Football: Homage to the Boyz of summer

Mike Rowbottom sees Jamaica's World Cup heroes unleash a football carnival in west London
Click to follow
THERE were hooters. There were whistles. There were steel drums. There were many, many green and yellow flags. As the visiting coach, Rene Simoes, justly observed, Loftus Road was a Jamaican ground yesterday. "I don't think QPR will be the same again," he said.

Judging by the colours evident all round the ground, the vast majority of the 16,978 crowd present at Simon Barker's testimonial match were not - with the best will in the world - there to honour Simon Barker. They were getting a first glimpse of the rolling bandwagon that is the Reggae Boyz. No wonder the sponsors are falling over themselves to get a piece of the action.

Not that Rangers' long-serving midfielder was put out. As he arrived on the pitch and registered the packed stands around him, he shook his head in continuing disbelief and offered up his own applause. There has been widespread disbelief at the dramatic rise of Jamaica in the last year as, with an influx of English-based players, they have transformed themselves from World Cup also-rans into the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to qualify for the finals.

Yesterday's match was part of a 25- game tour before the serious action begins in France which will see Simoes' men take on Columbia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and either Ghana or Hungary, as well as Wales, whom they meet on Wednesday.

Jamaica's Brazilian coach is a committed Christian - he turned up with a Jesus Saves T-shirt yesterday - and an urbanely humorous fellow. He described the adventure upon which Jamaica are presently embarked as a "Cinderella Dream", demonstrating that those who are poor and without hope can still reach the heights. As he uttered this statement, the men either side of him - Horace Burrell, president of the Jamaican Football Federation, and Derick Heaven, the Jamaican High Commissioner - nodded approvingly.

Someone reminded Simoes that Cinderella had a happy ending. Did he envisage a dream coming true in France?

"I think we will work very hard to postpone midnight," he said with a grin. " We hope we don't finish as pumpkins." He has guarded against that likelihood by the shrewd addition to his squad of players such as the Portsmouth pair of Fitzroy Simpson and Paul Hall, Wimbledon's Robbie Earle and Marcus Gayle, and Frank Sinclair of Chelsea.

The march of the Reggae Boyz is a major publicity coup for Jamaica, and it looks like it is going to get better and better. There are huge belts of support for the team from expatriates around the world. Yesterday Britain did its bit to honour the Boyz.

Among the supporters gathering outside White City station before the match were Garry Davis and Aeon Channer, from South Norwood and Highbury respectively, who have followed Jamaica for more than 20 years. Channer, who played schoolboy football in Jamaica before moving to Britain, said the natural level of footballing talent in Jamaica was the same as for cricket or athletics. All that has been missing is the infrastructure and investment. " Once they put that in, the team was getting results within a year," he said.

Simoes defends his schedule against those who argue it will fatigue his players before the main event. "I don't understand that," he said. "We have 25 games in six months. In that time, English teams will play 50 games. Brazilians will play nearly 100.

"Caribbean teams play an average of five internationals a year. So we will be gaining five years in the games we play. That is our attitude."

Jamaica's play throughout made Queen's Park Rangers look like a nondescript Nationwide First Division side - which, sadly, is exactly what they are at the moment. The home side managed an equaliser on the hour through Steve Slade after Theodore Withmore had given Jamaica a 34th-minute lead.

But the Jamaicans' enterprise and palpable enthusiasm were rewarded after 63 minutes when Earle, one of several second-half substitutes, headed home a cross from Steve Malcolm to ignite an explosion of green and yellow joy. Simoes felt that the team's play in the first half, where his selection was home based, was better than in the second. His task in the next 80 days is to integrate the two styles of play. If he can succeed in that, Jamaica - whose World Cup group contains Argentina, Croatia and Japan - may do for the 1998 World Cup what Cameroon did in 1990.

England suffer more withdrawals, page 6