Kingston: 16 November 1997. The National Stadium is heaving as 35,000 Jamaicans unite in bustling prayer. The opponents are Mexico and the prize is a place at the 1998 World Cup in France.
This moment has been a long time coming Three qualifying rounds, 19 matches and 18 months poured into 90 minutes of suffocating weight. The atmosphere has been building for days, and for this proud island nation, a moment of destiny has arrived.
Thousands of miles away, the US face El Salvador at the Foxboro Stadium in Boston. Jamaica need the Americans to win, while hoping they can blunt Bora Milutinović’s visitors at ‘The Office’. What happened next is etched into the minds of millions of Jamaicans even to this day.
Unlike their counterparts from the Land of Opportunity, Jamaica had reached this point the hard way, progressing through the arduous qualifying rounds to make it to the final elimination stage. Nine games had already been played, and Mexico had already been beaten once, an 82nd-minute goal from Ian Goodison proving the difference. But the return fixture had been an entirely different game, with six goals flying into the Jamaican net at the Azteca. Nobody knew what to expect.
Waves of tension crackled around the stadium, the humid air giving added weight to an already stifled atmosphere. The players laboured and the fans jittered, right up until news filtered through that Brian McBride had opened the scoring for the Americans. When another two went in, the nerves had turned into celebration. Every one of the US goals was cheered by the crowd, as choruses of ‘France, France, France” enveloped the dust bowl ground. Even a momentary comeback from the Salvadorans wouldn’t quiet them, and as Predrag Radosavljević sealed the result in Boston, wildest Jamaican dreams had become reality
“Words cannot explain the feeling,” reminisced goalkeeper Aaron Lawrence when the final whistle went in the capital. The pitch was invaded immediately as players and coaches set off in pursuit of Theodore Whitmore, who sprinted across the field with the Jamaican flag held aloft in his arms. Many in the stands burst into tears, including BBC correspondent Garth Crooks, whose parents had hailed from the country. “I’ve covered a lot of football, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he noted, as children and adults alike felt the gravity of what their team had achieved.
“This,” beamed Prime Minister P.J Patterson, “is undoubtedly the greatest day in our sporting history.” A national holiday was announced for the day after the game, with the party showing no signs of stopping into the early hours.
Read | John Barnes: pioneer, genius and still under-appreciated
The government had played its part in motivating the players for the match, offering discounted loans to the squad to build houses. This was a celebration enjoyed by the whole nation – even the police, who recorded no crimes on the island at all on the day immediately following the result.
Jamaica’s achievement had in large part been due to the groundbreaking work done by the president of its Football Federation, Horace Burrell. A former captain in the Jamaican Defence Force, Burrell had built a number of successful businesses before becoming head of Jamaican football three years earlier. His mission was a singular one – to bring his nation to the World Cup. As he gave a tearful pitchside interview after the game, there was a sense that his work had finally been completed.
Like almost everybody on the planet, Jamaica had long been intoxicated with the skill and flair of the Brazilian national team. Burrell’s first job upon becoming JFF president was to recruit his own Samba superstar to kickstart his programme of modernisation. René Simões had just left his 17th job in 16 years, departing Al-Arabi in Qatar with a view to securing work back home. Burrell went to Brazil and convinced the moustachioed coach that this was a project worth taking on.
Burrell’s millions soon began pumping into football on the island. Local tournaments were sponsored throughout the parishes, but more important was the international search launched at Simões’ behest for players whose heritage meant they might be eligible for the islanders.
After the Second World War, thousands of Jamaicans had migrated to Britain, as the government sought to fill yawning gaps in the labour market. Some of the migrants settled and had families, and some of their children became footballers. Frank Sinclair, Marcus Gayle and Deon Burton were just some of those who answered Simões’ call, despite having no connection to the country other than their shared parentage.
It would be wrong to say that the response from the Britain-based players was unabashedly enthused, however. Robbie Earle, the talented Wimbledon striker, summed up the caution: “If I broke my leg in Jamaica, would there be an anaesthetic, or would I get a bamboo-shoot strapped to the side of my leg?”
Read | Canada at World Cup 1986: an era of great talent that amounted to nothing
It may seem scurrilous now but at the time it was a legitimate question. Jamaica was a country riven by poverty, murder and gang violence, and Patterson had been elected in 1993 on a promise to invigorate the country’s flailing social protection systems.
Football, of course, was not immune to the Jamaica’s societal malaise. Referees would often carry arms to protect themselves during games in the urban townships where the sport was most popular. The JFF, meanwhile, had suffered a litany of problems, having to withdraw from qualifying for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups due to financial issues. Until very recently, there had been no professional league. Football on the island was in tatters.
Burrell’s investment and Simões’ knowledge began to turn the tide. As Jamaica’s form improved, they were named ‘Best Mover’ by FIFA in 1996. Simões noted the unbreakable team spirit within the squad, but the decision to add quality to homegrown talents like Warren Bartlett, Ian Goodison and Theodore Whitmore appeared to pay dividends on the pitch.
Frank Sinclair, the Chelsea defender who once wasn’t far from the England squad, swatted suggestions of ill-feeling towards the English contingent: “We would give them a better chance of doing well and would help their careers.”
