The Golden Jaguars of Guyana were a sensation in the previous round of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, knocking off Caribbean giants Trinidad and Tobago in some style. Their reward for all that homespun heroism and inspirational over-achievement is a place in the toughest group of the next, and penultimate, stage of CONCACAF qualifying.
The intrepid Guyanese, long on hope and good vibes but short on pedigree and history, will meet Mexico, the best team in the region and one of the best in the Americas, in their first match on 8 June. The game will take place at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, where El Tri have only ever lost one FIFA World Cup qualifier in their history.
“Everyone knows about the Azteca,” said Guyana defender Leon Cort, brother of captain and Premier League stalwart Carl, to FIFA.com. “It’s known around the world as a tough place to play and we won’t be expecting to waltz in there and have things all our own way.”
Guyana coach Jamaal Shabazz, who hails from Trinidad and is credited with instilling the organisation and discipline that has seen the Jaguars rise in the last year, is realistic about the Mexico test. “It’s not going to be an easy situation; this is not a level any of us has played at or any of us has coached at, but we’re up for the challenge.”
In what is looking like a baptism of fire, Guyana will also come up against three-time FIFA World Cup participants Costa Rica, renowned as the top team in Central America, and El Salvador, who call the seething Estadio Cuscatlan home and roared through the previous round with a perfect six wins from six games.
Winger Ricky Shakes’ assessment of Guyana’s situation is cautious, but upbeat. “We haven’t seen any teams like Mexico yet,” said the man who plays for Ebbsfleet United, on the fifth rung of England’s club hierarchy. “We’ll be coming up against some very big names, like Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Rafa Marquez. Costa Rica are also no small thing,” he added about a Los Ticos side that recently drew with world champions Spain. "We will need to keep our focus.”
A country comprised of dense jungle, Guyana is not an easy place to find on a map, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of South America. It isn’t much easier to reach via the airlines, either. The Jaguars’ home form will likely be crucial in the next round if they are to keep up their giant-killing antics.
“We have to believe in ourselves,” added Cort, one of six Guyana players who play their club football in England. “If we don’t think we can play with the big boys, than we might as well pack it in right now. Sure, we’re a small country, but we have to believe and do everything we can,” added the 32-year-old defender, on loan at Charlton Athletic, who traces his Guyanese roots back to his grandparents.
The side, with a smattering of home-based players, and others hailing from England, Canada, Suriname, USA, Trinidad, Antigua and Puerto Rico, have found success by keeping their football simple. Organised defence, from the forwards all the way back to the goalkeeper, defines their approach. That, allied with pace on the flanks and useful finishing, have made this incarnation of the Guyanese national team one not to be taken lightly.
It was a lesson learned the hard way by Trinidad and Tobago, who, even with stars like Kenwyne Jones, will be sitting out the next round of qualifying after they lost their all-important contest in Georgetown. “It was an amazing night,” said Cort of the 2-1 win at their national stadium, by far the biggest in Guyana’s footballing history.
“We might not have all the talent of the bigger teams in the region,” said Shabazz, whose spirits remain intact after a recent friendly loss to Guatemala. “But we believe in ourselves and work hard and play organised. This is our only hope.”
Hope, strong defence, and a little bit of luck might just be what Guyana need to keep their dream alive. “Who knows?” asked Shakes rhetorically. “We can go to Mexico and keep them scoreless for 20 minutes or so. Then the fans might turn on them a bit and then, you know, anything can happen.”