Since founding their FA in 1920 Guyana's Golden Jaguars never left much of a footprint on CONCACAF football. However, the former British and Dutch colony of 700,000, tucked away in the tangled jungles of South America's North-East corner, have found their way of late and are setting their sights on reaching their first world finals.
After a stretch of 14 games and over two years without a loss through 2005 and 2006, the Guyanese climbed an astonishing 95 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking (they are currently 111th). In so doing, they earned themselves a seed position as the 12th-best team in the CONCACAF region during the preliminary draw for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™.
The way things have improved over the last few years is simply amazing
," star striker Randolph Jerome, 30, recently told FIFA.com. "People don't really know too much about us. I always get asked: 'Is Guyana an island? How do you spell it?' But now, now people are starting to know who we are."
A goal's difference
Even though their lengthy unbeaten run ended in January 2007 with a loss to St. Vincent, it's hard to ignore the kind of transformation Guyana have experienced. The high point came when they reached the finals of the Caribbean Cup in 2006. After amassing four points in their group with a win over Guadeloupe and a draw with Cuba, they missed out on the semis by goal difference. The cruel statistic meant the Jaguars also missed out on competing in their first CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2007.
Randolph, who has scored ten goals in over 20 appearances for the senior national team, calls the Caribbean Cup experience "a huge let-down." His disappointment emphasises the side's increased competitiveness and lofty expectations.
The reason for the recent up-turn in fortunes is simple if you ask the striker, currently with two goals in three games in 2008 for the Cleveland City Stars in the USA's third division.
Man with a plan
"It is all down to Shabazz," Randolph says, referring to current head coach Jamal Shabazz. The Trinidadian took up the reins in 2005 and has brought a level of professionalism and optimism that was sorely lacking previously.
"We always had talented players down in Guyana," said Jerome, who, like many Guyanese players, started his career in Trinidad's Premier League. "But it took a man like Shabazz to put it all together and make us tick like a fighting unit.
"He came in with a set of ideas and tactics that he was convinced were going to work," the lanky striker went on.
The current Guyana national team is loaded with players who play professionally in Shabazz's nearby home of Trinidad and Tobago. Twelve players currently ply their trade in the T&T top flight, with five from Caledonia AIA, where Shabazz once coached. A handful of the squad still line up in the amateur domestic league and in various tiers of the semi-pro network in the USA and Canada. They even have one player, Shawn Beveney, based in England. Rumoured interest from Hereford and Leeds United looks likely to make him the first Guyanese player to play professional football in Europe in the very near future.
There may be more headed for the old continent in the years to come if the Jaguars can keep up the form. As Jerome explained: "Since we (Guyana FA) got a website and we started to do well, a bunch of players with mothers or fathers or uncles from Guyana started to pop up, and they want to play for us!"
Guyana enter the qualifying phase for South Africa 2010 at the second round where they will meet neighbours Suriname - who beat Montserrat 7-1 in the first round - over two legs in June. On recent form, the Jaguars are considered rampaging favourites.
But Jerome refuses to get ahead of himself. "We beat Suriname in the Caribbean Cup, but every game is different and just because we beat them then doesn't mean we're going to beat them now," said the striker who once played in Lebanon's top flight. "
We are really pleased with the direction of our football and we are thrilled to get the qualifying phase rolling
It sounds as if like the Golden Jaguars are ready to roar with the big boys. USA, Mexico and all the CONCACAF aristocrats can consider themselves warned.