René Simoes, the Brazilian coach of Jamaica's national team took on the job in 1994, at which stage they were in 98th position in FIFA's world rankings list. By March of this year they had achieved a sudden rise to 30th. Simoes sees this progress as only the beginning of a boom in the Caribbean island.
FIFA Magazine: When the name Jamaica is mentioned what first comes to mind are Bob Marley, reggae, rum, Merlene Ottey, or the film "Cool Runnings". How does that affect you as a football trainer?
René Simoes: True, football was not very highly rated when I came here. Cricket was the undisputed number one team sport, but things are changing. Now everyone's talking about football, and the business world has come alive to the sport's advertising potential. The Association has recently set up a finance and marketing committee, in which successful members of Jamaica's business community are involved.
You have made a huge jump up the world rankings. Has the limit now been reached?
No, this is just the start. There is so much potential on the island that even I as a Brazilian am astonished. Up till now it has not been tapped; I am the first to try to develop it in a serious and systematic manner. We still have a lot to learn, but even now we have a really strong team.
For the first time, three CONCACAF teams will qualify for the World Cup finals. Do you think your team can earn a place in the top three?
If it goes according to paper form, then Mexico, the USA and Costa Rica will be the ones going to France. But already in the preliminary round we have overcome a more highly rated opponent in the shape of Honduras. With a bit of luck we could qualify.
What is special about Jamaican football? What do you consider its strengths and weaknesses?
The situation here is similar to that in Africa: the players have lots of talent and tremendous natural ability. There are countless individual players who can do almost anything they want with the ball. But the African comparison goes for the weak points as well; there isn't, or at least there wasn't, a proper structure. Everyone tended to play for himself and nobody had heard of mental toughness. Changing this is where I had to begin.
What did you do specifically?
There were no real hopes or expectations, nobody had very much faith in their own potential. First I had to convince both players and officials that something could be achieved. They had to learn to believe in themselves, and then the task began of turning those talented individual players into a team. It was also necessary to improve the level of fitness. Now we have reached the stage at which we can play good football for the full 90 minutes.
Are you satisfied with the working conditions?
Today I can answer that question with a clear yes, but it hasn't always been that way. With the exception of two players who are involved in Major League Soccer in the States all the rest are under contract to the Association until the end of the World Cup qualifiers. And the two "foreigners", Wolde Harris and Altimont Butler, are not first string, so I can live with their periodic absences.
So you effectively train in the style of a club team?
Yes, that's the only road to success in Jamaica. The clubs work in such a laid back fashion that when the players come back for the next national team training session their physical condition is way behind. Now things are different - I can direct and control the level of fitness of all the players.
Who is paying for this enterprise "France 1998"?
We have developed an ideal system called "Adopt a player": businesses that take an interest in sport pay the players' wages, and in return can use the names of the players they support in their advertising. In this way all 30 members of the squad have a sponsor, and for the first time they can earn good money playing football in their home country.
You are a Brazilian yourself. Do you try to get your Jamaican team to play Brazilian style football?
No, we play Jamaican style, but it is based firmly on the Brazilian philosophy. Brazil is the only place where real Brazilian football is played.
What is most important in the Brazilian philosophy that you try to get over to your players?
We try not to let opponents find their own rhythm and dominate the game. That means that we have to keep possession ourselves as much as possible and pass the ball round within the team. I also have to train and prepare the players so that they are all using their talents 100% for the team.
You have also stressed to your players that they should behave like kings on the field and like beggars off it.
Many footballers have bad personal habits, and Jamaica is no different. I want to counteract this by showing the players how they can be good human beings too. If they show pride and self-confidence on the pitch and behave like kings they will be hard to beat. If they can be modest at other times, satisfied with little as a beggar would be, then they are living in the image of Christ who showed us the correct way to behave as human beings.
In view of your recent success do you see your job as a coach primarily as that of an educator?
Yes, that certainly is a very important aspect of my work. Remember that even people like Einstein and Picasso never finished high school and yet they are among the geniuses of our century. As a trainer I can also show people without a high school diploma how they can make the most of their talent and develop into role models for the masses.
And as part of your coaching staff you also have a priest, who recently led prayers in the stadium before international matches.
Faith can move mountains. The priest is there before every important match, as well as on Sundays, to remind all the players who they have to thank for being where they are. When I look back on the positive changes the players have undergone in the last two years, then I can see that we are on the right track.
During the prayers at the home game against the USA you stretched out your left hand sideways, with the palm upwards.
I do that before every match. I am asking for strength, support and the guidance to do the right thing.
Let's make a hypothetical jump and suppose that your dream of Jamaica reaching the World Cup finals comes true. What would be your aims for France 98?
I would first of all make it clear to the players that I would not be totally satisfied with the qualification itself. Anyone in one of my teams must have high ambitions. If a team reaches the World Cup finals then the players must have a strong desire to be world champions. Otherwise they might as well stay at home.
So you would expect from your players that they win the World Cup?
I would expect them to have that attitude. Perhaps it is just a dream for 1998, but maybe such a miracle could happen later. It takes players with winner mentalities. Even if a team loses, they can go home feeling like winners as long as they have all worked hard.
You also could have become a priest or a philosopher. Why did you decide on football?
For me football is the most democratic of sports. Everyone can play the game, big or small, whether they live in the north or the south, girls as well as boys. That's why it's the world's number one sport - it holds hope for everybody.
Do you see any players in Jamaica at the moment who have the potential to make a career on the international scene?
The backbone of the current team - Gregory Messam, Walter Boyd, Onandi Lowe and Theodore Whitmore - are players whom I already rate as very good, yet they don't have the potential to be superstars. But our two most talented younger players, Ricardo Gardener and Andy Williams could make it. They have all that it takes.
You impress on your players that they should have a vision. Have you yourself got a vision of the kind of team you'd like to coach one day?
Of course. As a boy I already dreamed of Barcelona. Being the coach there would be the greatest thing that could happen to me. At a FIFA meeting where Jamaica received the award as the team having made the most progress, I was asked several times by Spanish people if I could imagine myself working in their country.
Just suppose that your team makes it to France and that you are drawn against Brazil in the group games.
That would be the worst thing that could happen to me in France. It would be an absolute nightmare. I love my country, our flag, the national anthem. But for the first time in my life I would then have to support the opponent. If we should qualify then I will pray before the draw is made that a scenario such as you present would not happen.