Even without their English based "stars" Jamaica triumphed in the annual Shell Caribbean Cup. Billy Mitchell witnessed the events in Trinidad

It’s been quite a summer for the Caribbean. Jamaica played in the World Cup finals, Dwight Yorke from Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) was involved in a £12.6 million transfer. Nevis threatened to secede from St Kitts and become the world’s smallest nation state (8,000 people). In amongst all that was the Shell Caribbean Cup.

This trophy is the pride and joy of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), a strange beast that forms part of the CONCACAF region and has 26 members, including a few surprises such as Cuba and Guyana (which is technically in South America). This was to be the last year of Shell’s sponsorship of the cup. T&T were going for their seventh title and their fifth in a row. It would have been their eighth had it not been for a spot of crowd trouble during the final, held in Trinidad in 1990, in the form of an attempted coup by a Muslim group which resulted in parliament being held hostage and the declaration of a state of emergency.

For Jamaica, this was a chance to prove that their World Cup qualification was not a one-off, and that they have taken over Trinidad’s mantle as top dogs in the Caribbean. Only eleven of their World Cup squad were present, though, with several of the British-born contingent finding the prospect of matches against Haiti and the Cayman Islands less enticing than three weeks in France.

In the first semi-final, Jamaica faced Antigua without their bad boy Walter Boyd who, having previously been booked for taking his shirt off while celebrating a goal, decided to rest himself for the final by getting sent off for retaliation in the final group game. The disciplinary committee begged to differ and handed him a two-match ban instead. Jamaica managed without him, through a golden goal three minutes before penalties.

In the second semi-final, T&T faced Haiti, a name that has haunted them since they had four goals disallowed in a decisive World Cup qualifier in Port au Prince in 1973 (it was scarcely a consolation when the referee from El Salvador was subsequently banned for life). This time, though, T&T coasted to a 4-1 win.

The final attracted a disappointing crowd of only 10,000, blamed on the Friday night kick-off. Jamaica strolled to a 2-0 half-time lead, and went on to land only their second Shell Cup, despite the magnificently named Stern John pulling one back for T&T. The post mortem on the match, conducted at Smokey and Bunty, a nightspot made famous when Dwight Yorke and Brian Lara were arrested there for “causing a disturbance”, produced general agreement that Jamaica’s new pre-eminence in the Caribbean is clearly down to the quality of the coaching. Rene Simoes was appointed on a four-year contract, with responsibility for developing the infrastructure of football at the youth level and amongst local coaches. The squad were also given a crash course in international football by playing so many warm-up games for the World Cup.

If Trinidad are to follow the example set by Jamaica, a lot depends on one Jack Warner. This may or may not be a good thing. Jack was head of the T&T FA when the team, needing only a point at home to the USA to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, instead lost 1-0. Despite cramming 40,000 into a 25,000-capacity stadium, the organizers somehow managed to avoid turning a profit. Or as Jack himself put it “People are still saying I am a thief”.

Despite this, Jack has worked himself up to be president of the CFU and a vice-president of FIFA. He also knows which side his bread’s buttered on. The venue for the third-place play-off match was a swish new training facility and stadium funded by CONCACAF. Its name? The João Havelange Centre of Excellence. This venue also happens to be the home of Joe Public FC, champions of Trinidad, who are owned by Jack Warner.

Nevertheless, he is doing things for Caribbean football. T&T won the right to host the Under-17 World Cup in 2001, quite an undertaking for a country of 1.5 million inhabitants. It also promises to leave a legacy of refurbished stadia, and in the case of Tobago a new stadium. Jack was also able to secure new sponsorship for the Caribbean Cup, whose future has been guaranteed with US$1.5 million over the next three years.

Each year will also feature a guest team: Costa Rica, Brazil youth and then South Korea. To confuse matters even more, the winners will be invited to play in the next South American championship. While the purist in me recognizes the absurdity of South Korea being crowned champions of the Caribbean, there is no denying that guest teams will improve the playing standard. Even the most die-hard fan didn’t take much joy in T&T’s  8-0 massacre of Dominica.

It’s also important that individual players be encouraged to earn a living from the game. In the past this has been mainly through playing in Europe, and in particular Britain. However, as T&T have discovered on many occasions, it’s not easy getting a player released. Dwight Yorke announced before this year’s Cup that he would be in pre-season training for Villa (ie negotiating a transfer to Man Utd). Shaka Hislop supposedly had a clause in his Newcastle contract discouraging him from playing for T&T. This is a problem that Jamaica may encounter as the core home-grown players are signed by foreign clubs. One solution is the development of semi-professional football in the region. This was tried at Caribbean level, but collapsed due to the costs of travelling between countries. In its wake came a semi-professional league in Trinidad, now in its second season.

Ironically, salvation may come from the bête noire of the CONCACAF region – the US. Many Caribbean footballers have been signed by Major League Soccer clubs. The standard of football may not be comparable to Europe, but it is way above club football in the region. American teams also seem willing to release players for international matches. The Caribbean shares with UEFA the problem of having many small member countries that are not likely to rise above the level of whipping boys for the larger teams in the region. For many it is the taking part that counts. The secession of Nevis would have made little sense politically or economically, but even less in football terms – allied with St Kitts, their current position in the FIFA rankings, 128th, puts them within striking distance of Northern Ireland and Wales...

From WSC 140 October 1998. What was happening this month

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