WCup campaign kicks off - Boyz meet lowly Nicaragua at National Stadium
Jamaica's Reggae Boyz will begin their quest for a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals in Russia, with a first-leg football match against Nicaragua at the National Stadium tonight, beginning at 8 p.m.
The contest is crucial to both country’s chances of playing in the prestigious tournament, as is the return match in Managua next week Tuesday.
In this light, the pressure will be on Jamaica to push for a clear advantage at home.
Aggregate scores will decide the winners of the series. Simple equation: win equals advance; loss means elimination.
For the Reggae Boyz, the latter is unthinkable, even moreso as they have made tremendous advancement and improvement over the past year. Based on the current FIFA rankings Jamaica should hold a distinct advantage. The Reggae Boyz are ranked at 52 while Nicaragua are well down at 139.
At year-end in 2014, the Jamaicans crowned themselves Caribbean champions with victory over Trinidad and Tobago in the final of the regional championship. They followed that up with practice match wins against Cuba and Venezuela. Then, Jamaica were invited for the first time to South America’s Copa America tournament, where they gained much stature and confidence despite losing 1-0 in matches against Paraguay, Uruguay and world number one Argentina.
Immediately the Boyz played another tournament, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and made it all the way to the final, a historic feat for a Caribbean team.
Coach Winfried Schafer used basically the same core of players throughout and the team actually got better and better, fuelling expectations of a handsome win against Nicaragua, which is somewhat of an unknown quantity, but from Central America where the players’ techniques and standards are quite good.
Regardless, the Boyz will be looking to make their mark at this level, which defines Schafer’s four-year mandate.
“It’s more important than the Gold Cup,” said the Jamaica coach. “It’s the first qualification for the World Cup group. All the players are highly motivated. We need a full stadium behind us, it’s important.”
It’s a level of support that has proven effective in the past, so much so that the Reggae Boyz made the venue a fortress and called it ‘The Office’.
This team though, has practically been doing the business on the road, with hardly any practice at the venue.
Striker Giles Barnes, who got hot at the CONCACAF Gold Cup with two goals and forced a series of saves, relishes the opportunity to play in the nation’s capital, it's prime sporting venue and is aiming to extend his goalscoring exploits.
“To score again for the country, in Kingston, would be a dream come true; that’s a bonus,” he told The Gleaner in an interview.
“I just want to win the game and get through and make sure we are in the World Cup qualifiers,” he added.
His strike partner, Darren Mattocks, also got hot at the back-end of the Gold Cup, with goals in the historic semi-final victory over the United States and in the final against Mexico. Now he’s home, Mattocks wants his team to deliver for the fans.
“Most of our overseas fans came to watch us (Gold Cup) and were really pleased. But the real die-hard fans are in Jamaica, so what we did in the Gold Cup and Copa America we want to bring back home,” he said.
“We expect a big turnout and we are hoping to deliver on these two games,” added Mattocks.
Nicaragua’s Football Association president, Jose Jacinto Reyes, said they are young but full of heart and desire victory.
“Even though it’s a young team, we are playing with our hearts and even though we have a young team, we are here to win. And we pray to God that we can win, otherwise we will still give them a great challenge,” Reyes said.
They beat Anguilla 8-0 and Suriname 4-1 (on aggregate) in round one and two qualifying. The leading scorer for the Central Americans is Raul Leguias with three goal while Juan Barrera and Carlos Chavarria have scored two each.
The Jamaican challenge will be tougher.
Mattocks and Barnes are expected to lead the attack, which will be missing Britain-based regulars, Joel (Jobi) McAnuff and Garath McLeary, whose wives are expecting.
Simon Dawkins, Joel Grant and Demar Phillips are regulars who appear key candidates for those attacking midfield positions, while Schafer looks set to keep his trusted and efficient central midfield pairing of captain Rodolph Austin and Je-Vaughn Watson.
Starting central defender Wes Morgan is unavailable, as is Jermaine Taylor, another vastly experienced central defender, who got a long-term injury at the Gold Cup. It means adjustments at the back, where Michael Hector, who only this week signed for Chelsea, appears a shoe-in.
He made two mistakes that cost as many goals in the Gold Cup final, but said he was keen to make up and now gets the chance. In that back line will be Adrian Mariappa, the experienced Crystal Palace man. The options appear less clear in this key area, where Schafer has added to his options the very lucky Alvas Powell, who turned his back on his country at the Gold Cup by walking out on the team and at a stage where the team knew it would not have had four players for its next match.
Schafer, who at the time said he would not have recalled Powell, has gone back on his word, noting the unavailability of Morgan and Taylor.
Phillips and Hughan Gray may also come into the reckoning, while the goalkeeping duties could fall to either Dwayne Miller, or Duwayne Kerr, who blundered on a goal in the Copa 1-0 loss against Paraguay.
Jamaica will be looking to boot away the errors in their quest to comfortably ride this Nicaraguan challenge in their kick-off for Russia 2018.