Much of the Caribbean has only a recent soccer history. As most were under colonial rule for much of the 20th century, their independent soccer history has been one they have had to cultivate from scratch. However, for some, lightning strikes and they’re able to put it all together to put their team—and their country—on the world football map. Such was the case with Jamaica in the 1998 World Cup cycle. It’s where the team truly made their nickname “The Reggae Boyz” one known around the world.
Jamaica’s soccer history began with them being a part of the United Kingdom. They didn’t begin playing as a separate entity until their independence from Great Britain in 1962. From there, they had to spend a lot of resources to slowly build their team up to one that could compete with the rest of the Caribbean, much less the rest of Concacaf and the world.
However, during the 1998 World Cup cycle, they were able to start putting it all together. With a solid base that consisted of native Jamaicans, a group that grew up in England, and even one from Canada, the team went on an improbable run that began at the very beginning of qualifying. They were led by players like Marcus Gayle, Andy Williams, Robbie Earle, Theodore Whitmore, Deon Burton, and Warren Barrett, players who had been pulled together by Brazilian head coach Renê Simões to bolster the player pool and give Jamaica a shot at a long run through qualification.
Normally, the best teams in Concacaf don’t have to enter World Cup qualifying until later rounds, giving them an advantage over the rest of the region. For Jamaica, they had to start in the very first round of qualifying in May 1996, a full 2 years before the 1998 World Cup they were seeking to play. The first round was a two-legged series against Suriname.
They were able to beat Suriname 2-0 on aggregate to advance to the next round, another two-legged series. This time, Barbados was the opponent, and Jamaica was able to move past them 3-0 on aggregate, sending them to the 3rd round in the Fall of 1996. There, the best teams in the region, like the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica, entered the fray, and Jamaica was placed in a group with Mexico, Honduras, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Jamaica continued their torrid pace, topping the group with 4 wins, 1 loss and 1 draw. Their only loss came at Azteca to Mexico, and their lone draw came on the road to Honduras. They held a perfect record at Independence Park, more commonly known as “The Office,” and that included a final matchday win against Mexico to clinch the group and secure advancement to the final round of qualifying, which was known as “The Hex.” The incredible play of the Reggae Boyz at The Office during this qualifying cycle elevated The Office to being known as one of the most difficult places to play in all of Concacaf.
The Hexagonal round of qualifying is Concacaf’s final round. In 1998, only the top 3 teams in the group of 6 made it to the World Cup. Facing the USMNT, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, Jamaica was the clear surprise of the group. However, the team believed they could get it done.
The Hex did not get off to a great start for Jamaica, starting with a scoreless draw at home to the United States and then getting destroyed 6-0 by Mexico at the Azteca. They followed that up with a road draw to Canada and a road loss to Costa Rica. With only 2 points in their first 4 games, they needed to turn it around quickly.
They were able to climb back into it with 1-0 home wins against El Salvador, Canada, and Costa Rica, to elevate themselves into striking distance of the Top 3. They were able to climb into the Top 3 with road draws against the United States and El Salvador. That left a final matchday where they needed a draw against Mexico to ensure qualification to the 1998 World Cup. They were able to do just that, getting a scoreless draw at The Office to secure their first trip to the World Cup. Jamaica declared a national holiday in celebration, with the prime minister calling it “the greatest day in our sporting history.”
The Reggae Boyz were headed to France for the 1998 World Cup. They were about to showcase Caribbean talent against the best teams in the world. They were drawn into Group H, joining Argentina, Croatia, and Japan. They opened up on June 14, 1998 against Croatia, with their national anthem, “Jamaica, Land We Love,” being heard at a World Cup for the very first time. With their incredible Kappa jerseys in yellow, green, and black, their swag was distinctly amazing at the World Cup, and they were ready to play. After Croatia took a 1-0 lead, Robbie Earle scored for Jamaica on the very edge of halftime, the first World Cup goal in Jamaica’s history.
They eventually fell to Croatia by a 3-1 score, and they were absolutely thumped by Argentina a few days later, losing 5-0. They were eliminated from the World Cup after 2 matches. Still, they wanted to leave with their heads held high, and a final match with also-eliminated Japan was one where the Reggae Boyz decided to leave it all on the field. Two goals by Theodore Whitmore were vital as Jamaica took a 2-0 lead after 54 minutes and was able to hang on for a 2-1 win.
They left France with a World Cup win, the lone win in their history. They returned to Jamaica as heroes, not just for the country but for the entire Caribbean. Since then, Jamaica has not returned to the World Cup, falling short a few times. However, they have become the strongest team in the Caribbean, and The Office continues to be one of Concacaf’s most difficult venues to get an away win. Their foundation was established long ago, but their soccer tradition was cemented with the run of the Reggae Boyz in 1998, and as Jamaica continues to fight to represent at another World Cup, that 1998 run will be the guide.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing stories throughout the month to highlight some of the biggest moments in Black American and world soccer history.