The first group phase in the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ has reached the halfway stage, with surprise results few and far between. The big names in the six pools have been having things very much their own way so far, all of them, that is, except Trinidad and Tobago, who have found an unexpected obstacle in the shape of Guyana.
The last Caribbean side to have appeared at the world finals, at Germany 2006, the Soca Warriors find their status as group favourites under serious threat from the obstinate Guyanese, who lie a point clear at the top of Group B with two games remaining. And should the so-called Golden Jaguars win their next match, at home to T&T on 11 November, they will complete one of the biggest shocks in the region for many a year.
Sharing his thoughts with FIFA.com as his side’s date with destiny approaches was Guyana coach Jamaal Shabazz who, just to add a little more spice to an already enticing encounter, is Trinidadian born and bred.
The second coming
Shabazz is a well-known figure on the regional football scene. Having coached the Soca Warriors in two spells and taken charge of Guyana between 2005 and 2008, he returned for a second stint at the end of last year and has defied expectations by making a more than successful stab at it.
“I think the big difference this time around is the attitude,” he said, explaining Guyana’s sudden upturn in fortunes. “Unlike last time, the message has really got through. Maybe we don’t have the same talent as the region’s big guns but we’ve worked hard on being organised, professional and disciplined, and that’s what’s brought us these good results.”
Having worked hard for an opportunity such as this, the dedicated Shabazz is not about to let it slip through his fingers.
“I’ve done a hundred FIFA courses, and the things I’ve learned have filled me with the belief that a Caribbean coach can take a team from the region all the way to a major competition,” he explained with conviction in his voice. “Before, the idea was always to get someone in from Europe or South America, but this is my chance now to change all that and open the way for my colleagues.”
Given his origins, Shabazz could be excused for experiencing mixed emotions in the run-up to the potential group decider, though he insists his mind is firmly on the job in hand.
“It’s going to be a very emotional moment for me, of course it is, but it’s my duty,” he said. “I have a duty not just to myself but to Caribbean coaches in general. I have to put my emotions to one side and do it for the region. If I don’t, then everything FIFA has invested in my training as a coach will go to waste. It’s such an important time.”
A nation dreams
For a country unaccustomed to making the football headlines, victory over Trinidad and Tobago would represent a landmark achievement, one that Shabazz has been attempting to prepare his players for. “The stadium’s been full for every game. Cricket gets more support from the authorities here but the people of Guyana love their football and they’ve got big dreams now. The time has come to take that step forward.”
Situated as the country is in the northeastern corner of South America, Guyanese football has its roots in a mix of cultures. A former British colony, it has fused Caribbean spirit with the style and rhythm of its geographical neighbours, as Shabazz explained: “I never tire of telling my players that though their background is Caribbean, they should take their inspiration from the South American style and express their talent, belief and passion at every opportunity.”
The Golden Jaguars also have a significant legion of foreign-based players to draw on, a valuable resource unavailable to them in the past. “We’ve got six lads in England who’ve got Guyanese parents and have decided to support the cause, among them our skipper Chris Nurse,” said the coach. “We’ve also got Leon Cort, who’s with Charlton Athletic, and a few other footballers playing in the USA’s second tier and in Trinidad and Tobago.”
Mention of the country of his birth diverts Shabazz’s attention back to the crucial November showdown and triggers one final reflection on Guyanese expectations: “Obviously the Trinidadians have got a lot of quality, but what we lack in resources we make up for in discipline.
“The pressure’s all on them if you ask me,” he continued. “We’re like Cinderella. She wasn’t scared and she just enjoyed the moment, which is what we’re doing. It’s been fantastic to work with this squad, with my technical staff and the people of Guyana, who’ve treated me like a brother. I won’t let them down, I can assure you.”