Michael Johnson is a football manager who, for a long time, didn’t have a team. He yearned for an opportunity, especially at the highest levels of the English game. It wasn’t meant to be. After many interviews that resulted in no job offers, the English-born former defender of Jamaican heritage landed the manager’s position with the tiny nation of Guyana.
Johnson, a manager rejected by 25 clubs in England, doesn’t want to talk about himself or his struggles. He’s focused on his players and improving Guyana’s footballing fortunes. “We are not good enough to give a team a two-goal head start. We’re not Manchester United, we’re not Liverpool, we are not Brazil or Argentina,” said Johnson, who played for Jamaica. “We have to defend really well.”
Guyana, a former British colony, is 177th in the latest FIFA rankings, from 211 member associations. They may sound like a footballing backwater, but this is a team that has gotten the opportunity this summer to compete at the highest level against some of the best sides in their region. Guyana lives and breathes football, and that passion was on full display at the Gold Cup, which is being hosted jointly by the United States, Costa Rica and Jamaica. “We need to be more intelligent and more efficient,” said Johnson, a former Derby manager who also served as Notts County’s boss manager in 2009. “We gave away the ball far too cheaply. At this level, you get punished.”
The old joke about the Gold Cup is that teams participate in the tournament every two years just so Mexico and the United States can meet in the final. Very few teams have been able to break this hegemony. Only once, in the year 2000, did Canada win the trophy. The other 13 editions, since the first in 1991, have been won seven times by Mexico and six by the US.
The current edition of the Gold Cup is more than a futile exercise. It holds the promise of a different champion, but it is likely that Mexico, by far the strongest team at the tournament, wins it again. The tournament’s inherent predictability belies the promise of some of the smaller nations that take part. This summer’s version saw CONCACAF increase participation by four, to 16 nations, a promising sign that the talent level in this often-maligned region has seen an uptick in improvement in recent years.
Of the nations at the tournament, more than half hail from the Caribbean. Those nine countries – largely considered minnows in the larger scope of the international game – played entertaining football over the past two weeks. What the Gold Cup also highlighted was the British connections many of these Caribbean nations have – largely a legacy of colonialism – in terms of playing style, tactical influence, managers and the experiences of some of the players.
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Curaçao, a former Dutch colony, advanced to the quarter-finals after defeating Honduras 1-0 in the group stage. So did Haiti, a former French colony, after stunning Costa Rica, a CONCACAF powerhouse, 2-1, and Canada 3-2, to reach the semis. The former British colony of Jamaica, arguably the most-successful Caribbean footballing nation in history, also have reached the semis after eliminating Panama. “Nothing is impossible,” said Jamaica manager Theodore Whitmore about his side’s chances of winning the Gold Cup. “We just have to work hard and we’ll see what we can do.”
Like much of CONCACAF, federations have been dogged by scandal. After Guyana, known as the Golden Jaguars, came within a single goal of qualifying for the Gold Cup in 2007, FIFA banned GFF president Colin Klass in 2011 for ethics violations and removed its general secretary, Noel Adonis, in 2014 for similar infractions. National team players went on strike in November 2012 over a lack of payments. The team wouldn’t play another competitive match for two years.
Whitmore said this Gold Cup has been a chance for smaller CONCACAF nations to get better every two years and prepare for World Cup qualifying. Reaching the World Cup remains a priority for Jamaica, who qualified for their first in 1998. Since then, the Reggae Boyz have gained plenty of respect. Whitmore said teams like Jamaica – featuring just one English-based player this time around in Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Michael Hector – also need to emulate established nations and play efficient football. “At times it’s not always about the pretty football,” Whitmore said. “It’s about results. Going forward, there are a few things to fix in terms of putting pressure on the ball and cutting off the passing lanes much quicker.”
Starting in the 1980s, Caribbean-born players, with British passports, were called up to play for England. At the 1990 World Cup, where England finished fourth, the team featured several notable children of immigrants: John Barnes, Paul Parker and Des Walker. All had family connections in the West Indies. Last summer, a multicultural England again finished fourth at the World Cup. In their semi-final defeat to Croatia, for example, five of Gareth Southgate’s starting players were of Caribbean descent. One of them, Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling, was born in Jamaica. This cultural exchange has heavily influenced football on both sides of the Atlantic.
For those talented enough to play in the Premier League, the players received experience and a professional environment to train in. The teams, in return, got the flair, dedication and athleticism that has been these players’ trademark the past few decades. “We are a team with our diversity and youth that represents modern England,” Southgate told ITV in an interview last year. “We are the reflection of a new identity and we hope that people connect with us.”
