It seems a long time ago that Jamaican hearts soared. A goalless draw at the feared and fearsome Azteca in February was historic for the Reggae Boyz and such an auspicious opening to the CONCACAF Hexagonal had Jamaican fans and players alike dreaming of reaching the FIFA World Cup™ for the second time in their history.
“It was a fantastic start,” Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore, who celebrated more enthusiastically than most amid the boos of the Mexican home fans that night, told FIFA.com. He placed a heavy emphasis on the fantastic, as if trying to reach back in time. “My pride that night was intense; it was a special night.”
Since that heroic opener, which promised so much, Jamaica’s train has come off the rails. At the bottom of the six-team qualifying group with only two points from three games, they are still waiting for a first win and have scored only one goal. But Whitmore, who scored a pair of his own the only time Jamaica reached a FIFA World Cup, back at France in 1998, has a knack for seeing a silver lining in all the gloom and gathering storm clouds. “We can’t let ourselves get stressed out,” said the man they call Tappa on the island. “We don’t really have anything to worry about.”
Mexico momentum lost
The Jamaicans failed to capitalise on the momentum they built in Mexico, only managing a draw with Panama in their first home fixture, before losing, with little resistance, on the road in Costa Rica. “We are still in a good position,” insisted Whitmore. “Panama are better than in previous years and winning on the road in Costa Rica is never easy. This is football and there are going to be ups and downs.
“The most important moment is now,” Whitmore continued, his voice losing its loose island lilt and becoming suddenly grave. In the space of one week, Jamaica’s Brazil 2014 fate could be known. They host Mexico at home on 4 June, with USA coming to Kingston three days after that. The Boyz then board a plane for San Pedro Sula and a date with Honduras on 11 June.
“These are the most important games of our campaign; this decides everything,” he said. “Right in a row, we have the top three teams in CONCACAF, and there are nine points to play for. This is the moment for us. We can go one way or the other way.” Whitmore clearly grasps the importance of the occasion, which he stops just short of calling do-or-die, but now the trick is rising to meet the challenge.
“Everyone knows the Mexicans and the Americans are the toughest in CONCACAF. This is not any secret,” he added, stressing how his side beat USA in Kingston in the previous round. “No one comes to Kingston and gets anything easy. We need to be fast, we need to be powerful, we need to switched-on for the full 90 minutes." In short, Jamaica need to be at their best, like they were at Azteca those three long months ago. Also, they will need to score goals.
Gun-shy Boyz need to hit the net
“This is our major problem,” admitted Whitmore, when asked about his side’s lack of potency in the Hexagonal, where none of his named strikers have scored, and the only goal – against Panama – came from defender Marvin Elliott. “We need to get in among the goals and it’s a major concern,” he said. “Sometimes when you don’t get a lot of time to play together as a team, the goals are the last thing to come. It’s the last touch, the last piece of the puzzle.”
Jamaica have so far relied on their physical power, compactness through the pitch and some blinding counter-attacking speed. They have a balanced mix of England and USA-based professionals and young domestic up-and-comers. But goals have well and truly eluded. “I don’t think it’s a personnel problem; he have the players who can score,” Whitmore said.
Luton Shelton, Jamaica’s all-time top-scorer, is a likely source of goals, should he be fully recovered from a niggling knee injury, and he could partner Ryan Johnson of MLS side Portland Timbers, who is having a break-out season for his club. There is talk even of Birmingham City’s Marlon King returning from international retirement to lead the line.
Whitmore’s options are plenty, but at some point things just need to click. He insists that the spirit remains strong in the team even as they look up from the bottom of the standings. “We have tough times coming up, but that’s when we Jamaicans are at our best,” he said, clearly believing his words, maybe remembering their famous stand at Azteca. “We need to take it to the big boys again."