By Gregory Bryce
As I sat this week and watched as the Jamaican duo of Michael Hector and Bobby Reid earned promotion back to the Premier League with their club Fulham, as well as the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF), reaching out to fellow promotion team Leeds United’s captain Kalvin Phillips, it brought back to my mind the debate on whether the local players should be a priority over the inclusion of foreign-based players in the national set-up.
It is no secret that there is an abundance of talented players overseas who are eligible to represent the Reggae Boyz based on FIFA regulations. Players such as David James, Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose, Viv Anderson and Ruben Loftus-Cheek among others are just a small sample of the vast pool of players that could have worn the black, green and gold of Jamaica but chose otherwise.
Just try to imagine what could have been, had the Arsenal legend and former captain, Sol Campbell, been a part of that Jamaican team to play in the 1998 World Cup.
Over the decades, the JFF has had to battle with the larger and much more resourceful England FA when it came to recruiting players to their national system, and it brings to fore the debate of whether or not the continual emphasis on recruiting overseas players is worth it in the long-term? At what point does loyalty and patriotism come into play? Should players play for the love of the country and the badge? Or rather, is it a case where players only come to us after being rejected by the more reputable England?
Many of these overseas athletes grow up with the aspiration to represent the ‘Three Lions’ and – to be fair – it is not hard to understand why. With the rare exception of perhaps Raheem Sterling – who was born in Jamaica before migrating to England – many of these athletes are England-bred, with their Jamaican ancestry coming through a parent and/or grandparent. There is little to no connection to our small island, and we only become an option after the dreams of playing for England fall through the cracks.
In fact, Watford striker, Troy Deeney, said something along those same lines when he explained why he declined the option to represent Jamaica.
“I turned down Jamaica because I’ve never been there. I’ve got family that lives there but it’s never interested me. Why would I go there and play football and represent a country I’ve never been to?” Deeney said.
But what then, are we to do as a country? Undoubtedly, these foreign-based players are used to a higher level of football, and are paramount to the push we need to bring Jamaica up the world football hierarchy.
The case that can be made for local based players is one that is idyllic in theory – but hardly effective in practice. There are too many factors that come into play when looking at the local-based players, and the Red Stripe Premier League (RSPL) plays a major part. The quality of football (training, equipment and facilities) is simply lacking at the local level, and the level of professionalism falls short when compared to the more lucrative European counterparts. The talent pool is there – of that, I am sure. There is no doubt. But without the foundation of professional league and world-class development, it is simply being wasted year after year.
Prolific players like Marvin Morgan, Michael Binns and Tremaine Stewart are – off the top of my head – some of the local players who have shown the quality to become main stays in the Reggae Boyz set up.
So there lies the JFF’s dilemma. There are local based players who are eager and ready to wear the black, green and gold, but are lacking the quality or are inexperienced at a professional level. While on the other hand, the foreign-based players who are acclimatized to the higher level of play, may see the national system as nothing more than a second option, a safety to fall on if they are unable to get the England nod.
When I look back on the history of the national team, I see a distinct pattern when we’re successful. The squad of players that qualified for the 1998 World Cup was a mixture of local and foreign-based players. The same can be said for the 2015 and 2017 squad of players that made it to the Gold Cup finals.
Jamaica needs to find the balance of foreign-based players that are eager to wear the crest (the aforementioned Bobby Reid and Micheal Hector come to mind) while finding local players that bridge the gap with their talent (players like Ricardo Morris, Peter-Lee Vassell) to fill the squad.
Too long have we sat at the feet of the dinner table of the England FA, hoping to capitalize on the scraps they’ve discarded.
Gregory Bryce is a freelance sports journalist .