Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
One of the distinct advantages Jamaica enjoyed playing at "The Office" during a successful run to World Cup 1998, could backfire against Reggae Boyz involved in the current campaign.
Meanwhile, at least one source has confirmed that international football officials who inspected the National Stadium field prior to Jamaica's most recent home World Cup Qualifier (WCQ) on September 7 against the United States, raised concerns about the state of the playing surface.
The stadium was christened 'The Office' after it proved nearly impossible for opponents to win there against a primarily local-based Jamaica squad during the 'Road To France' campaign.
However, Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) general secretary, Horace Reid, conceded the less-than-perfect field could work against Jamaica, as the Boyz seek a spot at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"Unlike the 1998 campaign when, for the first two rounds, all our players plied their trade in Jamaica and more than 90 per cent in the final round, so familiarity was an advantage, so to speak, in this campaign it is the complete reverse," Reid explained in response to e-mailed questions addressing the stadium surface.
"More than 90 per cent of our squad play outside the country (on) first class pitches. Therefore, a bad pitch significantly affects our play."
Grand Gala celebrations
The condition of the stadium field came under scrutiny when the Government announced Independence Grand Gala celebrations on August 6 would be held at the venue.
"The field has taken a pretty severe battering," Delmanda Fisher, administrative manager for Independence Park Limited (IPL), which runs the stadium, was quoted as saying after the event.
There was worry the surface could not be repaired in time to host the United States in the CONCACAF semi-final round WCQ. According to Reid, the JFF engaged "in constant dialogue with IPL" after gala plans were announced and representatives of Jamaica football's governing body inspected the field after the event. The JFF also provided technical advice and conducted inspections leading up to September 7.
On September 6, the match-refereeing crew inspected the field. According to a source with knowledge of the inspection, but who declined to be identified in this story, the crew expressed concern, particularly with an area in the northern half.
Other indicators, for example wavy white lines near the centre and a slight ridge in the southern half, highlighted an uneven surface.
Reid said the JFF was "reasonably satisfied" with the "progress made" to repair the field and referees and match commissioner "gave the pitch a passing grade".
The JFF, he added, was not notified of concerns about the field for the match by either CONCACAF, which controls the game in the Caribbean, Central and North America, the refereeing crew, U.S. Soccer or FIFA, world football's governing body.
"We received no report/complaint about the state of the playing surface from any external body, group or individual," Reid noted.
He confirmed, however, the JFF was "contacted by the FIFA match commissioner assigned to the game" following a media broadcast highlighting the state of the field, "and the report requested was (immediately) submitted".
He added the "commissioner was satisfied with the information presented".
According to a spokesman for U.S. Soccer, the Americans did not file an official protest about the field. Neither did the US lodge an official complaint about the pitch invasion by spectators following Jamaica's historic 2-1 win, the first time the Boyz had beaten the US in 19 tries.
However, US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players said the field adversely affected their team's performance.
"In Jamaica you couldn't pass the ball around because it was bumpy in the middle," Klinsmann explained after the Americans beat Jamaica 1-0 in the September 11 return leg in U.S. "It was impossible to control the ball with one or two touches."
Despite that evaluation, Reid said it is unlikely 'The Office' will be bypassed for internationals in the near future, including next month's crucial WCQ against Antigua and Barbuda (A&B).
"This has not become necessary at this point in time," he stated.
Jamaica are currently tied on points with the US and Guatemala atop four-team Group A on seven points. The Boyz play Guatemala away on October 12, but return to 'The Office' four days against A&B. That game could decide if Jamaica advance to the CONCACAF Final round of six, from which the top three get automatic places at World Cup 2014. The fourth place finisher will play a country from another region for a spot at the game's biggest tournament.
Reid highlighted the importance of upgrading the stadium in St Andrew, built in 1962, to host that year's Central American and Caribbean Games.
"We not only need an excellent pitch, but a modern facility with all amenities that can meet international standards," he stated. "Respectfully, we must agree that the National Stadium has become very antiquated and no longer measure up to standards we can be proud of."