It takes a lot to unnerve 48-year-old Guyana national football team coach and Trinidad and Tobago export, Jamaal Shabazz.
As a 26-year-old, Shabazz was involved in an attempted coup in his homeland—he was subsequently pardoned by the State—while the former goalkeeper is arguably best known for his work in the rough Morvant/ Laventille neighbourhood where his Caledonia AIA football club is a notable success story.
Today, he will add the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City among his toughest challenges as he leads Guyana out for a historic fixture against Mexico in one of football’s most intimidating venues.
“Of course, we would all be nervous because this is indeed a big moment for us,” Shabazz told Wired868, “but my life lessons confronting death, prison and other challenges have made me accept that fear is an emotion just like happiness, sadness and other feelings.
“Therefore, we intend to live this moment in Azteca against Mexico because we have earned the right to be here.”
Guyana has never competed before in the semi-final stage of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers and the “Golden Jaguars” booked their place by eliminating Trinidad and Tobago in the group stage on 11 November 2011.
Already, it seems a lifetime ago. At present, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) has no money, no head coach, an acting President, is battling its own players and former employees in the High Court and cannot even purchase furniture in its own name.
Shabazz’s success is small consolation against this backdrop but then local football fans cannot afford to be picky these days.
Needless to say, the Caledonia coach is already a big hit in Guyana and earning a name for himself internationally as well.
“I am impressed by the passion from the Guyanese people and players,” said Shabazz, “and I think this could be a big factor in the future success of their program.
“This is a fairytale journey for me. I have been able to have audiences with Colombia’s Argentine coach, José Pékerman, and advice and well wishes from so many people.
“I think I owe it to the Caribbean coaches to ensure that we do more than participate in this game.”
Shabazz’s work off the field has been just as vital for Guyana. The fall of another Trinidadian, ex-CONCACAF and Caribbean Football Union (CFU) President Jack Warner, allowed Guyana an opportunity to negotiate its own television rights deal outside of the collective.
“Guyana challenged the old CFU dominion by signing a TV rights deal outside of Traffic and the one signed by Mr Warner on behalf of the CFU,” said Shabazz. “I felt that if Jamaica was allowed to sign a deal separate from CFU, then Guyana earned that same right. We stood up to the old and new CFU and signed a deal with Sponsport.”
The immediate benefit of the television cash was an unprecedented level of preparation for the unheralded Caribbean outfit.
Guyana landed in Mexico City on Wednesday on the back of a two-week training camp at altitude in Bogota, Colombia while the Jaguars have already played six international friendlies this year including a fixture away to Colombia, which they lost 7-0 on May 28.
As the defeat to Colombia might suggest, Guyana will not have an easy time at this level.
A game against an isolated Kenwyne Jones and Trinidad and Tobago is one thing; Mexico boasts of Manchester United poacher Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, whose international tally is an astounding 25 goals from 36 caps, and a support cast that includes Tottenham’s Giovani Dos Santos and Arsenal’s Carlos Vela.
In contrast, Guyana has stretched a team of journeymen to the limit.
England-born striker Carl Cort once represented Newcastle United but, at 34, his best days appear to be behind him. Speedy attacker Gregory Richardson has faded too after an explosive stint with local Pro League club, Joe Public, while winger Ricky Shakes was discarded by Trinidad and Tobago after a solitary friendly cap before turning to the Jaguars.
Shakes scored a vital goal when Guyana booted out the Soca Warriors and he is now joined by another ex-Trinidad and Tobago international, Aubrey David, who wore red, white and black at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup.
Today, they will face their toughest international challenge yet.
“Luck is a big part of football and we will need some,” said Shabazz. “We know we have to defend against the Gog and Magog for long periods but we want to try and play when we have the ball as well.
“I think one can expect passion, commitment, discipline but also a bit of naivety from Guyana.”
Shabazz admitted that the Mexican public has been very welcoming thus far and the hosts are clearly expecting a rout.
Twelve years ago, a Trinidad and Tobago team that included Clayton Ince, Dennis Lawrence, Angus Eve, Jerren Nixon and Arnold Dwarika was crushed 7-0 at the Azteca. Russell Latapy did a better job at damage limitation when, as coach, he steered the “Soca Warriors” to a 2-1 loss in 2009.
It would take a miracle for the Jaguars to better that result. But Shabazz is a believer and Guyana has its fingers crossed.