Football fever grips Jamaica, man

The West Indian island is on the brink of its first World Cup Finals. Phil Davison soaks up the mood
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The Independent Online
"It's the biggest thing since Independence, man. No, it's much more important than that. Tell France the Reggae Boyz are on the way."

Serving up Red Stripe beer in Kingston's Devon House bar yesterday, 24- year-old Jason Tulloch summed up the mood of a nation gone wild. The "Reggae Boyz" are Jamaica's national football team. Today, all things being equal, they should qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in their history.

If they do, this island is going to erupt into the biggest celebration since Independence Day in 1962. Cricket? A distant memory.

Bill Clinton could zap Baghdad today and not a soul here would notice. If the Reggae Boyz get a result, there will be an official two-day public holiday. Unofficially, it will last at least a week. It will be a brave man who tries to stop the carnival. If the "Boyz" don't qualify, there will be a week of national mourning. "But that's impossible. Jah (God) is on our side," said Jason.

Jamaica's World Cup fate depends on two results today: their own game here against Mexico and the US-El Salvador match in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Mexico and the US have already qualified. Only if Jamaica lose and El Salvador win will the latter scrape through as the third regional qualifier on goal difference.

But that's impossible. Ask anyone here. "We're going to stay up all night outside the Mexican team hotel and make a lot of noise - reggae, ska, rap, calypso, man" said team fanatic Rohan Morgan. "And we're going to send them up lots of Devon Duppys via roo service." According to a local drinks menu, "the flavour of this rum, gin and grapefruit juice drink, the Devon Duppy, will haunt you for a long time."

Helped by four British-born players who were given back the nationality of their parents to strengthen the squad, Jamaica are likely to become to France what Roger Milla's Cameroon were in Italy in 1990. Their fans sing Bob Marley songs and rival Brazilian supporters with their drum-pounding rhythm. "Are we ready to mash the place up?" goes their favourite chant. "Nuff respect. Jam rock, we rule, yardie, yardie, yardie, woy yo yo."

Their equivalent of "You'll never walk alone" is Tony Rebel's "If Jah (God) is standing by our side, then why should we be afraid of the pestilence that crawleth by night." If they score today, expect a chorus of Bob Marley's "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down, to cut you down."

With their four English "re-imports," including Derby's Deon Burton and Wimbledon's Robbie Earle, their style is described as Brazilian-English- reggae. Initially considered a little bit out of place, the four Englishmen will be Jamaican national heroes if today's results work out. "We love the Fab Four," said 31-year-old fan Michael Drysdale as he tore into "jerk chicken" by a Kingston roadside in the small hours of yesterday. "They bring us inspiration. They play with intelligence. They never give up. They always fightin', fightin'. Jamaica, when they under pressure, they tend to get irritable. The Fab Four teach us how to keep our cool. We call him "Deon-do-no-wrong-Burton."

Of the local players, goalkeeper and captain Warren Barrett is the hero. Describing his family life, the local Daily Gleaner newspaper noted: "He is the father of two and is married to his children's mother, Suzette."

In the words of the team's Brazilian manager, Rene Simoes: "When I came here, the players were like 11 seals with the ball on their noses. No co-ordination, no combination. When I came here, it was Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, reggae, dread, marijuana."

At Kingston's rickety National Stadium - known to the fans as "The Office" - spliff (marijuana)-smoking scalpers were doing a roaring trade yesterday. "You want a ticket, a press pass, ganja (marijuana), a nice young girl," said scalper T.M. Perkins with a beaming grin. "I have nice VIP passes for you. They identical to the real thing, man. My friend works for the company that makes the real ones."

"The Office," in the shadow of Kingston's upmarket Beverley Hills suburb, is supposed to hold just over 30,000. With the counterfeit tickets and the fans who traditionally clamber over the back of "the bleachers," there could be many, many more today. Ask Michael Drysdale, for example, if he's going to be there.

"If me be at it? If me be at it, man. You got to be jokin'. If me mother die, me goin' to be at it."