Jamaica’s national football team seeks a fast track to success


Like most children who grew up in Jamaica, Alvas Powell’s first sport was track and field.

“I was a sprinter,” said the Philadelphia Union defenseman. “But I couldn’t win any races.”

There is no shame in that. With Jamaican sprinters winning eight medals in Tokyo, the tiny island of 2.9 million has won 86 Olympic medals in athletics, more per capita than any other country in the world.

If Cubans were born to play baseball and Italians to sing opera, Jamaicans were born to run fast. And if they’re not fast enough, there’s always football.

“When I was younger I started with the track. I was doing 100 meters, ”said Galaxy defenseman Oniel Fisher. “But I didn’t like the idea of ​​getting up for a run every morning. That’s when I wanted to see what else was there for me and I started playing [soccer].

“We’re born athletes, you know, so it’s easy to adapt. “

This proved to be a huge asset for the Jamaica national soccer team, which meets the undefeated United States on Thursday in Austin, Texas in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier. Jamaica have only appeared once in the World Football Championship, in 1998, and won just two games in the final round of qualifying this century, leaving them far behind the track and field program of the country.

But Jamaica’s status as a sprinting power has paid off for the national soccer team by providing inspiration and attracting coaches and sponsors with deep pockets to the island. It also gave birth to thinly veiled jealousy.

“The most important thing for us is to put our country in a better place from a football point of view. Put us on the football cards, not the track. We want to get there, where people know Jamaica is a football country, ”Fisher said.

Midfielder Kemar Lawrence, who plays in MLS with Toronto FC, agreed.

“We love our sprinters. We were happy that you could score us and say ‘these guys are fast,’ said Lawrence, whose 64 appearances for the national team are second among active players. “But if we don’t take care of the business on the ground, we’ll never get that respect.

“Our sprinters went out there and got the job done. They won their gold medals. We just have to do the same. We have to go out and play great football and show people what we’re good at. “

Jamaican Kemar Lawrence, left, and US defenseman Shaq Moore fight for the ball on July 25 in Arlington, Texas.

(Brandon Wade / Associated Press)

Coming back to the World Cup is necessary for this to happen, especially after the women’s team made their World Cup debut two years ago in France. And while the qualifying campaign is not off to a good start – the Reggae Boyz (0-2-1) are winless in three games – the fact that they are taking part in the tournament is worth celebrating as Jamaica has failed. won. a match in the last round of the World Cup qualifiers since 2002.

“Every great thing has to start somewhere,” Lawrence said. “The guys in ’98 gave us a plan and showed us how to get there. It’s unfortunate that it took us so long to really fight again. But I feel like this is just the start.

Part of the reason for that confidence, Lawrence said, is that 16 of the 20 men on Jamaica’s roster play for foreign clubs. In 1998, 14 of the World Cup team’s players played in the Jamaican National Premier League.

“The caliber of players that we have now, they play [on] best teams in England, Germany or MLS, ”said Lawrence, one of six MLS players in the Jamaican squad. “When you play [on] a team with a bigger name, you play with more quality players, so you learn more and that carries over when they come to play with Jamaica.

It’s a double-edged sword, because as the country’s profile in international football grows, Jamaica is no longer taken lightly.

“They are a tough team,” said USA coach Gregg Berhalter, who is wary of Jamaica’s speed on the counterattack. “It’s a tough team to break.

“I expect there will be urgency with Jamaica. We know it’s a good team, we know it’s a physical team. And we know there are challenges they bring.

The Americans (1-0-2) will be deprived of two of their biggest attacking threats on Thursday with Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna. Both are injured. Jamaica, meanwhile, will be without West Ham forward Michail Antonio, who has raised travel issues in his decision not to make the three playoffs in October.

This will add to the challenges for a team of sprinters who have stumbled out of blocks and are quickly running out of time to level up.

“The future is here, now. So we have to put everything in place now, ”said Powell, one of 12 players on the Jamaican roster who will be over 30 when the final round of qualifying for the next World Cup begins. “And right now we’re in the wrong place.

“We just have to keep believing in it. Qualified for the World Cup, we know what it means for the country, what it means for us. So it’s now or never for us.

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