“We’re not far away from the successes of ‘98,” Theodore Whitmore told FIFA.com after a long pause.
The current Jamaica coach played a crucial role in his island’s greatest footballing achievement, in France that year, when they reached their first and only FIFA World Cup™ finals. “We’re moving in the right direction, we have the right balance to get back to the top,” he added.
The Jamaicans are considered a powerhouse in the unpredictable world of Caribbean football, but the they have achieved little of note on the international stage since reaching the world’s biggest tournament those 14 years ago.
Lack of organisation and investment have posed problems for the Reggae Boyz – as the national team is known in the football-mad Caribbean nation – as have the logistics of maintaining a competitive side with a mixture of players from the local leagues and far afield in Europe and USA.
They reached the quarter-finals of last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, but the Boyz are still considered talented, athletic underachievers in the region. However, Whitmore, who scored twice in intrepid Jamaica’s only win in 1998, is keen on turning things around. Discipline is his watchword.
“We started building a new core for the team when I took over [in 2009],” said the coach, a bulky midfield schemer with stints in England at Tranmere Rovers and Hull City. “We needed to rebuild.” After cutting some sacred cows and established stars, Whitmore scoured for young talent at home and abroad to start afresh.
“We have a bunch of young boys who worked their socks off and got in line behind me,” said the man known to his countrymen as Tappa. “They’re hungry, which is what you need when you pull on the national team shirt. You need pride.”
Whitmore led his young side to a Caribbean Cup crown in 2010, their second straight title. A number of young talents, ignored in previous incarnations of the Reggae Boyz set-up emerged at those finals in Martinique, chief among them was New York Red Bull Dane Richards.
The speedy winger finished top scorer in the tournament and now figures prominently in the starting eleven. “Tappa is all about pride and respect, the coach shows it to us and we show it to him. It’s the most important thing,” Richards told FIFA.com.
Foundations in place
The Jamaicans are undefeated since the start of the year, having not tasted defeat in their last five friendly outings. It all bodes well for Whitmore and his men as they get set to take on Guatemala on 8 June in their first qualifier for the 2014 finals in Brazil, after having earned a pass through to the second round.
“I know my starting eleven,” said the coach. “But we’re still looking around here and there at players in case of injuries or other things that might emerge.”
The coach is likely to rely on Turkey-based striker and top scorer Luton Shelton when Guatemala come to the National Stadium in Kingston, known affectionately as ‘The Office’.
His new rearguard features the Watford pairing of Nyron Nosworthy and Adrian Mariappa, while Omar Daley, Marlon King, Ricardo Fuller and Richards are likely to figure in the side’s foreign-based contingent.
The coach will be looking for a top-two finish in a Group A that also includes regional powers USA and up-and-coming Caribbean minnows Antigua and Barbuda. “We can’t look too far ahead,” said the coach, ever cautious and knowing better than most the trials and tribulations that accompany a run to the FIFA World Cup.
“We haven’t won anything yet. We have laid the foundations and now we have to execute and take advantage… Brazil 2014 is there as our target.”