With World Cup qualification assured, preparatory work for France began in earnest. An island that had traditionally been overshadowed by athletics and cricket became football-mad, and Burrell and Simões sought to capitalise on the momentum.
A huge 25 warm-up games were played in the six months leading up to the tournament. Advertisements for the Jamaican Tourism Board were filmed between fixtures against Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of the action. The ‘Reggae Boyz’ – as they had been christened during a visit to Zambia in 1995 – were only too happy to oblige.
Whilst the players struggled manfully during their whistle-stop global tour, relations between the squad and the media began to crumble. Simões was rendered apoplectic when his salary details were published in a Jamaican newspaper a month before the showpiece, while the squad complained to the Federation about the paltry appearance fees on offer for the tournament.
Read | Greatness without glory: the story of Holland at France 98
Simões’ decision to remove Walter Boyd from the squad also caused a commotion. The talented but volatile striker – who had watched his best friend gunned down by gangsters as a teen – had scored some crucial goals in qualifying, but his influence was deemed problematic. Nevertheless, his removal prompted the coach to receive death threats.
The team’s preparation was complicated further by the airing of a documentary from filmmaker Rupert Harris. Reggae Boyz was aired on Channel 4 on the eve of the first game of the tournament against Croatia and offered an uncompromising look at life within the squad. In particular, the differences between the homegrown and British elements of the squad were highlighted, with Fitzroy Simpson reportedly confessing to the film crew that “in Jamaica, its fine to have 10 girlfriends”.
The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the British contingent, replete with flash cars and jewellery, was juxtaposed with the more mundane existence of the Jamaica-based players, many of whom weren’t even professionals. For a reason still unfathomable today, the documentary was watched by the entire team. Despite official denials, Simões later admitted that the documentary “destroyed the group”.
By this point, Jamaica had become everybody’s second team for the tournament, their unique and colourful kits intertwined with the stereotypical image of relaxed islanders kicking back with reggae and rum.
Inside the camp, however, the mood was far from jolly. Despite the blood and thunder motivational techniques employed by the team’s ‘spiritual leader’, the Reverend Al Miller, Simões approached the tournament with cold and deliberate focus. The players were determined to represent the country with pride, irrespective of any supposed differences within the squad. Jamaica, according to Sinclair, didn’t want to be a team that had “not scored a goal, won a game or even got a point”.
Simões replaced the team’s enterprising 3-5-2 formation with a defensive 4-4-2, and they lined up in the Stade Félix Bolaert on 14 June hoping to do their country proud.
After 45 minutes of their game against Croatia, it looked like two of those three ambitions would be met. Jamaica had rallied well when Mario Stanić poked in a Davor Šuker rebound on the half hour mark. Ricardo Gardner had been playing for Jamaican side Harbour View since his 14th birthday, and it was his arching first-time cross that met the head of Earle for an equaliser that sent the Lens crowd into raptures. Reality bled back into the second half, a cross from Robert Prošinecki drifting in at the far post befoe Šuker sealed the result on 69 minutes.
Read | UAE: a journey to the unknown at Italia 90
Things would get worse before they got better. In the next game, Darryl Powell had been instructed to man-mark Argentina’s Ariel Ortega out of the game, but he lasted barely 20 minutes before being sent off. The diminutive River forward ran the show, scoring two before Gabriel Batistuta rifled in a famous hat-trick.
Hopes of a dream place in the second round may have been dashed, but the final fixture against Japan offered a chance for redemption. In an attempt to raise their spirits, the squad had paid a visit to Disneyland after the Argentina game. Whether it was the carrot of Mickey Mouse or the stick of Reverend Miller, Jamaica overpowered the Japanese at Lyon’s Stade Gerland, two Theodore Whitmore goals securing their first victory at the finals.
For some, the emotion of the moment proved too much. Earle, who had overcome his own doubts to appear for the Reggae Boyz, dedicated the moment to his parents: “Seeing their son doing something positive for the island has made them feel they have given something back after leaving 35 years ago. Jamaica is a home that until a year ago I never really knew I had.”
The team were given a heroic welcome on their return to the island. Sadly, however, their triumph proved difficult to build on. Simões would stay in the job for another two years before resigning to take over at Trinidad and Tobago. He returned to Jamaica for an ill-fated spell in 2008, but this time there would be no romance, with the Brazilian sacked after just seven months.
Burrell, meanwhile, also struggled to build on the momentum that had seen his country leapfrog to 24th in the world rankings after the tournament. The ‘Captain’ would serve two separate stints as head of the Federation, before becoming embroiled in a bribery scandal that saw Mohammed bin Hammam excluded from FIFA activity in 2011.
Burrell, who had worked alongside the notorious Jack Warner, overcame the turbulence to resume his FIFA duties right up until his death earlier this year. His influence was such that both the Leader of the Opposition and the Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness released statements on his passing. The latter noted that he dedicated his life to serving Jamaica.
For one glorious month in France, Burrell’s dream came true. To this day, Jamaicans cherish the green, black and gold memories he helped forge. The Reggae Boyz may have grown up, but their country will never forget them.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45