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Let's Hear It for the Boyz

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 15, 1998; Page B5

LENS, France — Jamaicans played soccer inside the Paris train station Sunday afternoon, awaiting their train north to follow their "Reggae Boyz," who were to play Croatia in the World Cup debut for both countries. Croatia won the match, 3-1, but the score seemed beyond the point. The World Cup is not only about the games, but about the often-breathtaking settings in which they are contested and, more than anything, people joined together from all over the globe. Those of assorted nationalities gathered to cheer the Jamaicans in their impromptu game in the cavernous station, the Gare du Nord.

An Englishman pulling a suitcase accidentally walked into the middle of the game, suddenly saw the ball coming his way, headed it to a Jamaican and bowed to the applause. Two Croatians happily joined in the ovation. "We are going to win the World Cup this year," said a Jamaican wearing a yellow "Reggae Boyz" T-shirt, settling into his seat on the train. He laughed at the impossibility, as did others. Jamaica's fans and team simply are out for a good time, blending a unique combination of samba, injected by a Brazilian coach, and reggae. As good a place as any to be today was crowded with the Jamaicans on their soul train.

Jamaica, the World Cup finals' smallest country, was going to play in the smallest host town in World Cup history. The "Reggae Boyz" would be bringing cheer to a once-thriving coal mining area hit by unemployment. Lens, like Saint-Etienne near Lyon, was chosen among France's 10 Cup venues because, although its population is only 35,280, it is a soccer hotbed. It is home to the Racing Club de Lens, a force in French football and one of the country's best-supported teams.

Its Stade Felix-Bollaert, located in a leafy park just a short walk from the tiny train station, holds 40,000, so well-supported is the town team founded in 1906 by coal miners and for years operated by the town coal company. At midafternoon, Jamaicans and Croatians swarmed through the narrow streets, singing their way to the stadium as traffic stood still in single file for blocks, everyone patiently sitting in their cars letting the visitors pass and taking in the world that remarkably had come to them.

Rene Simoes, Jamaica's Brazilian coach, recently has urged his players and fans to be happy and not count too heavily on victory. They will try to win, of course. "We will take each match as it comes and with our big hearts we could win, and what more can we ask?" Simoes put it. "I tell the players they should enjoy the game. They should think of it as going to a party. And at the party, the ball is their girlfriend. So you do not allow the other guy to take your girlfriend and dance with her. You must keep her."

When the World Cup finals were expanded for France from 24 teams to 32, more countries could come without diluting the product — often the result when a U.S. sports league expands. The new teams — Jamaica, Croatia, Japan and South Africa — were not formed, like baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, from expendable players from existing teams. Soccer's new diversity adds to the celebration in the first round, and the Nigerians have people talking excitedly about how far they might advance this year as the "Indomitable Lions" of Cameroon did in 1990. New countries are bringing fresh approaches to an old game.

Croatia, though, is not a neophyte although it joined FIFA in 1992. Soccer's roots grow deep in the country, whose players compete with top clubs in Europe. The striker Davor Suker, of Real Madrid, is one of the better players in the tournament. Zvonimir Boban, the captain, plays with AC Milan. Two other starters represented Yugoslavia in the 1990 World Cup. So Croatia can go some distance.

Sunday evening was as different from Saturday's game at the huge Stade de France in Saint-Denis as Lens is different from Paris. On Saturday, the Belgians and Netherlands renewed a rivalry that has been going on since 1905. Sunday's game, by contrast, was as fresh as the air, Jamaica and Croatia embracing for the first time, in an English-style arena with covered stands close to the field. Simoes brought with him several British-based players, including Deon Burton, 21, who scored in each of four qualifying matches to become Jamaica's "Sports Personality of the Year." Cricket always has been important in Jamaica, but now the country is known internationally for, in addition to tourism and Bob Marley, its World Cup team.

As a 9 p.m. rainbow glowed above the town's rooftops, alternating roars of opposing fans began — the noise walled in by the steep stands. It felt like England. Midfielder Mario Stanic put Croatia ahead as he followed a crossbar hit by defender Igor Stimac — the action coming in the 27th minute against a backdrop of constant drumming and cheering from the thousands of yellow-shirted Reggae Boyz rooters.

In the half's last minute, the Boyz retaliated. Robbie Earle, 33, who almost made England's national team a couple of years ago, headed the ball home. The cheering erupted to another level — and it kept up for the entire intermission. Horns and drums, dancing, singing — no one sat down. It was as loud a demonstration as any at the last three World Cups.

Eight minutes into the second half, Robert Prosinecki, who scored a goal for Yugoslavia in the 1990 World Cup, delivered Croatia's game-winner on a free kick, a left footer from the left side that caught the net despite a bad angle.

In the 69th minute, Suker put away a crossing pass to make it 3-1. Form held. But so did Jamaica's spirits. The beat went on to the end. As Simoes said earlier: "Are we going to win the World Cup? No. Are we going to have fun? Definitely." And after the defeat, he didn't waver: "I am quite satisfied."

Winning wasn't everything as long as you could take a joyride with the "Reggae Boyz."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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