Like most kids growing up in Jamaica, Alphas Powell’s first sport was track and field.
“I was a runner,” said the Philadelphia Union defender. “But I couldn’t win the race.”
No need to be ashamed of it. With Jamaican runners winning eight medals in Tokyo, the tiny island of 2.9 million has 86 Olympic medals in athletics, more than any other country in the world per capita.
If Cubans were born to play baseball and Italians sang opera, then Jamaicans were born to run fast. And if speed isn’t enough, there’s always football.
“When I was younger, I started in athletics. I was running the 100m,” Galaxy defender O’Neil Fisher said. “But I didn’t like the concept of getting up to run every morning. That’s when I wanted to see what I had available and started playing [al fútbol]”.
“We’re natural athletes, so it’s easy to adapt.”
That proved to be a huge advantage for the Jamaica national football team, who face the unbeaten United States on Thursday in Austin, Texas, in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifier match. Jamaica has played in the FIFA World Championship only once, in 1998, and has won only two games in the final qualifying round this century, leaving it far from the nation’s athletic program.
But Jamaica’s stature as an enemy power has paid off for the national football team, providing inspiration and attracting wealthy coaches and sponsors to the island. It also led to some hidden jealousy.
“The most important thing for us is to put our country in a better place from a football point of view. We put ourselves on the map of football, not athletics. We want to get there, where people know that Jamaica is a football country,” Fisher said.
Midfielder Kemar Lawrence, who plays in MLS with Toronto FC, agreed.
“We love our sprinters. These guys are fast,” said Lawrence, whose 64 appearances for the national team is the second largest among active players, and we are glad they tag our name and say ‘These guys are fast.’ Respect more.
“Our sprinters took to the field and got the job done. They won their gold medals. We have to do the same. We have to go out on the field and play very well and show people what we are good at.”
A return to the World Cup is necessary to achieve this, especially after the women’s team debuted in the World Cup two years ago in France. And while the playoffs campaign wasn’t a great start – the Reggae Boyz (0-2-1) won a game – the fact that they’re playing in the tournament is worth celebrating, because Jamaica hasn’t won a game. A match in the last round of World Cup qualifiers since 2002.
“Everything great has to start somewhere,” Lawrence said. “You guys gave us 98 models and showed us how to get there. It’s a shame it took us so long to fight back. But I feel like this is just the beginning.”
Part of the reason for this confidence comes from the fact that 16 of the 20 players on Jamaica’s roster play for foreign clubs, Lawrence said. In 1998, 14 of the World Cup team players played in the Jamaica National League.
“The caliber of the players we have now, they are playing [en] “The best teams in England, Germany or MLS,” said Lawrence, one of six MLS players on Jamaica’s list. “When are you playing? [en] A team with a better name, you play surrounded by more great players, so you learn more and that gets transferred when they come to play.”
However, this is a double-edged sword, because as the country’s standing in international football grows, Jamaica is no longer taken lightly.
“It’s a tough team,” said US coach Greg Berhalter, worried about Jamaica’s speed on the counterattack. “It’s a tough team to break down.
“I hope there will be an urgent need with Jamaica. We know it is a good team, we know it is a team in great physical shape. And we know a lot of them have it.”
The Americans will lose (1-0-2) two of the biggest offensive threats such as Christian Pulisic of Chelsea and Gio Reina of Borussia Dortmund. Both are victims of injury. Jamaica, for their part, will be without West Ham striker Michael Antonio, who claimed travel problems in his decision not to participate in the three qualifiers in October.
This will add to the challenges of a team of great runners who have stumbled and are quickly running out of time to catch up.
The future is here now. “So we have to do everything right now,” said Powell, who is one of 12 players on Jamaica’s roster who will be in their 30s when the final round of qualifying for the next World Cup begins. “Right now, we’re not in a good moment.
“We just have to keep believing. Qualifying for the World Cup, we know what that means for the country, what that means for us. So it’s now or never for us.”
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