Luton Shelton has done something that no player in recent memory, anywhere in the world, has done - not Maradona, not Messi, not Pele, not Cruyff. The 27-year-old Jamaica striker, blessed with blinding pace and a keen reading of defensive seams, became legend when he scored four goals in his national team debut, albeit against St. Martin, in 2004.
Considering the striker’s calm and lethality in front of goal, one would think he was born to hit the net. The truth is a little different. “I was one of the worst players in my neighbourhood when I was a kid,” said Shelton, stifling a laugh, recalling his early days on the rough streets of Kingston’s notorious Tivoli Gardens, a crime-ridden district in the shadow of the National Stadium where football is king, but hardships are many. “My friends would laugh at me when we played out on the corner. They made me play goalkeeper most of the time.”
A long road to top scorer
How did Shelton, teased and forced onto to the fringes of youthful pick-up games, end up as Jamaica’s sharpest attacking weapon? “I had a coach when I was young and he used to tell me: 'You can be top scorer in the national team some day'," the striker told FIFA.com. “I didn’t believe him, of course. He was just trying to motivate me. But I worked hard and did my best and eventually I was scoring every time I stepped on the pitch.”
He scored more than a goal a game for his first professional club, Harbour View FC of Kingston, slamming home 44 in just 43 outings. It opened the door for stints in the English Premier League, Norway, Denmark and now Turkey’s top flight, where he lines up with ambitious mid-table outfit Karabukspor.
Two years ago Shelton did indeed become his country’s all-time top scorer, a distinction he calls “too meaningful to describe.” The Reggae Boyz have never lost a game in which Shelton has scored.
Last time the Jamaicans reached a FIFA World Cup™ was way back in 1998 in France, a moment that Shelton remembers vividly. “My dream of playing for Jamaica was born then,” he said, revisiting his 13-year-old self, remembering how he heard his national anthem played on the world’s biggest stage for the first and only time. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
Even better than ’98, USA scalp
Current Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore, a silky midfielder from those 1998 trailblazers, has built a team to be feared ahead of the final 'Hexagonal' round of qualifying in CONCACAF. “This is the best team we’ve had since then , maybe even better,” Whitmore told FIFA.com.
“He’s right,” Shelton agreed with his boss, confidence flooding his voice. “We can get to the World Cup. I have no doubts. In the past we’ve had some big egos and the players haven’t always pulled in the same direction,” he said, rebuking those who dismiss Jamaica’s football as too inconsistent. “But now, we can’t miss.”
Shelton was, predictably, crucial to Jamaica’s surprise win over mighty USA last September in the previous round of qualifying. “We were down a goal in the first minute,” he remembered. “But we were playing at home and calm. We didn’t freak out about it.” The Jamaicans drew level before half-time, the momentum swinging. The Office, as the Boyz’ imposing National Stadium in Kingston is popularly known, grew noisier, a party atmosphere sparked among the local fans in this most-football mad of cities. Just after the hour mark, a free-kick, expertly dispatched by Shelton’s right boot, swung over the wall and in off the post, past a despairing Tim Howard in the American goal.
The crowd went wild, and Shelton was mobbed by his team-mates. “I knew we’d win,” he said of the victory, Jamaica’s first against the States in 19 attempts. “Our attitude was right.”
Mexico, Azteca return await
That he and the rest of the Boyz open their Hexagonal account in the worst possible way – against regional and Olympic champions Mexico – only makes Shelton hungrier. “Mexico is the best team in CONCACAF, just ahead of the US, we know that,” he said. “But we’re fast and we have a deadly counterattack and if we concentrate for 90 minutes, we’ll get our chances. We can get something out of the game.
“It’s the most intimidating place you can imagine,” he admitted, no more laughter or easy cool in his voice when talk turned to the Estadio Azteca, venue for the 6 February meeting. Mexico have lost only one qualifier at the Stadium in their history and Shelton came on as a substitute when Jamaica lost 3-0 there in 2008. “The temperature is so hot and the noise is so loud,” he said. “You can’t think about anything but the buzz of 100,000 people, and they’re all screaming at you.
“But I was young then. Now I’ll ignore all those Mexicans who want me to suffer,” said Shelton, who sounds like a man in the mood for another upset, and a few more goals in the yellow shirt of his home island. “This is where it starts. This is the next step toward Brazil,” he concluded. “I’ve never taken a drink in my whole life, but I might just raise a glass the night we qualify for the World Cup.”