No matter which way you spin it Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz have had a good run these past two months. Playing in the Copa America to which the country was invited, and in a zone that comprised of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, Jamaica held it’s own going down 0-1 to each team but few who watched can successfully argue that Jamaica did not demonstrate that it could have at least drawn all three games. In fact, it could have won against Uruguay and should not have lost to Paraguay had it not been for Duwayne Miller’s moment of madness.
From there, the team moved on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup where it made solid progress. Playing in a group with Costa Rica the standout team from the FIFA World Cup in Brazil last year; El Salvador and Canada, Jamaica won two and drew one game to comfortably finish top. Following the 2-2 draw with Costa Rica to open its campaign, Jamaica then beat Canada, El Salvador, then Haiti and the United States to advance to its first ever Gold Cup final. In doing so Jamaica became the first team ever from the Caribbean to reach that far into the tournament.
Having got there and being the sentimental favourite to win, Jamaica fell victim to a resurgent Mexican contingent, physical and mental fatigue and two horrendous mistakes from central defender Michael Hector to go down 3-1. Many supporters would have been disappointed but there are several positive things that Jamaica can take away from the campaign.
Prior to the finals, Jamaica had only given up three goals. Two against Costa Rica and one to the United States. In my book, all three were down to mistakes made by the goalkeeper, who seemed unsure throughout. The one Jamaica conceded against the USA was the most glaring as the goal conceded came from a shot which the ‘keeper spilled into the path of Michael Bradley, who scored from the rebound.
The growth in defensive prowess demonstrated a significant step forward in discipline which Jamaica has never, certainly not in the last 20 years, demonstrated. Bolstered by the outstanding play of Kemar Lawrence, the defense stood firm, with each player clearly understanding what his assignment was. Those assignments, for the most part, were executed to the highest standard. As I mentioned before, Hector’s two mistakes in the final gifted Mexico easy goals broke the back of the Jamaican resolve. Had that not been the case, things may well have been different.
What was equally important was that for a team that couldn’t buy a goal in the Copa America, Jamaica scored in every match in the Gold Cup – two in each match against Costa Rica and the United States and one each against El Salvador, Canada, Haiti and Mexico. That’s eight goals in five matches, a decent platform on which to build.
There is still a lot of work to be done however, and these past two tournaments exposed what those things ought to be. Chief among them is that Jamaica needs to improve its transition from defense to offense and it needs to do so more quickly so as to beat teams on the counter. Too often the players seemed uncertain about how they want to advance the ball and at pace. Running off the ball, spacing and setting up the right angles continue to prove to be a challenge but I suppose that will come over time and with more matches together, something that Jamaica will now be able to command having proven themselves worthy opponents for some of the best teams in the world.
Jamaica also needs proven strikers, even though that it something that it might have to do without throughout the coming 2018 World Cup campaign. Darren Mattocks and Giles Barnes did fair jobs during the Gold Cup but if Jamaica is to continue to progress each must be a lot more productive scoring from open play. Against lesser teams Jamaica needs to be able to score three to four goals at will which coupled with it’s maturing defensive play will make the team an even more formidable force.
Jamaica also needs another creative midfielder to augment the work of Jobi McAnuff. McAnuff has been outstanding for Jamaica, especially when he plays through the middle but the question is can he continue to improve at 33 years of age. By the time the team nears Russia he will be approaching 36 and his play will most likely be falling off by then. Someone to learn from and ultimately replace him needs to be identified as soon as possible to ensure continuity.
The Jamaica Football Federation too also needs to raise its game. Prior to the CONCACAF final, its president, Captain Horace Burrell, lambasted Corporate Jamaica for not supporting the team. However, I would also suggest that Captain Burrell look in-house for solutions. The JFF needs to be even more accountable and transparent in its operations. It also needs the skills of a world class marketer, who can help position the team to attract a global shoe sponsor and other international sponsors which will help generate the money it needs to launch a successful World Cup campaign and afterwards, a sustainable development programme. The JFF will also need to eventually hire another world class coach as Winnfried Schaefer, at 65, is not getting any younger.
However, it’s a good start; one on which the country can build. In 1998, Jamaica got a major boost when it qualified for the World Cup in France but wasted the opportunity to create something lasting from the experience. It’s more than time now that we learned from the mistakes of the past and finally build a proper programme from the ground up that will secure this country’s football future.