Schafer gets a lifeline
Maybe the most relieved man on the park after Jamaica's penalty-kick victory over Trinidad and Tobago to win the Caribbean Cup was coach Winfried Sch‰fer. The Jamaican public, and I dare say the Jamaican football authorities, were quietly running out of patience with the grey-haired German.
Sch‰fer himself didn't appear to be too perturbed, but a bad performance in this tournament would have raised the crescendo of those calling for his head. He may not have survived it. In hindsight, maybe we were too quick to pressure Sch‰fer.
He took over Whitmore's team at the back end of the World Cup qualifiers when morale was low and self-belief non-existent. Winning would have been a miracle; losing was understandable. After that, he was losing to teams that we shouldn't have expected to beat up easily.
At no other point in our history did we play such a high-profile series of internationals in such a short time. The likes of France, Switzerland, Egypt and Serbia were in rapid succession, and while the team was losing, the mere fact that we were getting in those games must have allowed the coach to observe our players first-hand, and to plot a strategy forward.
As a nation, we have embraced football in a way that we never had before. We are no longer in the mood to offer long honeymoons to any national coach. Having tasted World Cup participation, the bar has been permanently raised and every coach will now be judged harsher than his predecessors of, say, 25 or so years ago.
So Sch‰fer can breathe easy - for a while. He has bought himself some time. Winning the Caribbean Cup may be one small step for a man, but it could have meant a giant leap for a nation, and indeed a struggling programme. Maybe this victory will galvanise all the stakeholders into starting to dream again.
It may be my imagination, but I sense that the players were a little bit more passionate and serious this time around than they were in the last few Caribbean tournaments. Jobi McAnuff, for example, played with the kind of verve and spirit hardly seen in those overseas-based English players. When he joined in the celebration with his teammates, you couldn't tell that he wasn't a genuine 'yard man'. The public must have sensed this determined spirit, too.
As Rodolph Austin pointed out, after the first two games, the stands were half-empty, but by the time we took on Trinidad in the final, the park was jam-packed. It was good to see. A full stand is often not merely about quality of play, but about quality of spirit, and the Jamaicans showed that here.
Austin's post-match statement - that beating the Soca Warriors was extra sweet because Trinidad has been turning back Jamaicans - was undiplomatic, but it spoke of a team that was highly motivated. We need that. We are not as technically gifted as some of the CONCACAF rivals that we will be facing soon. We are not going to beat Mexico and USA and Costa Rica by 'balling' them and running out 3-0 and 4-0 winners. We don't have that quality at all.
Therefore, we will have to build our programme on players who have oodles of desire and national pride, players who are willing to die on the pitch. What we lack in technical proficiency, we have to make up for in heart. A determined crop of Reggae Boyz have a better-than-even chance of once again going to the big dance. Central to that set-up must be the enigmatic man of the tournament, Rodolph Austin. He is the prototype that should characterise our team. He lacks a lot in finesse. He is often criticised, not least by yours truly, about his propensity to be booked and his poor passing over distance. He is not, by a long stretch, the most aesthetically pleasing footballer. But he works as hard as anyone in world football and has a big heart and a never-say-die attitude. A few more Rodolph Austins would help us.
This will be Sch‰fer's biggest challenge: to find such players over the next few years, and to create the right mood in that squad. The biggest job of a coach at the national level is not to impart strategies and tactics, as people may think. The coach's biggest job is to pick the right people and infuse them with the right attitude and the right drive. Sch‰fer, for the moment, may be on to something. Time will tell.
n Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN FM. Email feedback to columns@