Football: Ecstatic Jamaica dance to France

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The Independent Online
Jamaica, the land of cricket, rum and Bob Marley, have made it to football's World Cup finals.

Phil Davison joined the party in Kingston to witness the `Reggae Boyz' make history.

The official programme said it was a football match. But it went from Woodstock-style festival of pre-match music, peace and love to a spiritual experience with flowing tears of joy. Long before the kick-off, Jamaicans had been convinced France '98 was their destiny and it turned out they were right.

When the final whistle blew and they knew they were bound for France, Jamaica's "Reggae Boyz" pushed back ecstatic fans, ordered them to be quiet and huddled in prayer along with their Brazilian manager, Rene Simoes. Minutes later, Jamaica's Prime Minister, P J Patterson, declared today a public holiday to allow the party to go on.

"One Love," went the Bob Marley song played over and over again in the hours before the kick-off. The fans had hoped that might be the score, but in the end they settled for 0-0 against Mexico. It was enough to make Jamaica the first English-speaking Caribbean country to reach the World Cup finals. (Spanish-speaking Cuba made it in 1938, the Dutch Antilles the same year, and French-speaking Haiti in 1974).

Only a Jamaican defeat and a simultaneous victory by El Salvador against the United States in Foxboro, Massachusetts, would have spoiled Sunday's party. But the Americans ended the central American side's hopes with a 4-2 win.

Among the most ecstatic players yesterday were Jamaica's four recently recruited Englishmen, Deon Burton of Derby County, Wimbledon's Robbie Earle, and Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson, both of Portsmouth. All born in England to Jamaican parents, they had renounced the chance to play for England and taken up Jamaican citizenship in a deal aimed at strengthening the island's squad.

From the moment they stood to attention during the national anthem, to the post-match moments when all four shed tears, the "Fab Four," as fans have dubbed them, were clearly moved by the return to their roots and the fact that their decision appeared to have worked out for the best.

Earlier, they had been moved by the Prime Minister's announcement that all World Cup squad players would receive government land to build houses, helped by low-interest mortgages.

Responding to a reported criticism by the Italian manager, Cesare Maldini, Hall said he could not wait to face Italy in France. "We proved we deserve to be there," he said. "And we showed we're the best-supported team in the world." Some of Simpson's Portsmouth's colleagues had laughed when he made the "reverse-immigration" trip. "Who's laughing now?" he said.

Although Simoes used him only as a substitute, Earle was full of praise for the Brazilian. "If he said `walk over that' every player would do it," he said, pointing to his hotel's swimming pool.

Also visibly affected by the atmosphere in Kingston's rickety National Stadium was Garth Crooks, the former Tottenham striker, who had never seen anything quite like it. "My mum and dad were both from here. I'd never seen a match here. I've covered a lot of football [for the BBC], but I've never felt anything like this. The moment [Jamaican reggae star] Dennis Brown started singing at the pre-match concert, I just welled up.

"And just before the end, when it was clear they were going to France, I saw a young girl burst out in tears of joy. I had to turn away before I did the same myself."

It was far from a great match, but the Jamaicans' Brazilian-style game will not be out of place in the finals.

And in France, the team will no doubt be looking forward to the luxury of a dug-out and an electronic scoreboard. At the National Stadium - dubbed "The Office" by fans - the only thing electric on Sunday was the atmosphere.

What looks like a scoreboard is a 30-year-old concrete billboard carrying the national flag and the national anthem's closing line: "Jamaica, Land We Love."