France '98: When Samba Calypso

A wily Brazilian has given Jamaica the chance to be the neutrals' favourite. Stephen Brenkley talks to him
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RENE SIMOES is known to everybody in Jamaica as The Professor but this understates their feelings. God, say, might be a truer reflection. In taking the country to the World Cup finals for the first time, the shrewd Brazilian coach has kindled not only huge national pride and euphoria but also achieved a personal status pretty close to deification. This might have been diminished slightly by revelations of his salary in a Jamaican newspaper and his subsequent declaration only three weeks before the beginning of France 98 that he has no intention of continuing after October. But he has not gone yet. The announcement might have sounded terminal - and will hardly help to ease the side's tricky passage - but the Jamaican people may yet be prepared to offer him an olive branch. He really is that respected.

In any case, without the Professor they know there would have been no qualification and without qualification there would have been no Reggae Boyz. As it is, Jamaica are already assured of being the novelty act of France 98. Under the Professor's careful tutelage, the Reggae Boyz will almost certainly be every neutral's favourite team in the finals and everybody else's favoured second team. They bring not only an underdog's natural allure but also a touch of the exotic - of sun, beaches, natural flair and freedom. Fuelling the latter perception may indeed turn out to be Simoes' greatest achievement. In truth, he has spent his three years in charge persuading them to dispense with the upbeat rhythms of Reggae Boyz, instilling organisation, caution and awareness. The result is that Jamaica's fans are much more attractive on the eye than the team they support.

Simoes is a jaunty, engaging fellow with a bristling moustache which, from certain angles, makes him look like Groucho Marx. "This team has had a lot to learn and is still learning," he said. "I deliberately arranged 27 games for the side after we qualified. Most international sides play maybe five or six games a year so I thought we could learn in six months what otherwise would take five years." This might safely be assumed to be the Professor's wiliness but there is no doubt Jamaica should feel the benefits. Their Jamaican-based players would have been at home playing on bumpy pitches in uncompetitive leagues. Instead they have played in Europe and South America against sides of varying standards - Brazil, Wales, Queen's Park Rangers and Manchester City have all fulfilled fixtures against them in a bizarre build-up - but importantly they have played together.

Simoes is the first to admit that the Boyz would not be going to France without the assistance of several English-based players. It was his idea to run the rule over the plethora of young professionals in England whose parents emigrated from Jamaica. Soon they were begging to be included. The recruiting coincided with Jamaica's 6-0 defeat by Mexico in the second match of the final round of their Concacaf group, although they had already come through three Caribbean zone fixtures. They conceded only six goals in their next eight matches.

"We became harder to beat because we had a bit more discipline," said Simoes. "It rubbed off on the other players. Suggestions that the introduction of new players caused friction are wrong. It's all about assimilating them into the team and we went for players who not only had the ability we were looking for on the pitch but could get on with their fellows off it. There is no problem, none at all."

In the 19-year-old flying left-back, Ricardo Gardner, moreover, Simoes has a home-bred player who may be the first to make a significant breakthrough overseas. The Professor gives the impression of being relaxed, of enjoying life. In nearly two decades as a coach he has been in charge of Brazil's Under-23 and Under-21 sides as well as passing on his knowledge in Portugal and Qatar. He is a Christian who makes it seem as though Glenn Hoddle is playing at it. While he plans for matches with the help of a lap-top computer in which is stored the finer details of opponents' strategy, he also invokes help from above. Jamaica's squad for France will include a priest. "Faith moves mountains," Simoes said. "The priest is there for every important match but also to remind players who to thank for what they are." Simoes reminds his side of that daily as his official team shirt is emblazoned with the message: "Jesus Saves".

While they are more adept at not conceding goals and able to keep the ball for long periods in midfield with more assurance, Jamaica lack a killer punch. Hence, the introduction of Portsmouth's Paul Hall and Deon Burton of Derby County. Burton scored in his first four games, became a Caribbean hero and will perform on a stage in France that he never imagined before Simoes' call came. If the players hang on the Brazilian's every word, Jamaica's administrators are little different. Their federation's president, Horace Burrell, hired him but would never dream of interfering with his territory. "Professor Simoes has transformed our football and we have a genuine chance to build on this over the next 20 years" said Captain Burrell. "It's a truly magnificent feat, and magnificent for the whole of the Caribbean."

There may be those who point out that as Jamaica are obviously not among the best 32 teams in the world they should not be at France 98. But this ignores the uplifting effect they will have on the tournament and Simoes, in his smiling way, gives constant assurances that they are going not only to participate. "I don't say that we will win it but that is our intention," he said. "I expect us to have learned a lot more by kick-off time."

The opening match is against Croatia and whatever happens Jamaica will be following the gospel according to Professor Simoes.