KINGSTON, Jamaica — Just as this island returned to the rhythms of everyday life, having delighted in political and Olympic celebration, the Reggae Boyz have rekindled the national spirit.
“No Way, USA!” is the slogan promoting the Jamaican soccer team’s World Cup qualifying match against the United States on Friday night at National Stadium, known as The Office.
“America gets beat in The Office,” Kingston resident Robert Small said definitively.
He was standing around the corner from a ticket office, where seats are priced between 1,500 and 5,000 Jamaican dollars ($17-$56). The booth is built into the side of York Pharmacy, a longstanding business in the bustling Half-Way Tree commercial district. Tickets are selling at a steady pace, but as one seller said, “Jamaicans, they wait until the last minute.”
Procrastination is not a sign of apathy. “We’re feeling the pride,” said Small’s friend, Desmond Anderson.
From resort coves in the north, to villages nestled in the cool Blue Mountains and to a tough capital that has welcomed seafarers for 300-plus years, the country is bubbling with pride again.
On Aug. 6, Jamaica celebrated 50 years of independence from Britain. Before, during and after that date at the London Olympics, the world was reminded how quickly Usain Bolt and his track and field teammates move from Point A to Point B.
Despite a population of less than 3 million (think Arkansas), Jamaica won 12 medals at the London Games, the most in its history and more than Argentina and Mexico combined (152 million people overall).
Aside from Bolt’s individual heroics, the highlight was the medal sweep in the men’s 200 meters, an event witnessed by hundreds on giant video boards near a Half-Way Tree intersection. For what seemed like hours, citizens chanted, “1-2-3!”
Reminders of the Olympic feats appear on billboard ads, in shop windows and in hotel lobbies.
Now, it’s the Reggae Boyz’s turn.
They’ve never beaten the Americans, recording eight draws and 10 losses dating back 24 years. The matches are almost always competitive – the Americans have settled for four ties and only one goal in four qualifiers in Kingston – but never to Jamaica’s full satisfaction.
The sides are playing each other twice in five days as part of CONCACAF’s semifinal round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. After Friday, they’ll collide Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio.
They are tied atop the four-team group with four points apiece, with Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda at one each. When group play ends in mid-October, the top two will advance to next year’s six-nation final round along with the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras.
Ultimately, three countries from the region will advance to the World Cup and a fourth will head to a playoff against, most likely, Oceania favorite New Zealand.
While the United States has reached the World Cup every four years since 1990, Jamaica made a lone appearance in 1998 in France. Since then, Reggae Boyz fever has tapered and a sense of insecurity has set in. They’ve won several Caribbean trophies but haven’t reached the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the region’s biennial championship, in 14 years.
Talk radio Tuesday night crackled with discussion about the omission of England-based attackers Marlon King and Ricardo Fuller.
“Football is always something here, but what would make it big again is if they won on Friday,” local supporter Darien Goolgar said over jerk chicken and pork and a Red Stripe Light at Tracks & Records, Bolt’s sports-theme restaurant in the Marketplace development. “We’ve never beaten the USA and, to be honest, I have my doubts.”
At the very least, the Reggae Boyz have emotional currency.
“What better time to beat them? We want to give the people another gift,” Jamaica Coach Theodore Whitmore said. “Everything we’ve done [this summer] has been in preparation for the United States.”
In Jamaica, soccer’s spirit drifts beyond the fields and permeates the culture. It was reggae legend Bob Marley’s favorite sport. In Trench Town, the neighborhood made famous by Marley and music, a statue of the musician stands with a guitar in his arms and a soccer ball at his feet.
Another statue (sans soccer ball) is in Independence Park, adjacent to National Stadium, the site of Marley’s One Love Peace Concert in 1978, when he attempted to broker harmony between warring political parties.
At the Marley Museum on Hope Road, his former residence and recording studio, the walled courtyard was the site of countless pick-up matches with band members and guests. Inside the home, two pairs of framed soccer shorts hang along a wall that includes his famous blue-denim shirt.
In the gift shop, where one can purchase a gold-green-and-black, Marley-stamped soccer ball, a nine-panel poster features a caption that reads:
“Football is part of I, when I play the world wakes up around me.”
It’s been sold out for months.