Fri | Jul 1, 2016

Football on fields of gold

Published:Thursday | December 13, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Hubert Lawrence
Hue hurdles a tackle from Antigua and Barbuda's Luke Blakely on the National Stadium turf during the recent CONCACAF semi-final round World Cup Qualifiers in Kingston. -File

Hubert Lawrence, Gleaner Writer

Many believe that Jamaica's magical 1998 World Cup campaign was an anomaly. We've never qualified for the Finals before or since, so you can see how that opinion could be formed. That's how hard it is to succeed in international football.

The 1998 campaign was like a dream come true. There was generous corporate support, a team that spent extended time together, and a timely injection of England-bred professionalism that rescued the campaign near the end.

We haven't gotten the job of qualifying done since then. Corporate support is perhaps constrained by hard times. With more players playing professionally abroad, our teams spend less time together. Finally, as we have seen with Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, it's hard to get the best eligible players from overseas.

The results of the ongoing Caribbean Cup competition reflect all three issues. The squad there isn't quite the same as the one that beat the USA in Kingston as part of an advance to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The only real solution is to create a better-quality player at home.

Allied to that is the need for Jamaica to find a playing system that fits our bill. That would allow youth players to fit into the senior team seamlessly when they are selected. In addition, when overseas-based players are called up, they'd know what jobs they had to do on the field.

To be fair, a Jamaica speed-based attack system is emerging. Given our affinity for sprinting, that makes sense. But we need more than just speed. Top coaches will deploy fast defenders to counter that ploy. So Jamaica needs a variety of weapons.

That won't happen on the lumpy fields football is played on in Jamaica. There won't be a posse of skilful ball artists coming from the uneven surfaces which are common in this country. Under these conditions, the coaching initiatives being undertaken by the JFF will have limited success.

improving playing surface

It's little wonder that St George's College is number one in schoolboy football. The pitches there are smooth enough to allow the Georgians to learn and perfect sound technique in control, passing, dribbling and shooting.

The next big move in Jamaica's football should be in field conditions. Perhaps, companies involved in construction and landscaping might sponsor the preparation of one field per parish each year for the next 10 years. Improvements to 140 playing fields would give many more players a chance to learn better technique earlier.

In the meantime, football fans will have to accommodate the need for players schooled in the game overseas. Pretty often, they've learnt the sport under better conditions and are more adaptable to the demands of international competition. There will be times when overseas-based players make up the bulk of the first eleven.

Long ago, I learnt the hard truth about Jamaican sport and sponsorship. Five-time Caribbean table tennis champion Orville Haslam told me that a regional team title was critical to unlock the door to development funds for local table tennis. Haslam was JTTA president at the time, and among his strategies was the recruiting of England-based left-hander Carl Morgan.

That was over 30 years ago. For a while, the West Indies batting was steadied by the inclusion of Australia-bred Brendan Nash. Two of the players who helped Jamaica advance to the next round of world volleyball qualifying were raised entirely in the US system.

Maybe the next flight of world-class Jamaican 400-metre men will come from the same source. Errol Nolan, Akeem Gauntlet, Daundre Barnaby and Strymar Livingston are unfamiliar names to local track fans, but Nolan, a student athlete at the University of Houston, was on track for Jamaica in London. The others are potentially as good.

Track has always been friendlier to overseas-developed performers. Marilyn Neufville, Jamaica's UK-bred 1970 Commonwealth and 1971 Pan-Am champion, is a world record-breaking example. That may be caused by a long history of sending our best away to the US college system.

Football is far off from producing a locally based national team that can beat the best in the world. Smooth playing fields will advance that mission greatly.

Hubert Lawrence has covered sports since 1987.