The much-aligned Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) seem reliant that FIFA World Cup history will repeat itself by utilising a plethora of British-born players, which would mean the national side returning to the World Cup finals for the first time this century.
To reach the finals at France 1998 the JFF boosted their squad with stars who were born in the UK, which earned Jamaica their now infamous ‘Reggae Boyz’ nickname.
With the World Cup finals now extremely financially lucrative, the JFF have long been heavily head-hunting new recruits who were born in the British Isles in a bid to boost their fortunes. Jamaica, as one of the top five FIFA-ranked nations in the CONCACAF region at no.45, have an excellent chance of reaching Qatar 2022 as they kick-off their World Cup campaign in the third and final qualifying round on 30 August.
Mexico (FIFA ranked no.11), USA (no.20), Costa Rica (no. 50) and Honduras (no.67) have also been handed byes to the same stage.
A trio of second qualifying round winners will join the round-robin format of the competition with El Salvador (no.69), Canada (no.70), Curaçao (no.76), Panama (no.78), Haiti (no.83),Trinidad & Tobago (no.103), Guatemala (no.127), Antigua & Barbuda (no.128), St. Kitts & Nevis (no.135), Suriname (no.136), Nicaragua (no.147) and Dominican Republic (no.156) all serious contenders to reach this stage, having already started their World Cup qualifiers last month.
The top nation from each of the six groups will play over two legs, home and away, with three winners reaching the knockout round-robin Octagonal Round. Each team will play home and away against the other seven sides, but only the top three sides will automatically qualify for the World Cup finals.
However, there remains a chance to reach Qatar 2022 for the fourth-placed CONCACAF side, who would advance to the inter-confederation play-off against an Asian-based team.
Mexico, a regular top 10 team, are expected to breeze into the World Cup finals with the resurgent and more youthful United States hot on their heels. Although an experimental US squad thrashed Jamaica 4-1 last month, the Boyz were thrown together at the last minute because of their long-standing feud over monies between leading players and the JFF.
That particular cat-and-mouse game came to a recent conclusion, after both parties finally agreed over future contracts, which leaves the future bright under industrious tactician Theodore Whitmore. As head coach Whitmore has been an exemplary advert for the game and, despite limited resources and often not involved in the selection progress, has marvellously maintained Jamaica’s stature within the world’s top 50 nations.
The Montego Bay-born 48-year-old was a key player in the heart of midfield when Jamaica made their inaugural World Cup finals appearance in 1998, so to guide the Boyz to only their second World Cup finals would be an incredible feat.
Whitmore was without five of his most influential faces for the exhibition friendly against the US in Austria, as they had all rejected the JFF’s financial deal. He was thrown in the deep end without goalkeeper and captain Andre Blake (45 caps), defenders Kemar Lawrence (60 caps) and Alvas Powell (49 caps), winger Leon Bailey (eight caps) and defender Damion Lowe (22 caps).
Six British-born players, who ply their trade in the English second tier, made their Jamaica debuts against the US. Yet not one of them really set the game alight, although striker Jamal Lowe (Swansea City) did score a wonderfully cheeky goal and showed that he has some real star quality potential.
And Whitmore only had two training matches to rule his eye over the English-based newcomers of defenders Amari’i Bell (Blackburn Rovers), Liam Moore (Reading) and Ethan Pinnock (Brentford), midfielder Kasey Palmer (Bristol City) and forward Andre Gray (Watford).
With the English-based defensive duo of Fulham’s Michael Hector (33 caps) looking ill at ease and Bristol City’s Adrian Mariappa (50 caps) looking his age at 34, their experience did little to settle the nerves of these debutants.
Whitmore is clearly going to have his work cut out in picking his best squad for the World Cup qualifiers. At least he has the CONCACAF Gold Cup as a prelude, so can decide about whether to bring some of those British-born players that JFF president Michael Ricketts constantly claims are in the process of acquiring Jamaican passports.
Ricketts stated last month that defender Mason Holgate (Everton), midfielders Isaac Hayden (Newcastle United) and Kemar Roofe (Rangers), strikers Michail Antonio (West Ham United), Nathan Redmond (Southampton), Ivan Toney (Brentford) and Demarai Gray (Bayer Leverkusan) are all expected to make their international debuts for the Boyz before the World Cup campaign.
Other British-born players who were approached by the JFF, but have yet to commit their allegiance to Jamaica, include defenders Nathan Ferguson (Crystal Palace) and Reece Oxford (FC Augsburg, Germany), midfielder Lewis Baker (Trabzonspor, Turkey on loan from Chelsea) and forward Tyrese Campbell (Stoke City).
Since Fulham striker Bobby Decordova-Reid started the ball rolling as one of the first English-born players brought into the squad, the JFF have been on the hunt to help Whitmore have enough top quality troops ready for battle.
Decordova-Reid, who missed last month’s match against the US because of injury, has just four caps but has made an impact since scoring on his debut two years ago against Antigua & Barbuda in the CONCACAF Nations League.
Ravel Morrison, who made his long overdue debut for the Boyz when he faced hosts Saudi Arabia last October, is without a club but the journeyman midfielder remains in Whitmore’s plans.
Whitmore should thrive if he starts to select his own squads rather than inherit them from the JFF’s choices. Surely the JFF have had their heads turned by the prospect of the financial rewards for reaching Qatar 2022, so are pulling out all of the stops to enable the Boyz to compete at the sport’s showpiece tournament.
Now that the wage negotiations with players has been resolved with July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup up next, Whitmore can have his stars fine-tuned to kick off their FIFA World Cup qualifiers in late August/early September.
Although history and success clearly favours Mexico and the United States to waltz into the World Cup finals, the threat of Costa Rica should not be ignored.
Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who is the no.1 at French champions Paris Saint-Germain following his transfer from Spanish giants Real Madrid, is a pivotal player for Los Ticos. And in a tight yet entertaining friendly, Mexico only edged a slender 1-0 success over Costa Rica last month.
Honduras, whose Under-23 side stunned their US counterparts last month to book their ticket to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, showed that the nation is not to be underestimated so the senior side remain a serious threat.
Whitmore will have to play a waiting game while the JFF lavish praise on the Brits abroad and try to coax them into wearing a golden jersey. Whether the island’s leading players, the majority being part of the JFF’s training camp in Kingston, will be happy to play second fiddle to those from overseas remains to be seen.
The ultimate goal from the JFF is to reach Qatar 2022, but this could be a short-term solution as history proved after Jamaica failed miserably on the international stage following their exploits in reaching France 1998.
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