For a Day, Kingston Comes to Meadowlands

Author: 
Steve Popper
Date Published: 
1998-06-01
Source: 
New York Times

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., May 31— As the names of the Jamaican national team were announced during pre-game introductions, the beating of the steel drums, as well as the public-address announcer's words, were drowned out by the raucous cheering from the crowd.

The 38,624 fans, nearly every one of them adorned in the bright gold of their team, grew even louder as the country's national anthem was played. And when the team, affectionately called the Reggae Boyz, scored against the Caribbean All-Stars, the crowd continued to give them a fervent send-off as Jamaica prepares to play in the World Cup for the first time. Its first game is scheduled for June 14 against Croatia.

Forget that it was their Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes, who gave the team its nickname or that seven of the team's players were hastily imported from England; the first goal was scored by one of those hired guns, assisted by another. Or that perhaps the best of the British imports, Dwight Yorke, was playing for the Caribbean All-Stars and that he scored a pair of second-half goals to hand Jamaica a 2-1 loss in its final tuneup for the World Cup. The crowd cared only that Jamaica would be there in France, the first English-speaking Caribbean team to qualify.

''Every time we are in the pitch, they are fanatical,'' said Fitzroy Simpson, who was born in England. But with both of his parents from Jamaica, he was one of the first British players to join the team. He added: ''We're carrying not just the hopes of Jamaica, but the whole Caribbean. It's a great responsibility. It's been the same wherever we go. The whole country is behind us. Jamaicans hold very dearly to their country.''

Jamaica did not show anything that will worry its World Cup opponents, but did exactly what the fans wanted on this farewell exhibition. Theodore Whitmore deftly handled the ball, entertaining the crowd. Paul Hall, another of the early British players to join the team, fed Frank Sinclair in the 34th minute and Sinclair, who joined the squad after it qualified for the World Cup, slipped past a defender and drilled a shot into the lower-left side of the goal.

But after taking the 1-0 lead into the half, Simoes cleared his bench, not choosing to risk an injury with a squad of 22 players, the number that the more established programs will have to reach by Tuesday, with little depth to find a fill-in if he lost one of his players. For this team, and especially for this crowd, Jamaica was happy to put on a show and then ready itself for the real games.

Five hours before the game began, the parking lot was crowded with cars, Jamaican flags sprouting from the radio antennas. The mood of the fans never changed with the score. The Reggae Boyz have become a phenomenon akin to a pop group; perhaps with the British flavor, the Beatles would be a better comparison than Bob Marley.

''That's the supporters,'' Simpson said. ''We've kept our feet on the floor. Like a balloon, we know it can pop at any time.''

Warren Barrett, the team's goalkeeper and longtime captain, said: ''There is a bond through which we have united a country. Our country has problems of social and economic nature, but when we play football, the rich, the poor, everyone gets together.''