SPORT-JAMAICA: Burst of Nationalism Hits Football Squad

Howard Campbell

KINGSTON, Apr 21 1998 (IPS) - Following months of basking in the success of World Cup qualification, Jamaica’s celebrated football team, called the Reggae Boys, have been jolted by a spurt of nationalism which many of their supporters believe they can do without just two months before their historic opening match against Croatia.

The addition of two English-born players — bringing the number of English professionals in the squad to eight — has earned team coach Rene Simoes the wrath of local fans who claim the Reggae Boys have become too British for their liking.

Danny Maddix and Daryll Powell, who both play in the English Premier League, have been called up by Simoes to play in tournaments in Iran and the United Kingdom, a move which has not gone down well with fans and sportswriters alike.

The Brazilian-born Simoes has been largely credited with transforming the Jamaican game from amateur standards to its present state of competitiveness. He is easily one of the most popular public figures in Jamaica.

But he has come under fire in recent weeks, especially from the media. Tony Becca, sports editor of the daily Gleaner newspaper, writing in his weekly column, chastised Simoes and the Jamaica Football Federation for their continuous selection of players born overseas of Jamaican parents at the expense of homegrown ones.

“As important as putting on a good show, selling Jamaica and foreign exchange are to Jamaica, is it right that the local Jamaicans who got the team to France not go to France?” Becca asked, adding: “Is it fair for the young Jamaicans who have been performing well, and have been dreaming of parading on a stage from which they can impress scouts be robbed of that opportunity while others step in?”

But the 44 year old Simoes has stood by his decision, saying once the players are eligible to play for Jamaica, he sees no reason why they should not be included.

“I don’t care what people think, once they are good players they will play,” he said. “If the squad that I have does not improve I will have to look elsewhere.”

There was little opposition when Simoes went to England in early 1997 to scout for players with Jamaican connections to play for the local team, which at the time was struggling for one of the three places to the World Cup from the Confederation of Central American and Caribbean Football (Concacaf) zone.

The first batch of players — Paul Hall, Fitzroy Simpson, Deon Burton and Robbie Earle — all made the squad, figuring prominently in the team’s dramatic revival. Burton and Hall in particular, were outstanding, scoring eight goals between them as Jamaica made it to the World Cup for the first time.

Since the team’s historic performance in November in the match against Mexico, other overseas players with Jamaican links have expressed interest in wearing the Jamaican team’s colours, some as far away as France and Denmark.

Their inclusion has dealt a death blow to the chances of players who were fixtures in the team up until a year ago. Among them are striker Paul Young, midfielder Altamont Butler and defender Donald Stewart all of whom helped Jamaica top the preliminary table of the Concacaf zone.

While Burton, Simpson and Hall have become integral to the public relations blitz that has made the Reggae Boys into a marketing executive’s dream, Simoes’ other selections have not been as popular.

Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair and Wimbledon striker Marcus Gayle, both of whom play in the Premier league, were not very impressive when the Jamaicans placed fourth in the Concacaf Gold Cup.

Their performance prompted calls from fans who insisted Simoes and the Jamaica Football Federation give homegrown players first choice at places in the squad. But the Brazilian has stuck to his guns. “I try to do everything with criteria and I discuss all of this with my experienced players. It has worked so far,” he wrote recently in the press.

As popular as Simoes has become since the team’s qualification, he is not without his critics. His taskmaster’s style has been described as autocratic, charges which have been fuelled by his much- publicised run-ins with star striker Walter Boyd.

Boyd, just as popular as the coach, was the star of Jamaica’s preliminary round showing. His differences with Simoes has gained national notoriety and his constant omission from the squad in recent times has seen Simoes losing favour in some quarters.

But the Brazilian coach has endured pressure from the Jamaican public since he first arrived in the country in 1994 on an agreement with his government.

Though the latest incident is certain to dog the Reggae Boys until the final squad for France is named, Simoes says his team will not be distracted and is confident they will create a few surprises in the World Cup. “Watch out, Michel Platini, we are going to shake your country,” he wrote recently.

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