“We came from all over the world,” enthused Leon Cort about Guyana’s Golden Jaguars, the national team he’s captained to unprecedented success in recent months. “From England, from Canada, Suriname, the USA, Trinidad, Antigua, Puerto Rico – we’re coming from everywhere!”
Guyana is plagued by massive waves of emigration; the tiny, underdeveloped country’s population grows smaller every year. But the sons and grandsons of those who fled are returning, and are making a big impact on the football pitch.
There are six players in the team from the various tiers of England’s professional football leagues. “We bring experience and organisation from the Premier League, League One and Two," said Ricky Shakes, the 26-year-old winger who plays his club football for Ebbsfleet United. Captain Cort, 32, is on loan from Burnley at Charlton Athletic – and his older brother Carl is a former EPL standout with Wimbledon and Newcastle.
A football blend
A handful in the side are native-born Guyanese, but many were born in Canada, USA, England and various ports in the Caribbean. “It’s a blend of football flavours,” added Shakes, the speedy wide man who scored two of Guyana’s goals in Brazil 2014 qualifying so far. “The cultures and styles seem to blend.”
There is another foreign influence guiding Guyana, a side devoid of any real international pedigree. “He is an organised man,” said Brixton-born Shakes about coach and Trinidad native Jamaal Shabazz. “He comes up with the patterns and we adjust to them.” Cort is quick to claim the coach as a major factor in the side’s triumphant run in the region’s second round of qualifying. “He’s brought a real discipline, a European ethic, to the team.”
“We might not have the talent of some of the region’s big guns,” the coach said. “But we believe in ourselves and work hard on being organised, professional and disciplined.”
A former British colony, Guyana is a dense tangle of jungle in the north-east corner of South America. Due to its small size and long-standing cultural ties to the Caribbean, they play their football in the CONCACAF zone. “Guyana’s footballing roots are somewhere between South America and the Caribbean,” said Shabazz, who now has the double-edged pleasure of taking on the likes of Costa Rica and mighty Mexico in the next round.
Conquering hardship, Trinidad
There are precious few direct flights to the capital of Georgetown, making travel to the country, from any port, a complicated affair. “It’s tough to get any national team to gel, to understand each other on the field” said Cort to FIFA.com. “And here, with all the travel and the guys coming in from so far, and having to get used to the heat, we had a big job to do.”
Over the last few months, Guyana have electrified the New World football scene, a run of four wins from six booking their place in the penultimate round of qualifying. It all culminated in an historic game. “Everyone thought Trinidad would stroll to first place,” said Cort of the T&T side, led by Premier League sensation Kenwyne Jones and tipped for an easy ride in a group that also contained Bermuda and Barbados. “People thought we were there just to make up the numbers,” added Cort, a long way from his birthplace in south London.
A 2-1 win put Guyana through and T&T out in front of a capacity crowd at the National Cricket Stadium in Georgetown. Cort and Shakes scored the goals on that momentous night.
“We knew what was at stake, and we were at home,” said Shakes who, along with Cort, was playing his first game in Georgetown. “If we won, we’d put it to bed.” Cort picked up the story: “T&T’s coach [Otto Pfister] put only one striker out, he was playing for the draw. So since they invited us to go forward, we bombarded them.”
Mexico, Costa Rica await
The final whistle triggered wild celebrations. “Before the game, the atmosphere was incredible,” remembered Shakes. “The passion, the atmosphere was so special even before the game. When the whistle finally went, it just increased by three,” added Cort, a seasoned pro unable to resist the cheerful call of his ancestral home. “It really meant something to walk off winners that night.”
For Guyana’s Golden Jaguars, the dream continues. Their recent fortunes have landed them in a ferocious group in the next stage, alongside CONCACAF champions Mexico, three-time FIFA World Cup™ participants Costa Rica and El Salvador, winner of all six of their qualifiers to date. “We’ll be up against some of the top players in the world, like Chicharito [Mexico and Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez] at the famous Azteca stadium, and Costa Rica just tied world champions Spain in a friendly,” concluded Shakes, before calm captain Cort has the final word on what seems another mission impossible.
“If we don’t think we can win, we might as well pack it in now,” he said. “We’re a small country, but we believe.”