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Road to France - Reggae Boyz relive historic World Cup qualification on 20th anniversary

Published:Thursday | November 16, 2017 | 12:00 AMNodley Wright
In this file photo from November 16, 1997, Jamaica's Reggae Boyz battled with Mexico to a 0-0 draw at the National Stadium in Kingston. The result meant the Reggae Boyz qualified for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.
Then Technical Director Rene Simoes is hoisted after Jamaica drew with Mexico in their CONCACAF final round qualifier at the National Stadium in 1997, which marked Jamaica's qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. Looking on is Reggae Boy Deon Burton (right).

"It was historic. Euphoric, hard to put into words," were the first words that popped out of the mouth of Warren Barrett, captain of the historic Reggae Boyz team, the first from the English-speaking Caribbean to qualify for the football World Cup.

Today, November 16, 2017 marks 20 years since that feat was achieved in 1997 courtesy of a nil-all draw with regional powerhouses Mexico. So special was the occasion that there were no reported crimes that day.

"Even now that I am thinking about it 20 years later, it is like goose pimples are taking over my body," said the man who was not only the leader of the team, but also served as its first-string goalkeeper.

In much the way that the emotions poured out of him on the day, they came flooding back in his recount.

"It was a feeling of relief. It was like "Yes! We did it and that brought a sense of fulfilment.

"I remember (Theodore) Whitmore with the flag doing a Usain Bolt sprint, and I did not know he was that fast. There was also Deon Burton. For me, the tears were welling up early during the game as we were on the verge, and based on the way the crowd was reacting, I knew that El Salvador (the other team with a chance were losing. I was just waiting for the game to end so that the tear ducts could open," Barrett explained.

"I remember a photographer behind the goal, I just ran to him and hugged him. Even now that I am talking about it, it is really emotional."


Mission accomplished


For Fitzroy Simpson, who like his fellow England-born and then Portsmouth-attached players Burton and Paul Hall, who paid their own way to try out for the team when there appeared to be a bump in the road, it was mission accomplished.

"I can remember clearly when the final whistle went, it was a sense of relief, almost disbelief. There was exhaustion, pride, a lot of emotions. I must have asked Paul Hall about three times. I ran to him and asked. Have we done this? Tell me, have we done this?"said Simpson, who emerged as one of the leaders in the team. So important was qualifying for the World Cup to Simpson that he ensured that his mother, brother and uncle were on hand to witness history unfold.

"I remember that I had flown my mother, my brother and uncle out before the game and I was looking out for them. Once I saw my mother, the tears flowed. I didn't stay out too long on the field; I went straight to the dressing room, had a shower, cooled myself down and just kept saying thank you, thank you, because I think this journey and everyone who was a part of it, including the public, received a gift from God, really," said the man who added some steel to the Jamaican midfield.

What made the achievement even more significant for Barrett was the fact that even though the positives were many, there were a number of things that should have kept it fromhappening.

"Twenty years after, we still do not have a professional league, we do not have the quality playing surfaces, the infrastructure is not in but God had a plan to galvanise and bring the country together," Barrett said, echoing the sentiments of Simpson about the role of God.

Simpson, who was one of the few professionals in the team, the others being a Paul Hall and a young Deon Burton; Peter Cargill had returned from Israel; and Walter Boyd had given up his contract with the Colorado Foxes to devote himself to the campaign said qualification was the highlight of his career.

"It is as clear as day the proudest sporting moment of my entire life. It is 20 years, and it is just like yesterday to me.


Proud day


"It was a proud day, and when we see qualifiers going on now, I do cast my mind back to that special day. The reaction of the people in Stadium and outside was electric. That will stay with me for life," added the man whose elder son, Jake, would follow a similar route in journeying to Jamaica to try out for the country's youth team.

The value placed on that moment is similar for Barrett who recalled the moment the journey started.

"It is definitely the highlight of any country to qualify for the World Cup.

"It was a journey that started with the arrival of coach (RenÈ) Simies in late 1994. We had many meetings in regards to qualifying with Captain Burrell, of blessed memory, who was the architect, as well as other key players," Barrett explained.

"A lot of people said it was luck but it wasn't. We were hungry. We were ready for it. People like Linval, Whitmore, Tatty Brown and the others set targets and there were incentives that we were looking forward to.

'We stuck as a team, we were more like brothers. We lived together in camp for the better part of three years and I remember in 1995 when we came back from Brazil and were to break for about a week, it was only because of pride why some of us did not cry," Barrett reminisced.