World Cup: Gospel according to the Boyz

`I read a prayer to the stadium and then 20,000 people sung the national anthem. I'd not heard that in 15 years'; Andrew Longmore visits the French village taking the outsiders of Jamaica to their hearts
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The Independent Online
IN the opening of the official stock exchange known as the 16th Fifa World Cup, a match mysteriously unreported brought a glimpse of a more precious coinage. Arc-en-Barrois 3, A Jamaican XI 5. Rural Haut Marne meets downtown Kingston, dialect French versus Caribbean patois, red wine v Red Stripe. No cultural exchanges have been more curious than the arrival of the World Cup's designated romantics in the heart of a community dedicated to the manufacture of life's higher pleasures, champagne and the hunting of boar.

The Jamaican delegation has taken over the chateau in the main square of the village (pop: 900). Outside, small groups of children mingle with the camera crews, both trying to catch a glimpse of the men in vivid green, black and yellow tracksuits who, like some exotic birds, have come to nest for a summer in their midst. The local embrace has been touching, from the makeshift bread beach displayed in the window of the boulangerie on the opposite corner of the square to the Jamaican flag hanging over the door of the local garage and the vintage of pear rum specially brewed to mark the occasion which attracted a rare sighting of one of the players, Fitzroy Simpson.

"The only problem," said Clement, a waiter at the nearby Hotel du Parc, "is that no one has really seen the Jamaicans and no one really knows why they're here." The chateau, whose chequered history includes a brief spell of ownership by a man called James Bond, would defy the ingenuity of 007 himself such is the Odd Job mentality of the two-man one-woman police force assigned to escort duty and chateau patrol. At the makeshift tourist office, seven helpers wait patiently for the influx of visitors yet to come. "I think the interest will grow after the first match," pronounces Clement. "Maybe."

If a world-wearying schedule of 25 matches in six months over five continents has given the Jamaicans a crash course in international football, it has also drained some of the novelty value out of the self-styled Reggae Boyz. Whatever the cost to romance, there has been nothing carnival or haphazard about the team's preparation. Yet only at 2pm Caribbean time this afternoon, when families flow out of the churches and gather round the television sets, when the rum shacks tune in to pictures from the industrial town of Lens and even the street criminals of Kingston take an afternoon off, only then will the elaborate game of fantasy football end. Much more than just private sponsorship has been invested in the country's best footballers, of whichever generation.

"No single thing has brought the nation closer together than this," Al Miller, the team's chaplain, says. "I read a prayer to the whole stadium before our last qualifying game and then 20,000 people sang the national anthem. I'd not heard that in 15 years." The congregation of the Church of the Fellowship Tabernacle in Kingston have had to sacrifice the services of their preacher today in the cause of Jamaican football. Miller will lead the players in prayer, as he does before every game, sending them out to meet Croatia with his favourite exhortation. "When Ja [Jesus] is for us, which man is going to be against us?"

The Croatians will underestimate those spiritual forces at their cost today. Miller's belief that the arrival of men of the calibre of Captain Horace Burrell, the president of the Jamaican Football Federation, and Rene Simoes, Jamaica's Brazilian coach, owes less to coincidence than destiny has been reinforced by the draw for the opening round of matches. Jamaica play two of their games on a Sunday. "Music used to be the unifying factor in our culture, now it's football," Miller adds. "These guys have given the nation a sense of hope and it is up to us, the spiritual and political leaders, to take that on once all this is over." The booty of qualification, estimated at pounds 10m to the federation, should help the cause.

Other forces propel this crazy bandwagon. More progressive Jamaican officials have long understood that Brazil was a natural source of inspiration for their football, but the fact that two of their national coaches died in a car crash on the way to a Brazil game in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico has added to the emotional ties. Yet, not until the arrival of Simoes, the Inspector Clouseau lookalike, did the blurred focus start to sharpen. Burrell attracted the finance; Simoes added the cohesion. "Rene has brought a sense of belief not just to the players, but to the people," Ed Barnes, Jamaica's answer to Des Lynam, says. "He's been able to relate to the ghetto, because he's been there himself. He's had difficulties in his life, mastered them and moved up. He wants his team to do the same. His Christianity is very strong too. His tracksuit says `Jesus saves'."

Simoes's sylvan tongue worked hard to bring Peter Cargill back from an eight-year spell as a professional in Israel and to persuade the original English-based band - Fitzroy Simpson, Paul Hall and Deon Burton - to throw in their lot without upsetting national sensitivities. "He put the players first," Cargill says. "That's what impressed me." Others have proved more stubborn.

A charge sheet of indiscipline finally moved Simoes to banish Walter "Blacka" Boyd from the squad, though Boyd is a gifted goalscorer and the people's hero. When Boyd was omitted from the original squad, his supporters blockaded the roads into Kingston and the government feared an outbreak of civil unrest. "Walter just needed some guidance," Miller says. "It was not him, it was the people around him who were the problem." Shades of Paul Gascoigne. Under Miller's guidance, Boyd bought his own $500 ticket to New York to persuade Simoes that he deserved one last chance. Simoes left the decision to his players, who voted 15 to seven to allow Boyd's return. Now his red boots are the only remnant of a flamboyant spirit.

Boyd's sudden rehabilitation has been attributed variously to the influence of the Prime Minister and the mafia. When the final squad was announced, Simoes issued the press with a three-page statement explaining the circumstances of his return. "He's just a quiet lad," Robbie Earle says. "I think it was a problem he and Rene had, but it's all sorted now. He's a tremendous talent." Boyd rooms with Simpson, one of the most ebullient characters in the squad, and has come under the wing of Earle, who also acts as unofficial adviser to a squad already attracting interest from the agents. French scouts are reported to be looking at Ricardo Gardener, a Gullit-haired 19-year-old defender from the Harbour View club. "A lot of them see this as a chance to put themselves in the shop window," Earle adds.

On the field, Earle's task is to anchor the midfield and stabilise the eddying emotions of a team prone to lapses of temperament. There will be no need for the ghetto-blaster or rabble-rousing Wimbledon style. "At half-time, Rene insists on total silence for the first five minutes, so that we can relax our muscles, drink some water and just pause to think for a moment or two. In that he is very like Arsene Wenger. He's very much into personal motivation. He'll tell you to look in the mirror in the morning to remind yourself, `I'm one of the chosen ones, I'm in the squad of 22.' His attention to detail is overwhelming, he's into everything." To maintain the camaraderie, the eight players left out of the final squad have been brought to France as well.

Simoes could revert to his old 4-4-2 formation this afternoon to pressurise the Croatians and exploit the natural fitness of the Jamaicans in the final quarter. "We have seen in the matches already that there is not much difference between any of the sides," he says. They can expect vocal support from the London-based ex-pats and more discreet encouragement from the villagers of Arc-en-Barrois, who will watch the match on a video screen in the salle des fetes at a cost of pounds 2. Realistically, Japan, Croatia and Jamaica are scrapping for second place in Group H behind the overwhelming favourites, Argentina.

"I am preparing my team to play seven games," Simoes says. They would have to widen the main square to accommodate the world.