Since 16 November last year, when Jamaica became the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to qualify for the World Cup finals (and the island was granted a public holiday), the Reggae Boyz have become national heroes. As they prepare to meet Queen's Park Rangers tomorrow, and Wales in Cardiff next Wednesday, optimism is running high.
"There is a tremendous feeling in Jamaica. Everyone is singing and praying for the football team," the president of the Jamaican Football Federation, Captain Horace Burrell, said yesterday at a reception at the Jamaican High Commission in London. "It has given the nation so much hope. They are an inspiration to show people what they can achieve."
There are currently seven English-based players in the squad. Darryl Powell, the Derby midfielder, became the latest addition this week, joining his clubmate Deon Burton, Fitzroy Simpson and Paul Hall of Portsmouth, Robbie Earle and Marcus Gayle of Wimbledon, and Frank Sinclair of Chelsea.
These players may become central to the World Cup squad, but it was primarily Jamaica-based players, spearheaded by the forward Andy Williams, who did most to secure qualification over the past two years.
Questions have been asked whether the players' varied origins may present difficulties come the summer, but Jamaica's coach, the Brazilian Rene Simoes, said last week that there was not a problem. "I hold discussions with [long-standing squad members]) to evaluate whether these [overseas-based] players will fit in with the team chemistry while they are trying out before inviting them officially to join the squad," he said. The Simoes approach would appear to be supported by the fans at home. Last month, the English-based Deon Burton was voted Jamaica's Sportsman of the Year.
The island's previous attempts to qualify for the World Cup were less successful than this time. Their first two efforts, for the 1966 and 1970 tournaments, were fruitless. Their campaign running up to 1974 ended in ignominy after 17 players were suspended for bad behaviour on a tour to Bermuda, and Jamaica withdrew to restructure their side.
They failed to qualify in 1978 and did not even attempt to get to Spain in 1982 due to insufficient funds and a poorly prepared team. In 1986, they were unable to attempt to qualify because they had failed to pay their Fifa affiliation fees, and in 1990 and 1994 they were simply not good enough.
Under Simoes, however, Jamaica have become the powerhouse of Caribbean football. In 1996 they were awarded Fifa's "Best Mover" accolade. In February this year they finished a respectable fourth in the Gold Cup tournament, and they currently stand at No 33 in the world rankings and fear nobody.
On their current tour, the side will play up to 12 games in six countries in 10 weeks. Although their schedule will take them as far afield as the Far East and Iran, it will not be too taxing, according to officials. "Jamaica's situation is unique," Horace Reid, the general secretary of the JFF, said. "The players based in Jamaica are not playing in top leagues day-to-day, and need that experience. We need to give the players the maximum exposure possible." He added that the English-based players will not be expected to play in all the warm-up games.
Whoever eventually represents Jamaica in France, Bernard Burrell, a London- based correspondent for Radio Jamaica, says the success of the team will have repercussions far beyond the island. "It's no longer just a Jamaican thing," he said. "It goes beyond political and cultural boundaries. This is a phenomenon." He added that the team have fanatical support throughout the Caribbean and large fan bases in the United States, Britain and Africa. "I've even had Nigerians coming up to me saying that they want to see the Jamaica games."
The appeal of the side has not been lost on the marketing men. The team filmed an advert for the Jamaican Tourism Board last week which will be shown around the world. Throughout yesterday's press conference, Captain Burrell repeatedly interrupted to clarify who are the Boyz' official sponsors. "Joe Bloggs clothing are the official sportswear sponsor," he said. He declined to say how much their involvement was worth, but pounds 1m has been suggested by some sources.
"I'd just like to clarify that Carpor International are the official kit sponsors," Burrell said later, after being passed a note to remind him. Similar notes reminded him to mention Cable and Wireless, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Courts Furniture.
The Reggae Boyz' World Cup odyssey is expected to generate in excess of pounds 10m for football at grass-roots level in Jamaica. That might mean it will not take another 32 years before they qualify for the World Cup.