By Santokie Nagulendran
It has been a week now since the shock elimination to St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2018 World Cup qualifiers for Guyana. However the fact that it has been widely acknowledged by both fans and pundits alike as a ‘shock’
is a testament to the rapid acceleration the men’s national programme has been going through since resuming in February, after two and a half years of inactivity. Guyana, ranked 158th, lost to St Vincent, ranked at a significantly higher 112th, and it was labelled as a ‘shock’, a view which surely reinforces the belief that Guyana is a team with a lot of potential that will be fulfilled over time.
The loss to St Vincent does not end the programme currently being developed by Jamaal Shabazz, it was a disappointment that merely reflected the fact that Guyana is a country with no current National League and a country where the men’s National Side have only started playing as a team since February, with many players joining up even later. The loss of four UK-based players for the first leg massively hindered the side, as evident in the fact that two of those players, Sam Cox and Neil Danns, were instrumental in the 4-4 second leg draw. Matthew Briggs was ruled out of both legs, and in hindsight this was the biggest blow for the team; Briggs as a defender may have improved the defensive vulnerability displayed by the Golden Jags over the course of the two games, as it is simply unacceptable for any international defence to concede four goals at home. Had the four players been available for both games, the result of the tie may have differed and that’s why it is ridiculous to judge the national programme on the basis of two games.
Whilst many fans have expressed disappointment at the elimination and called for the resignation of head coach Jamaal Shabazz, it is a rash way of thinking, the National Programme should not be defined on the basis of two knock out games, of which Guyana did not actually lose, rather they were eliminated on the basis of having scored less ‘away’ goals than the opposition in two drawn games. As Jamaal Shabazz recently declared: “judge me at the end of my two years, not six months into it.” Guyanese football is currently in a dire state, and it will take years for a successful National Programme to reap rewards, so patience is the key.
In the meantime, there are still targets for the Golden Jaguars to achieve: mainly qualifying for next year’s Caribbean Cup, of which a top-four finish would send Guyana to the 2017 CONCACF Gold Cup, the first ever FIFA tournament the nation will have qualified for. Such an aim is realistic for Guyana, the team has an abundance of talent, but needs the right systems in place in order to maximise their potential. A massive step in the right direction would be for the National team to utilise international dates to arrange friendlies, and thereby get valuable time playing together as a unit. St Vincent’s side have played together regularly for the past year, and that understanding gave them an advantage over the Golden Jaguars. The next FIFA international window is from August 31st to September 8th, and it would be a sign of intent if the GFF arranged a friendly for Guyana to take part in and continue to develop the team.
The start of the Elite League in August will also massively aid the fitness and development of local-based players, giving them a much-needed opportunity to play regular competitive football, which will inevitably lead to a better National side. The under-23 side kick off 2016 Olympic qualifiers Antigua on Wednesday and this will give an indication as to the current state of Guyanese youth players, and what needs to be worked on in the future.
Transparency is also key to the state of the game: after eighteen months of the Christopher Matthias-led GFF administration, whereby there was little transparency given to the public, there needs to be clear transparency so that fans can believe once again in the Golden Jaguars. After the game last Sunday Jamaal Shabazz stated that Matthew Briggs, a star overseas-based player, was unable to feature due to a stomach illness. However, on social media the next day, a GFF representative denied that was the case, and stated Briggs could not play due to a complex legalityinvolving the English Football Association. As Matthew Briggs played for England’s Under-20 side years ago, he needed to write to the English FA and request a formal release to play for Guyana, however, this was not done in time and Briggs was ruled ineligible for the second leg.
The clear contradiction between Federation and Head Coach indicates a clear lack of transparency and also a clear lack of communication, if Matthew Briggs could not play due to a legal complication, why were the media and fans told by Coach Shabazz that it was due to an illness? This sort of deception is what has hindered Guyanese football in the past and alienated the many fans from the game in Guyana. With a new GFF President set to take office in September, a culture of openness needs to be instilled for the long-term benefit of the beautiful game in Guyana.
The elimination to St Vincent was disappointing, but it should not be the defining moment of the National Programme Jamaal Shabazz and Technical Director Claude Bolton are trying to build. Long-term development of both youth and locally-based players will benefit Guyana more in the long-run, whilst the allure of the 2016 Caribbean Cup and 2017 Gold Cup will provide an incentive of glory for the current Men’s National Senior team. The future is bright for Guyanese football…if consistency and belief in the current programme can be maintained for the next few years.
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