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Jamaican talent and the World Cup

Sunday, June 10, 2018

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TWENTY years ago a packed National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, cheered enthusiastically the Reggae Boyz.

The Rene Simoes-coached team had drawn the crucial game with Mexico and hence qualified for the World Cup in France. It was a joyous evening in Kingston and the then Prime Minister of Jamaica declared Monday to be an impromptu national holiday, much to the chagrin of the business community.

Five World Cups have elapsed since 1998 and the Reggae Boyz have failed to be included among the 32 teams that make it to the World Cup. Jamaicans remember fondly the performance of our athletes in track and field in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and in London in 2012 and again in Brazil in 2016. But since 1998, other teams in CONCACAF like Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Mexico have seen their football advance while the game in Jamaica has fallen behind. In this global interconnected world, professional sports have become a mega-business and professional athletes command stupendous salaries. In the case of world soccer, the training regiment has undergone profound changes.

Jamaica is known for exporting its brain thrust and that has been the case in the world of football. When in the late 1960s professional soccer began in North America, a large contingent of footballers in Jamaica seized that opportunity. Players like Henry Largie, Mutty Scott, Rudy Pierce, Winston Earle, Art and Asher Welch excelled in the league, but the financial foundation of the league was shaky and before long the noble experiment went defunct.

One of the gratifying spin-offs of the 1998 World Cup was that a few of the Reggae Boyz were given the opportunity to play professional football in England. Ricardo “Bibi” Gardner had a fairly long career at Bolton Wanderers and Ricardo “Wily Bo” Fuller had productive years at Stoke City. “Bibi” and “Wily Bo” were the only Reggae Boyz who had the privilege of playing in the Premier League, but players like Ian “Pepe” Goodison, Walter Boyd, Theodore Whitmore, Onandi Lowe, et al, seized the opportunity to play in the competitive leagues below the Premier League.

In recent years, most of the more developed footballers have been practising their wares in the more solidly financially constructed Major League Soccer. In fact, the majority contingent of contemporary Reggae Boyz is indeed drawn from the Jamaican professionals in Major League Soccer. Nonetheless, the MLS does not attract the top-tier footballers that comprise the top leagues in Europe.

What is heartening even though Jamaica will be absent from the World Cup in 2018, is the development of Raheem Sterling and Leon Bailey. Unfortunately, neither developed their football prowess inside of Jamaica, but that potential for greatness took place out of Jamaica. Raheem Sterling alighted from Jamaica at a tender age with a mother and an older sister committed to enhancing the family's economic well-being.

At the age of 10, Raheem Sterling began revealing his talent as a footballplayer. By that early age, he had been drafted by Queen's Park Rangers. The talent displayed attracted the attention of the more celebrated clubs and at the age of 15, Liverpool appropriated Sterling's skill set. Soon thereafter, he was turning out for Liverpool, one of the more celebrated clubs in England — at the same club where Johnny Barnes established a successful professional career in English football at a time when black players were still a rarity.

Jamaicans during the World Cup in Russia will invariably focus their attention on Raheem Sterling. In Manchester City's triumphant 2017-2018 season, Sterling emerged as one of the top forwards in the English Premier League. His pace, his dribbling ability, his craftiness with defenders in the last third or in the box makes him critical for England advancing beyond the first round.

Raheem's departure from Liverpool was more than acrimonious. When Sterling sought to renegotiate his contract with Liverpool after returning from the World Cup in Brazil, his then coach, Brendan Rodgers, felt it was too soon in his career to be making demands and the Jamaican-born winger should settle for a more modest contract. Sterling was adamant and demanded to be adequately compensated by one of the richest clubs in England.

Salaries in the professional ranks of world football are wildly variegated. Strikers and attacking players make the megabucks and defenders and goalkeepers are more modestly compensated. World-class forwards like Ronaldo of Real Madrid, Messi of Barcelona and Neymar of Paris Saint-Germain are lucratively paid. Wayne Rooney, who is now in the sunset of his career, was paid 350,000 pounds weekly at Manchester United. Ya Ya Toure at Manchester City was paid 320,000 pounds weekly. Paul Pogba, who recently signed with Manchester United, commands a salary of 290,000 pounds weekly. Raheem Sterling, when he signed his deal with Manchester City was compensated at 180,000 pounds on a weekly basis. His fortunes in the 2018 World Cup will be a big factor as he renegotiates for a future contract.

Leon Bailey was transferred from Genk Football Club in Belgium to Bayer Leverkusen in January 2017. Much kudos must be given to Craig Butler as he had the foresight to recognise that if Jamaican footballers were going to compete in the global football market, it was necessary to get them into soccer academies at an early age. In another era, Jamaica was able to develop at home players of the calibre of a Siddy Bartlett, Allan Cole, Walter Boyd or a Henry Largie. In this new dispensation in the football world, academies have become indispensable for honing world class talent.

Leon Bailey has displayed uncanny prowess since arriving in Germany and playing in the Bundesliga. He kicks with both feet. He is deadly in kicking a dead ball, and pace and guile will make him into a world-class player.

Reports are that Chelsea has offered Leverkusen a 70-million-pound transfer fee for the sought after Leon Bailey. He has shown that he is ready for the big leagues and to make his name as a world-class player.

The establishment by Peter Gould of a football academy in Mt Pleasant, St Ann, Jamaica, is an indication that in the football organisational circles in Jamaica, there is the stream of consciousness that soccer academies are indispensable if we are to advance the game in Jamaica. The legendary Jamaican soccer coach, Winston Chung-Fah, understood the significance of the soccer academy and was instrumental in acquiring land to start an academy but the funds thus far have not been forthcoming.

At this juncture, Jamaica must plan for the future. We need to produce in the coming years more Raheem Sterlings and more Leon Baileys. If not in the 2022 World Cup but sometime soon thereafter that an overflowing crowd of Jamaicans can grace the National Stadium and with great gusto celebrate the return of the Reggae Boyz to the coveted World Cup.

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