It is a moment of sporting excellence engrained on the consciousness of Jamaicans of a certain age. On Sunday 16 November 1997 at Independence Park in Kingston, the Reggae Boyz needed a point against continental heavyweights Mexico to secure passage to their first ever FIFA World Cup™. After a hard fought 90 minutes, the 18th game for Jamaica in a gruelling qualification campaign, the Peruvian referee blew his whistle to signal the conclusion of the goalless match – Rene Simoes’s men had the point they needed. Jamaica’s capital erupted.
“It’s strange. It’s a thing that you have to really be a part of to grasp what it was like,” Ricardo ‘Bibi’ Gardner, who played that day, recalled in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “It was so special not just to Jamaicans in the country, but across the world. Not only Jamaicans, but people who are connected to Jamaica in some way – to reggae music or the culture. Jamaica is a beautiful place and so many people across the world are connected to it.”
The victory was celebrated in true Jamaican fashion, with parties going on long into the Kingston night and even the following day, with then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson declaring the Monday a national public holiday. That win was just the first step of an incredible journey to France 1998 for Gardner, his team-mates, Jamaica’s residents and the diaspora.
“The World Cup was not even something we had dreamt of,” Gardner said. “Qualifying changed the mentality of all of us in Jamaica. In Jamaica we normally prepare ourselves to sit in front of the television to watch the World Cup and now we were actually going there. People were booking their trips and travelling from all different parts of the world.”
Gardner, who like a number of his Jamaica-based team-mates had never been to mainland Europe before, stepped out at the Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens in front of nearly 40,000 fans to make history in June 1998. He was part of Jamaica’s first ever World Cup starting XI, against Croatia.
“Hearing the anthem and knowing you have the opportunity to represent yourself and your nation on the biggest stage of football in the world, the energy was incredible,” Gardner recalled. “Stepping out there in front of so many millions across the world, it was an amazing thing to be a part of.”
Jamaica is a small country, but it’s very loved all over the world.
A 3-1 defeat to the Croats, who would famously go on to finish third in their own World Cup debut, was followed up by a 5-0 defeat to two-time champions Argentina. The Reggae Boyz were not disheartened though, going into their final Group H match – admittedly a dead rubber – against Japan. They wanted to depart with more than just their beaming grins. They defied the odds to defeat the Samurai Blue 2-1, thanks to Theodore Whitmore's brace.
“I remember the coach [Rene Simoes] telling us to just go out there and express ourselves,” Gardner said. “I think everyone was brilliant, individually and as a group. We wanted to give our country something to cheer for. I cannot describe that moment, for us to go out there and do what we did, not just for ourselves, but for our families and the entirety of Jamaica, home and abroad.”
Gardner reserved some special words for Simoes, who displayed a fair amount of bravery by playing the then raw 19-year-old – the youngest member of the squad by a full year - for all three group games.
“He gave me that opportunity and he changed our lives in Jamaica,” Gardner said. “He was the one that made it possible. I just want to thank him for giving us this glorious moment that will last for a lifetime, that our children and grandchildren will grow up, see and be proud of us for.”
Those moments in France, which have yet to be repeated by a Jamaica side on the global stage, came with almost universal acclaim. Many around the world took the Reggae Boyz to their hearts, and they became a number of supporters’ ‘second team’ during France 1998.
“Jamaica is a small country, but it’s very loved all over the world,” Gardner smiled. “Reggae music, from Bob Marley to Dennis Brown and Peter Tosh – you could go on and on – I think they were the ones that put us on the map. To see this in football, everyone was happy to be a part of that. To have the nickname ‘Reggae Boyz’ it made ourselves more unique and made it more attractive to the rest of the world.”
'Bibi' and the band of brothers
Perhaps because of this backing by fans of a certain style of music, and football, the atmosphere inside the camp was reasonably relaxed. This was, Gardner says, also partly down to the fact that more than half of the squad played their domestic football in Jamaica at the time.
“We didn’t feel pressured at all in France,” Gardner said. “Whenever we get a big reunion, we’re a big family to be honest. The atmosphere amongst ourselves was just something that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives - the best moment of my footballing career. We’ll be friends for life, these players.
“Most of us were always there [in Jamaica], in camp and always training,” Gardner continued. “The coach had the opportunity to get us to learn his philosophy. The players from overseas also played a big part because they came over with their professionalism, they had played at a high level and I learned from them all. That’s what made us so unique and helped us with our qualifying campaign.”
Gardner moved to England after his time at the global finals, signing for Bolton Wanderers where he stayed for 14 years until his retirement in 2012. ‘Bibi’ is now back in Jamaica - “a great feeling” - coaching the U-20 side, most of whom were mere toddlers when Gardner was making history in France.
There will, however, be no 20th anniversary World Cup repeat in Russia for the Reggae Boyz, as they failed to make the ‘Hex’ for Russia 2018 qualifying. “It’s a very difficult moment for football now in Jamaica,” Gardner reflected. “We have to start right over, and stop making excuses and criticising. We need to come together to look at what made us successful back then and what can make us successful in the future.”
Any aspiring Jamaican footballer looking for inspiration would do well to look back on those highlights from November 1997 and June 1998. If they can bottle that feeling, perhaps the generation of players currently under Gardner’s tutelage may one day invoke several days of partying, and another national holiday, by reaching the nation’s second global finals.