I remember seeing the Jamaican players walk out for their first match against Croatia. Wearing bright gold shirts, the team lined up on the Stade Félix-Bollaert turf to sing a national anthem I didn’t know, to play for a country I had never visited. Jamaica’s fans were bouncing in the stands; no nerves or caution among them, ready to celebrate their nation’s inaugural game in the competition. I was sat at home, a ten-year old, mixed-race boy, excited to support a country that I’d heard about often, even if at the time I knew very little about.
To be mixed race is to flirt with two nations, two cultures and two identities. If you’re lucky, you’ll feel comfortable in both, but for me growing up in the predominantly white, working-class British town of Dudley, it was a lot easier to see my English heritage than to identify my Jamaican roots. Before Jamaica qualified for the World Cup of France 98, I’d never known anything other than supporting England. But with Jamaica’s inclusion in the tournament I was eager to support the other half of me.
A history of emigration had led to great Jamaican diasporas developing in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, which made the story of how the small island nation of Jamaica had endured an arduous 19-game qualification campaign to get to the finals an international news story. Everyone from The Guardian to Elle (who named the Jamaica football team at number 10 in its ‘100 things to watch out for in 1998’) wanted to be associated with the Reggae Boyz’ success. The news trickled through to Dudley, but in my world the story barely got a mention.
“Most children in England wanted to recreate the exploits of Michael Owen, but for that summer at least it was Deon Burton I wanted to be.”
Teachers who were all British had no reason to speak about it and my school friends likewise. The occasion didn’t even really dawn on my Jamaican Dad, who at best was a fair-weather football fan. But to me Jamaica playing in a World Cup, against some of the best players in the world, was huge, even though I had only experienced the island of Jamaica vicariously.
In the run up to the tournament I looked to my Panini sticker collection to learn what I could about the squad. What I found was that alongside unfamiliar islanders like Theodore Whitmore and Ricardo Gardner, the sons of Jamaican immigrants, like me, had also found a home in the team.
One of the players in particular, Deon Burton, caught my attention. During France 98, most children in England wanted to recreate the exploits of Michael Owen, but for that summer at least it was Deon Burton I wanted to be. When you’re a kid all it can take for someone to be assigned hero status is that they have something in common with you. In Burton, I found a player who kind of looked like me, and who I knew from English football. As I would later learn, Burton had also, like me, grown up in an English town with a Jamaican Dad, and was now representing his father’s homeland. Unlike me though, Burton had travelled to Jamaica to visit family as a child, so had first-hand experience of the island.
There is no such thing as a lone black experience, and although it would be wrong to say that Jamaica playing in the World Cup absolved me of the feeling that this was a nation that I didn’t really know, it is true to say that when Jamaica qualified for the World Cup I felt an urge to support a nation that up until that point had felt like it belonged more to my Dad than to me.
When Robbie Earle equalised against Croatia with a bullet header on the stroke of half time, I cheered wildly, and the two goals Jamaica scored to win their final group game fixture against Japan were recreated in playgrounds and on football pitches for years afterwards.
After that final group game victory against Japan, Earle, who was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, spoke about what going back to Jamaica to represent his parents’ nation meant to him and them. “Seeing their son doing something positive for the island has made them feel that they have given something back after leaving 35 years ago,” said Earle. “Jamaica is a home that until a year ago I never really knew I had.”
What Earle expressed was something that I and I’m sure a lot of other people in the Jamaican diaspora have felt. It didn’t matter that I was born in Dudley, or he was born in Staffordshire. As the children of Jamaican immigrants we both have a connection to a country that until football intervened we didn’t necessarily realise.
Looking back, I think what I felt during France 98 was a kind of intrinsic patriotism for Jamaica, and a desire to be part of community whose fans lit up the World Cup of 98. In every game that Jamaica played there was a carnival atmosphere, as fans danced and sang their way through 90 minutes. “What we are going to do with reggae music and with football is to capture France,” said Horace Dally, who was Jamaica’s junior minister for sports at the time.
When I hear that Syria might qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia, I wonder what positive effect that may have on displaced Syrians around the world. I know what Jamaica playing in the World Cup meant to me; to be able to see and support Jamaican athletes, some of whom had been born away from the island just like me, felt empowering, and I know I’m not alone in wanting to see the Reggae Boyz take on the world again.
Most people remember France 98 for Beckham’s petulance, Bergkamp’s brilliance or Zidane’s elegance, but to me France ’98 will always be remembered as the time I realised Jamaica is a part of me.