HOWARD WALKER With the U-20 REGGAE BOYZ @ THE CONCACAF WORLD CUP PLAY-OFFS IN MEXICO
PUEBLA, Mexico — Only seven Jamaican players have the rare distinction of playing in a FIFA World Cup twice.
They are Allien Whittaker, Sheldon Battiste, Shane Stevens, Alex Thomas, Sean Fraser, Keith Kelly, and Craig Gordon, who all played in World Cups for Jamaica at the Under-17 and Under-20 levels.
Sadly, none of these players is currently in the senior set-up.
This group of players first landed on the big stage at the 1999 FIFA World Cup held in New Zealand, and two years later, they again figured in the Under-20 outfit to the Argentina World Cup in 2001 — ending a golden era for Jamaica's football after the senior Reggae Boyz had set the train in motion with the historic qualification to France 1998.
Then there was the lean spell.
After 10 years salivating for another taste of World Cup qualification glory, coach Wendel Downswell successfully led another Under-17 bunch to the 2011 World Cup in Mexico.
This year, six players from the current Under-20 squad are attempting to achieve what those seven players before them did.
Now Under-20 players, Omar Holness, Alvas Powell, Andrew Lewis, Romario Jones, Zhelano Barnes, and goalkeeper Nico Campbell — integral to the 2011 Under-17 World Cup team — have a shot of joining the elite group of Jamaican youth players who have gone before them.
The Young Boyz of this dispensation, like their predecessors, were oozing with confidence ahead of their opening CONCACAF Group C clash against Puerto Rico due last evening.
Jamaica are drawn alongside Puerto Rico and Panama in the 12-team tournament of which four semi-finalists advance to the FIFA World Cup in Turkey between June 21 and July 18.
Precocious Alvas Powell, 18, who has been capped at the senior Reggae Boyz level, is expected to lead his young band into battle from the heart of the defence, and he is never short on guts and confidence.
"We are well confident and we just have to go out there and deliver and me leading the team, we just have to talk a lot on the field. Six Under-17 (players) advanced to this Under-20 team, so we expect them to go out there and deliver," said Powell.
Meanwhile, Holness, who captained the team to the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico, is also bubbly and rates highly the team's chances of going all the way.
"In comparing both teams, I think this team is stronger than the Under-17. Everybody in the camp is confident that they are going to deliver and that we gonna get the job done," he said.
"Alex Thomas was my coach at Wolmer's and he always talks about it that he went to Under-17 and Under-20 (World Cups) and he said 'Omar you will do the same thing', so that really built my confidence," Holness added.
Another member of the team with senior team football under his belt is the talented Andre Lewis, who was a scorer at the last World Cup, giving Jamaica a ninth-minute lead against France in their 1-1 draw. He is also sensing that something special is going to happen here in Mexico.
"This team is a better team. We have players in colleges, players in the Premier League in Jamaica... we have quite a number of players that are competent to do the job and the coaching is very good also, so I am pretty confident that we will qualify for this World Cup," said Lewis, who led St George's College to back-to-back Manning Cup and Olivier Shield titles.
Jamaica scored just twice at that World Cup and Zhelano Barnes was the other scorer, netting in the 89th minute against Argentina as Jamaica lost a close encounter 1-2.
"The performance level of this team is higher, more experienced because we have players that travel and went on trials, players in college as well, so I think this team will perform better," he told the Jamaica Observer.
Goalkeeper Nico Campbell didn't score any goals on the Mexico trip almost two years ago, but he did make some fine saves and he is ready once again to perform on the game's ultimate stage.
"I am very confident in this team because we have quality players that can do the job. It's a good feeling to represent at the Under-17 and now the Under-20 level," he noted.
Rene Simoes would say the late Peter Cargill was his 119 person — someone who mops up and makes sure everything is safe. The Under-20s have found those qualities in Romario Jones.
"We have been playing together and we understand each other's roles and how each player plays. My role is key to the team (as) I have to be the one to organise the team (and to) always make sure the team is playing," said Jones, who has been doing that for St George's College over the years.
If the confidence being exuded by this bunch of World Cup dreamers is anything to go by, Jamaica could be in the mix for yet another World Cup coup.