Danny Rose and Ashley Young both have Jamaican ancestry, while Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have Guyanese origins. The Manchester United duo of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford have family that came from the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Kitts and Nevis, respectively. While England’s Caribbean connection has grown deeper, the players that don’t have a chance to play for the big British nations have returned to don their roots’ colours.
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At the same time, Caribbean nations have had some success at the World Cup. Cuba were the first in 1938. It wouldn’t be until Haiti in 1974 that a Caribbean nation would qualify for the finals. The creation of the Caribbean Football Union in 1978 – composed of 25 FIFA nations and six territories – was created to give smaller countries a voice within CONCACAF and raise the standard. Its creation has come with some mixed results. Jamaica made history in 1998 when they qualified for the World Cup, while Trinidad & Tobago were the last nation from the region to do so in 2006.
In May 1990, a team of Caribbean All-Stars put together by the CFU played Crystal Palace in a friendly at Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The game ended 2-2, highlighting once again the close ties between England and the Caribbean. Ian Wright, the son of Jamaican immigrants, scored both goals for Palace that day.
Nonetheless, there has often been little to celebrate when it comes to Caribbean football. Jack Warner, who served as CONCACAF president from 1990 to 2011, was banned by FIFA for life in 2015 after US authorities charged him – and dozens of others – in a massive money-laundering scheme regarding bribes from nations seeking to host the World Cup and surrounding television rights.
He has been fighting extradition to the US ever since in his native Trinidad. Warner, along now-deceased FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer, used CONCACAF like a personal ATM machine. But Blazer became a whistleblower and gave US authorities information leading to the arrests that rocked FIFA and ended Sepp Blatter’s presidency.
The CFU was at the centre of the scandal after investigators said a meeting in Port of Spain – arranged so the president of the Asian Football Confederation at the time, Mohammed Bin Hammam, could address members to persuade them to vote for him in the FIFA presidential elections. The vice president of the Bahamas Football Association, Fred Lunn, told investigators that he had been given a brown envelope containing $40,000 in exchange for votes.
A lot has changed over the past four years. Instead of lining the pockets of corrupt executives, the confederation has put into place a series of good governance plans and used the money generated from tournaments such as the Gold Cup to grow the sport throughout its region. In 2018, CONCACAF held 13 major competitions, resulting in 328 games being played.
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The creation of CONCACAF NextPlay – a collaboration between member associations and Ministries of Sport and Education – helps fund opportunities for children to play football. The increased funding and expansion of the Gold Cup can go a long way in helping countries like Guyana, something Johnson said can also help his players gain wider exposure during the transfer window.
“This is what this tournament brings – a number of opportunities for these players to really put themselves on the global map for clubs who may be interested in them,” Johnson said. “We’ve had an opportunity for the first time to put Guyana on a global map, which has been great. But now it’s time for the government to step up, for it’s time for investment into sport and the opportunities for youngsters who watched the Gold Cup and are galvanized by it.”
The Golden Jaguars have plenty of English connections despite the searing sun and sandy beaches. Aside from Johnson’s time as a player and manager, 11 of the 23 players have contracts with English clubs, many of them as semi-professionals. The team also features former Fulham left-back Matthew Briggs, who at the time of his debut in 2007 became the youngest player in the Premier League aged 16 years and 68 days. Now 28, Briggs, who represented England at youth level, plays for Essex-based club Maldon & Tiptree Football Club in the Isthmian League.
Guyana failed to reach the knockout stage after a 4-0 defeat to the US and 4-2 against Panama. Johnson assessed his team’s Gold Cup performance, saying the loss against Panama was crucial. “The two goals we gave away [against Panama], all that hard work at the start of the game went away,” Johnson said. “We’re not good enough to give goals away. We have to stop gifting goals. We have to stop these elementary mistakes we are making.”
Johnson’s side made history in their following match, drawing Trinidad & Tobago 1-1 to earn their first-ever point at the Gold Cup. It was a goal by midfielder and captain Neill Danns, who plays for League One side Bury, that gave Guyana the temporary lead, another first for the Golden Jaguars at the tournament. “You have to be honest, it was nowhere near what I would expect and nowhere near the standards we set for ourselves in the first two games. It’s disappointing to end like that, but if I take the whole competition into context, it has been historic,” Johnson said. “This is our first point, we scored three goals, and that is something to celebrate and enjoy.”
Danns expressed more positivity, hoping this summer can serve as a springboard for future success. “The importance goes beyond football,” he said. “This is still a developing country. To qualify for such a prestigious tournament, it’s been fantastic for all of us.”
By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi