We are the Champions! But, have we learned the lessons?

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Reggae Boyz, victorious in the Caribbean Cup, and the coach is happy

They did it. The Jamaican men’s national team, aka the Reggae Boyz, won the Caribbean Cup last night. The flat facts are that the game ended 0-0 are normal time, and no goals were scored in extra time, so the match went to a penalty shoot out. Jamaica started well, scoring its first two penalties. Trinidad missed its first. All looked set till Jamaica missed its third kick, putting some drama into proceedings. But, Trinidad (FIFA rank 49) did not seem as comfortable, and when their kicker skied their fifth shot, the cup was Jamaica’s by a 4-3 margin.

Pandemonium followed as the relatively small crowd got the win they had hoped for. The coach, Winfred Schäfer was a little overcome with emotion immediately after the match, but had breath enough to utter that the team benefited from its preparation.

The simple profundity of that point may be lost on some. But, I am one of those who have wondered why the national team had been on a path set to fail rather than succeed, with a series of friendly matches notable for the lack of time to prepare. Off to Europe, long flights, tight schedule…results showed that very good teams have little sympathy with mediocre teams who are not up for the game. The result that stood out was the 8-0 drubbing by France (FIFA rank 7). I don’t know if Jamaicans were really shocked rather than embarrassed.

More recently, the team schlepped off to Japan (FIFA rank 52), and reportedly had half an hour to practice before the match. The ‘narrow’ 1-0 loss is not the thing to focus on, but the fact that having taken two days to reach a destination then try to play a high-level match is the action of the suicidal. Jet lag. Climate difference. Cultural difference. Away match nerves. Name many other things that were working against a team. Then, to practice as long as most people spend on dinner is a travesty.

If I were a serious Jamaican, I would have called for the head of someone, and I did in an indirect way. But, this is the fault of the Jamaican Football Federation, which needs money so badly it cannot put its players into a national training camp and find opposition to play at home or nearer than in Asia, and present the country with stale excuses about why the team is losing.

Jamaica’s FIFA ranking slumped badly as a result of the farcical venture and the string of losses, and sat at 113 coming into the Cup competition. To me, that alone should have been a humiliating outcome of a period of ‘rebuilding’. The nonsense was best summarised by the fact that they were ranked lower than Antigua and Barbuda (#70).

Many people looked at the ranking without understanding that the placement matters. Players cannot get into the major European leagues if their national teams are ranked outside the top 75, so Jamaica’s development could be hurt by that unnecessary slip.

The country has an abundance of talented players. We are not spoiled by the riches that Louis van Gaal has to manage at Manchester United–are any of his subs Jamaicans? But, we have a small crop of players capable of holding their own in the premier divisions around Europe. We could have more and that should be the aim. The current coach understands that locally-based players cannot compete well enough against seasoned internationals in much better teams, who are almost all playing in the top leagues in Europe or Latin America. National pride is not really hurt because the team has only 4 locals in the squad. Antigua– a tiny nation–has realised this, and had only two (if memory is right).

Much of the discussion about football that goes on locally is not about the national team: it’s about schoolboy football. That really sums up one of the major dilemmas. Local football at the professional level is not that good. That has to change. We would be laughed out of the room if we went around touting how well Jamaica College had been doing in the Mannings Cup and wondering if STETHS would again haul in the Dacosta Cup, and who were the real close rivals. Truth is, though, that professional football is at least the second class citizen in that conversation. Few have resources as good as the schools on which to play.

Talk has moved, recently, towards how the local professional game can be developed and the many ideas all have some merit. Will any of it materialise? Well, the chances are improved by a better performance this past week. Backers like winners. It’s a better platform on which they can build.

Let’s hope that Coach Schäfer can get enough time with his players to run good camps before each set of fixtures. The Captain (Horace Burrell) should know that to bake well, the ingredients need to given time to rise before they are put into the heat of the oven.

Branded

It’s always interesting to be ‘inside’ a news story. Jamaicans have been thrust into a very peculiar position for a very long time: they had an international image that seemed much bigger than their country’s physical and population size seemed to warrant. To use the boxing parlance, the country punched well over its weight. But, that would not have surprised many Jamaicans, who live with the notion that “Wi little but wi Tallawah”, meaning we are a small nation but with strong-willed people; we are determined and refuse to be restrained by boundaries. The world has had to accept that this nation regularly does ‘exceptional’ things. The corollary is that the country has had to accept that it’s in the spotlight much more than would seem normal.

The true meaning of words fascinates me. The phrase ‘brand Jamaica’ has been tossed around freely in recent weeks. The definition of ‘brand’ has several connotations, positive and negative, and Jamaica is tasting several of them:

  • quality or to designate ownership
  • characteristic or distinctive kind
  • a mark put on criminals with a hot iron
  • a mark of disgrace
So when the term is used, which definition is coming into play? It may, unwittingly, not be the one the user intended.
The notion of being a proud Jamaican is not new. It has been there for decades, but was perhaps more muted in international eyes before the country gained independence in 1962. It got a huge push during the 1970s with the international success of Bob Marley; his music helped make reggae acceptable and accessible to a very wide population. It was put to the test also in the 1970s, when Michael Manley became Prime Minister and implemented a series of social democratic policies, which started to pitch the country in a direction which some feared but others hailed, and ‘took on America’ in the process. His slogans, such as “Better must come” and “Giving power to the people”, struck a chord of fear or made people jubilant.
Jamaica’s image as a violent country took hold in the wake of Manley’s tenure, as guns and politics became more common a pairing than ‘guns and butter’ or ‘guns and roses’. That the tourism industry was able to flourish with that branding on it is worthy of some serious study. Crime didn’t go away, however, no matter how hard some tried, and Jamaica gained the dubious accolade of ‘murder capital of the world‘ in 2005. That’s one gold medal that would happily be dumped into the sea.
The image got a big international boost with the qualification of the national soccer team for the 1998 World Cup: The ‘Reggae Boyz’ even had the glory of beating Japan–no powerhouse, but no slouch, either. Jamaica began to regain its place as ‘the no problem state’.
The image got a mighty boost when Jamaican athletes did so well in the 2008 Olympics and was pushed further upwards with the continuation of that success at the 2012 Olympics.jamaica_olympics Phrases including words such as ‘dominance’ did not seem out-of-place in the athletics context, but would still have had a shock element, when you put the impact in the context of the barely 3 million national population. No doubt, that boost was fired by the performance of one man, Usain Bolt, but most would accept that he had a very able supporting cast and others are in the wings pushing to take the torch further. Older Jamaicans probably smiled as they remembered track exploits of old, and the names of Wint and McKenley, Quarrie and Miller, Merlene Ottey (still sprinting in her 50s at top-level for her new home, Slovenia!). For this, this would seem like business as usual–a tradition was being continued. The world started to take note of ‘Champs’. TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, radio, and any other media would be abuzz at the mere mention of Jamaican track stars. “Jamaica to the world!”
That notion of pride took a hefty lick as the drama unfolded in Tivoli Gardens in 2010 when the government tried to capture a well-known drug kingpin know as ‘Dudus’ (Christopher Coke), who had been indicted by the US in 2009. It seemed that all hell broke loose. Images of military-style operations and the horrific death toll in the neighbourhood filled TV screens worldwide. The then Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, had tried initially to block extradition, but eventually moved to acquiesce, and paid the ‘ultimate price’ for his judgement and decisions as he departed the stage no longer PM. Last year the world became more acquainted with the term ‘Dudus’ and learnt about Christopher Coke once he was sentenced by US courts. To be a proud Jamaican at that time was HARD.
But, the spotlight burns as well as shines. ‘Brand Jamaica’ is taking it on the chin again–to extend the boxing metaphor. This time, the vaunted heroes are facing the possibility of turning into villains as the dreaded ‘doping scandal’ looms over the heads of several of the top athletes, most noted of which are Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell, both noted for their public humility as well as their running prowess. The chill could be sensed as people thought “No! Not them!”
When you are ‘one of the people’ you carry the fame and shame of the people. I remember travelling in the wake of the recent Olympic triumphs and the looks that sometimes came when people saw my Jamaican passport. “Bolt!” might have been all that an official said, but its implication was clear, sort of “Great to meet you, too”. I was shocked in the wake of the 2008 Games when I met someone (an American, I add) who had not heard about Usain Bolt, and that person was not a hermit. It helped remind me of perspective, and I gladly took the opportunity to do some quick tutoring about Jamaica: each one, teach one.
I don’t know how mature Jamaica has become, approaching 51 years of independent age. But, the public and media reaction in Jamaica to the shine being taken off the image tells me that the country has grown up. Yes, there are those who want to take a totally defensive ‘the world is against us’ attitude, but my sense is that most people believe that the doping incidents are isolated, possibly accidental or careless, but not systemic or systematic. Defensive arguments locally have had a lot of reasonableness about them. I have not seen many reports from abroad that are out to trash the country and its athletes: maybe, the world needs ‘Jack’ to be the good ‘giant killer’.
Did I mention Red Stripe or Appleton or Wray and Nephew? Did I mention ‘jerk’? What about Negril.and Blue Mountain coffee? Brands and branding.

It’s good that a nation has more to hold onto than one or very few dimensions of its character. We may not have many people, but those we have often do very well, and we’re not surprised. We are not a nation of saints, and our sins and sinners do not do us proud, but we will not be defined by them. We may not have much to offer the world but what we have we’ll gladly share and you’ll often find that it’s really very good.