Football: Rise of the `Reggae Boyz' inspires island harmony

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"EVER SINCE we qualify for the World Cup, football has taken the front of everything," murmured Walter "Pearl" Boyd, the erstwhile bad boy of Jamaican football, with a grin. "Now it's nothing but kids everywhere juggling a ball every minute of every day. Even the school books are full of football - that's the main thing to make them learn."

Almost a year on from the ecstatic moment when Jamaica's team, mainly composed of talented part-timers, qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in the island's history, football is bigger than ever. It provides a hefty morale boost, a vital element of unity in this notoriously volatile and factional society and a fillip to Jamaica's flagging economy, hard hit by the decline of the Far East.

Despite Boyd's well-publicised rows with Rene Simoes, Jamaica's technical director, over his cavalier attitude to time-keeping and training sessions, the Reggae Boyz' World Cup run has made his name and his fortune, although he also acknowledges laconically that it has brought "girl trouble, man".

With the whole island in ferment, Simoes threw him out of the squad for indiscipline in the run-up to the event and even the Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, begged for his reinstatement. Boyd bought an airline ticket and flew, weeping, to New York to implore the Brazilian to give him back his place.

"My mother said I couldn't sleep in the house until I apologise to Rene and get back in the team," the 26-year-old confessed sheepishly in the darkness of the cluttered parlour of his family's tiny breeze-block bungalow in the working-class Kingston suburb of Nanny Town. His persistence paid off and, although not in the starting line-up for the Group matches in France, he came on as a substitute in all three games.

Back home, Boyd, is delighted at the peace which his side's success brought to warring factions within the city. Earlier this month he scored the winner for the national side in a friendly against a team combining the top players of two Premier Leagues teams from some of the toughest areas in Kingston - Arnett Gardens and Tivoli Gardens, traditionally bitter rivals whose joint participation would have been unthinkable until now. Four years ago, a fixture between the two, played for security reasons on the Jamaican Defence Force field, was abandoned after a near riot and a shooting in the crowd.

Earlier this month the two met again in a showcase "peace game" played with the utmost good humour, rival supporters walking together for the first time in 25 years through once-violent feud-ridden sections of ghettoes such as Trench Town. There was scarcely a scuffle, in the latest example of the new-found unity and sense of national pride that in December produced the first violence-free elections in living memory.

"The Reggae Boyz caught everyone's imagination," Simoes recalled. "They were the Cinderella team, mainly amateurs - bell-boys, truck-drivers, who became the first country to qualify without money or modern facilities.

"When I arrived in 1994 I refused to accept the widespread idea that Jamaicans were late, lazy and wouldn't work, and they proved that if you had a dream, trained hard and played as a team, you could topple sides with big money and big-name stars. All the same we had so little infrastructure lower down that capitalising on the Boyz' success was like trying to build a house from the roof downwards."

The team have remained folk heroes and in huge demand for public appearances and good works. Most donate a proportion of their fees to charity and last week they endorsed a rubella project by undergoing a televised vaccination. Simoes, a deeply religious man, insists that his stars stay in touch with the ghettoes where several played their first football. He has just donated a set of football strips to the newly formed team of a community school on a patch of waste ground in Trench Town.

The children, most with literacy problems and from chaotic, dirt-poor backgrounds, talked of the thrill they felt at their own links with the national side. "We are so proud of the Reggae Boyz," stammered 14-year- old Michael Reed, the team captain. "Professor Simoes brought us pictures of the team and gear, which uplift our spirits."

At senior level more companies are offering sponsorship to align themselves with the national side's success and under a new Adopt-a-Player scheme, major firms such as Texaco and Rent-a-Car are helping to fund the national squad's salaries. Playing standards are rising with only certified coaches allowed to train sides in the top two leagues. Until now these have been amateur but plans are afoot for a professional league of the leading 10 sides within two years.

The island's economy has also benefited despite the recession. The national carrier, Air Jamaica, flew in seven per cent more visitors this year than over the same period in 1997, while Sandals, the all-inclusive hotel chain, has seen the numbers of holiday makers go up by more than three per cent.

Oliver Foot, of Air Jamaica and the son of the island's last British governor, attributes this in part to the boost the World Cup gave to morale. "The Reggae Boyz' impact has been tremendous," he said. "It has helped unify Jamaican society and altered its old violent image."

Simoes is realistic about the challenges ahead but elated by the progress so far. "What we need now are imaginative policies, better education, more jobs," he said, "but the hope and self-belief and discipline are starting to show. The Reggae Boyz are the best ambassadors Jamaica could have."