By Orville Higgins
The Reggae Boyz will be taking on Panama tonight in what is expected to be an exciting and crucial World Cup Qualifier. To the thousands of fans who will be making their way into the National Stadium tonight, nothing but victory will do.
The Jamaicans started with a spirited draw against the Mexicans at the Azteca, and that result has raised hopes that we will definitely qualify for the 2014 World Cup tournament. The national consensus is that if we could get a 'positive' result against Mexico in Mexico, the rest of the campaign should be soup.
Such sentiment is reasonable, if a tad overly optimistic, especially when we look at the aggregation that we have put together for the game. Never before has a national football team comprised so many seasoned professionals.
In the 1998 campaign, our squad consisted of mainly locally based players sprinkled with overseas professionals. The very opposite is happening here, where the nucleus of on-field players are people who ply their trade on foreign shores, while those who play on the Rock will be the exception. I expect there to be no local Premier League player in the starting line-up.
Some commentators have a difficulty with this. I don't. We can't fool ourselves into believing that the team that took us into this final round would have been good enough to see us through to Brazil. At this level, some of them would have struggled to make an impact.
Now it's not only a matter of ability, it's also about big-game experience. Make no bones about it, that draw in Mexico was due, in no small measure, to the fact that most of the players who took the field were not overawed or initimidated by playing against the Mexicans. They would have been accustomed to playing tight games, in front of hostile crowds, and therefore would see the Mexican experience as just another day on the job.
I have heard (or read) of several local football luminaries who feel that we should be exposing more Jamaica-based players at the national level. Many feel that the wholesale importation of foreigners, as they call it, will not help in our overall development. I disagree. After our qualification for the 1998 tournament, Ricardo Gardner was signed to Bolton Wanderers, and then we saw a litany of Jamaicans getting contracts overseas. At last count, I understand that there may be well above 50 Jamaicans playing professional football somewhere around the world.
This is not because our players are necessarily getting any better than their counterparts prior to France '98, but because the eyes of the football world are now cast towards Jamaica like never before.
If we are successful in making it to the next World Cup, that would definitely open up other opportunities for footballers here. Every time a player gets signed to an overseas team, the local club makes money - money that can be put back into local competitions to develop or improve players. There is also a substantial financial incentive just to get to the World Cup, and that money can also be used to aid the sport here.
So getting to a World Cup is crucial. We can't be sentimental in terms of who we want to play. Yes, some of those who will take the field tonight may not know the national anthem, or have eaten jerk pork at Boston, but they are more likely to get us into the next World Cup than those who do.
I expect the Jamaicans to win. We normally do well at 'The Office', anyway, but since we beat the USA here last year, the belief among the squad is that we can challenge all-comers in CONCACAF in Jamaica, including Mexico, who we beat here the last time. Though we have never beaten Panama in WCQs before, the fact that we can beat the top two teams in the region at home means that Panama shouldn't cause us any sleepless nights.
So, for most Jamaicans, nothing but three points will do. This aggregation of high-riding professionals has given us confidence, but it also means they will be judged far more harshly. A win tonight and all would be good and right with the world. A loss? That's too terrible to contemplate!
Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.