to win all of our matches, it is just as simple as that. There is no choice for us.” It’s a frank assessment from a no-nonsense tactician who knows just how slender are his side’s hopes of sneaking into the fourth-place position, and an inter-continental play-off with New Zealand. Even so, he insists: “I would never have taken this job if I thought there was no hope!”
The numbers tell a tale of Jamaica’s problems thus far. In their eight Hexagonal games they have scored just three times, a paltry return by any standard. They are also the only team among the competing six not to have won a game. But Schaefer, who held the reins for the side’s last two matches, has picked up a pair of points from two draws, as many points as it took his predecessor six games to reach.
“The first game against Mexico was a good performance,” Schaefer said, looking back on Jamaica’s promising opener of the final round in which some watertight defending forced a first-ever draw for the islanders at Mexico’s intimidating Estadio Azteca. But even in that great success were the seeds of future problems for the side then coached by Theodore Whitmore. Missing top-scorer Luton Shelton, fill-in forward Ryan Johnson missed a pair of golden chances that proved to be the difference between one point and three, an historic draw instead of an historic win.
The problems persisted under Whitmore, who was unable to get the team scoring. Confidence sagged and the old playing hero was sacked at the end of July. New man Schaefer, despite only having three training sessions before his first game in charge against Panama last month, was able to address some of the problems.
He changed the team’s formation to take advantage of the vast amounts of speed and athleticism. He placed a firm focus on set-pieces and tried to maintain the sturdy defence built up under Whitmore. The changes worked, too, with the Jamaicans hanging on for a goalless draw on the road in Panama and then coming back from a goal down to earn a point at home against Costa Rica in Kingston. Jermaine Anderson’s late strike stunned the Ticos, who have already reached next year’s finals and are in a rich vein of form.
Still alive, improvements made
The two draws were a positive step for a Jamaican side that had little to smile about since the draw in Mexico in February. And it gave the fans back home cause for quiet confidence. Only a small pocket of supporters braved the rain in Kingston to cheer on the team against the Costa Ricans, and the ones that did were in desperate need of something to shout about.
Schaefer, having tasted the sweet fruits of change, intends to continue making changes in the run-up to the game against USA at the end of the week. He’s spent the last month running the rule over the local talent on the island in the hopes of rekindling the kind of spirit that saw the Reggae Boyz shock the region by qualifying for their only ever World Cup, in France in 1998. He’s called in no fewer than five local-based players (there were none in the line-up against Panama and Costa Rica), including the highly touted Romario 'Rom Rom' Campbell.
He’s also made the bold decision to axe some veterans and fan favourites. Goal king Luton Shelton will not make the trip to Kansas City to take on the Americans, who are in smashing form and already qualified for next year’s Brazilian adventure. Marlon King and Jermaine Beckford have also been dropped and will miss out alongside No1 goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who has a finger injury.
While Jamaican fans’ hopes may have taken a blow in these difficult times, a closer look at the crystal ball might give cause for cautious optimism. There are similarities now to the team that inspired the world back in 1998: a foreign coach isolating the best elements of the Caribbean game, a mixture of foreign-based and local players in the side, and a clear sense of what needs to be done. But again, football is not played on paper, it is played on a pitch, this time in Kansas City. What is needed is a win in the States, a feat Jamaica have never before achieved.