Football: Serious business in the Boyz zone

Stephen Brenkley sees the Jamaicans make the most of their World Cup enterprise
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The Independent Online
LET nobody suggest that the Reggae Boyz have anything to learn about the complexities of modern football. They have what it takes to prosper out there against nations much more experienced in the heat of battle. Already, the Caribbean island of Jamaica - unexpected but welcome qualifiers for the World Cup finals - have enlisted impressively big-name outside help, which should make them a true force to be reckoned with.

Apparently, the team aren't bad either. But the outside help in question, busily accrued since they clinched their place for France 98 last November and probably the envy of other competitors, is that of seriously heavy- hitting sponsors. Since they recruited English League players whose roots were in Jamaica to help in the later group stages, everybody presumed the Reggae Boyz meant business. Nobody could tell they actually were a business.

But the list of commercial links, as revealed when they arrived in England last week on the latest leg of their breathless preparations for the tournament, is long and likely to get longer. Doubtless it does not interfere with the football, which is organised by their brilliant Brazilian coach Rene Simoes, invariably referred to in Jamaica by his proper title of "Professor", but it certainly interfered with the questions at their inaugural English gathering in the Jamaican High Commission in London.

Those wishing to know about 4-4-2 or 5-4-1 were swiftly given a dose of letters instead of numbers - KFC, AA and C and W to name but three. It is rumoured, but neither denied nor confirmed, that Joe Bloggs, the jeans company who sponsor Brian Lara, have put in a cool pounds 1m. "We are quite happy to have other sponsors. There is plenty of room and we are quite willing to talk to them while we are here," said Lloyd McKintosh, the Jamaican Football Federation's financial director. All administrators down the years should have been so aware of the possibilities.

Simoes was absent with a throat infection at this assembly, an illness shown later not to be diplomatic simply so they could inject more commercial than football plugs, for he also missed the subsequent training session. But his plans for a hectic build-up have been confirmed. The Reggae Boyz have already played 14 of their planned 25 preparatory games since they finished in the all-important third place in the Concacaf group.

They are here to play Queen's Park Rangers today and Wales on Wednesday, knowing not from which direction their toughest workout may come. A mini- tournament in Iran follows, also involving Ghana and Hungary. "We play Iran and then the winners of Ghana and Hungary, so look forward to meeting Ghana," said JFF president, Horace Burrell, being a tad disrespectful to the Hungarians' heritage. They will then play, in various venues, Manchester City, Saudi Arabia, Santos and South Korea before embarking for New York for their final warm-up match. The idea is to cram two years' worth of international experience into months. If it fails to do that it should be marvellous in helping them to cope with jet lag.

"Our players don't play in a top league day to day," said the team's general manager, Horace Reid. "They need the exposure and they probably won't have played as much as the English-based players."

This, together with ticket allocation - about which they are quite as annoyed as the English - was another sticky subject. Without the English- based players it is generally recognised that the Reggae Boyz would not be where they are today. True, they have some extremely capable indigenous players, such as the veteran midfielder Peter Cargill and the left-back prodigy Ricardo Gardner, but it was Deon Burton of Derby County who scored the crucial goals as the group reached its climax and it is Frank Sinclair of Chelsea who has been recruited since to add bulk and nous to the defence. It promises to be some year for both men. Burton has plied his trade in the Premiership for the first time, was made Jamaican Sportsman of the Year a month ago while Sinclair, who scored for Chelsea in their victory over Real Betis on Thursday, suddenly has European and World Cup glory in view.

Burrell insisted that there was no rift either between the JFF and the English clubs whose players they borrowed, or between the English-based players and the folks back home. They merely obeyed Fifa rules with regard to the first and were aware of the clubs' needs. As for any dissent about their involvement, it did not matter where players resided, the fans did not mind. "They are all part of the family."

And by the way, he said, before he forgot, and looking at a note hurriedly passed to him, he had better mention the squad's official kit sponsors.