Football: Paris gig for Reggae Boyz

John Carlin in Washington watches the Jamaicans' World Cup show
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The Independent Online
In The unlikely event that England, Scotland and Ireland all fail to qualify for the World Cup finals, some comfort might be drawn from the unprecedented number of foreign players employed by English clubs who will be making the trip to France.

Italians, Dutchmen and Norwegians immediately leap to mind. There is also Germany, South Africa and Romania. But Jamaica? Well, yes. After a 1-1 draw away against the United States here on Friday night, Jamaica - who have four English league players in their squad - top the Concacaf group and are on the brink of qualifying.

Wimbledon's Robbie Earle, who was born in Newcastle- under-Lyme and barely four months ago was a contender for a place in the England squad, suddenly realised that his best chance of playing international football lay with the country where his parents were born. Earle trained with the Jamaican squad in Washington last week but a knee injury sustained in his last Premiership game denied him the opportunity to play against the US.

But Fitzroy Simpson and Paul Hall, attacking midfielders who play for Portsmouth, did savour the heady experience of World Cup action on Friday, as did Derby County's 20-year-old striker Deon Burton. Burton, who speaks with a Home Counties accent and admits he struggles to understand the rapid-fire patois of his native-born Jamaican team-mates, has been the toast of Kingston since his arrival on the World Cup scene last month.

He, more than anyone, has been responsible for a spectacular turn-around in Jamaica's football fortunes. Without him, and the other three expats, Jamaica registered one goal for and nine against in their first three World Cup qualifiers, somehow salvaging one point along the way. In May they scored what looked like a consolation 1-0 victory at home against El Salvador.

But then last month, with the Fab Four on board, Jamaican football (until very recently an oxymoron no less preposterous than, say, Swedish cricket) soared to undreamed-of heights. On 7 September they beat Canada 1-0 at home and a week later they defeated the powerful Costa Rica, by the same margin, also at home. Burton, who scored both those goals, became overnight the biggest thing to hit Jamaica since Bob Marley.

Any doubts as to the fervour football has suddenly generated in the Caribbean island, where they have blessed their national team with the title "Reggae Boyz", were blown away by the extraordinary spectacle on Friday night at Robert F Kennedy Stadium, Washington. Of the 51,000 spectators in the capacity crowd, at least half were Jamaican supporters who had travelled by bus, by train, by plane from New York, Florida and Jamaica itself. The stands were a riot of green, gold and black, colours hitherto associated in the rest of the sporting world only with the Olympic sprinter Merlene Ottey.

Before the game, during a training session watched with keen interest by a posse of Jamaican fans, the team's Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes, had confided that while the talent at his disposal was abundant, Jamaican football was at the level of Africa 20 years ago. "It will need at least 10 years before you can say this is a football country," he said.

Maybe he made a mistake with his English and what he meant to say was not "years" but "minutes". The US XI, almost all '94 World Cup veterans with - remarkably - more than 800 caps between them, were outplayed for most of the first half. The Jamaicans, playing their way out of defence with almost Brazilian nonchalance, looked consistently menacing in attack. A rocket of a free-kick from the edge of the US penalty area by Porstmouth's Simpson in the 10th minute flashed millimetres past the post and then a delightfully woven move involving Hall and Burton, easily the most accomplished player on the pitch, ended with Simpson squandering a free shot on goal inside the six-yard box.

But five minutes into the second half the Americans won a penalty from what looked like an unintentional handball and Eric Wynalda, their top goalscorer, made it 1-0. Less than two minutes later Jamaica were level. That man Burton again, finding the ball at his feet 10 yards out after a lucky deflection off Hall's legs, stroked the ball into the bottom corner, leaving America's sole English export, Leicester City's Kasey Keller, with no chance.

The Jamaican players remained on the pitch long after the end of the match celebrating what Simoes later described as an away point that puts them "within a hundred metres of completing the Paris marathon".

Two tough fixtures remain away to El Salvador and home to Mexico, the perennial Concacaf giants who have games in hand and look certain to win a group from which three teams qualify. But one point out of six would probably be enough for Jamaica and only a rash man would bet against them becoming the first Commonwealth nation in the Caribbean to reach the World Cup finals.