The future success of Guyana’s national team may depend on players plying their trade in England

When Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago qualified for the World Cup finals in 1998 and 2006 respectively, a new bar was set for Caribbean football; particularly for English-speaking countries such as Guyana, who envisaged emulating those two teams.

Football in Guyana remains amateur and opportunities to play professionally are limited but, between 2005 and 2007, the national team leapt 90 places in the FIFA rankings after going on a 14-match unbeaten run. Under former coach Jamaal Shabazz, aspirations that they could become the first country with a population of less than a million to go to the World Cup finals suddenly did not seem so unlikely.

“Guyana has some of the most talented players I have seen in the Caribbean,” says Shabazz. “Any four of their top six strikers have the pace to contend for an Olympic sprint relay medal, which makes them so deadly.”

In 2007, the Golden Jaguars were close to a first qualification for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, romping through the Caribbean Cup qualifiers unbeaten and only missing out on the semi-finals – and a Gold Cup spot – on goal difference to Cuba.

With a number of players in the UK eligible to play for Guyana through their parents – such as brothers Carl Cort (Brentford) and Leon Cort (Burnley), and Jay Bothroyd (Cardiff City) – the Guyana Football Federation (GFF) began to look at recruiting them for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.

Nothing came of it; instead, Howard Newton and his brother Jake, both of non-league Staines Town, were called up. But what they found in Guyana was not what they anticipated.

“I couldn’t get over the fact that the national team had nowhere to play, no stadium, no training pitches of their own,” said Howard.

Despite being given a bye to the second round of their regional World Cup qualifiers, Guyana lost both games to neighbours Surinam and the slide began. In the qualifiers for the next Caribbean Cup, Guyana needed to win in their final match with Trinidad & Tobago to progress, but could only draw 1-1 and a dispute between the players and the federation over expenses led to Shabazz quitting.

“I tried to create a higher sense of professionalism within the team and it forced the federation to have to act more professionally with the players and to look for more funding,” says Shabazz. “They resented that and I could feel a deep sense of hostility from them, while the players started making demands for better treatment.

“When we did not qualify for the Caribbean Championship in 2008, the federation saw me as the root of their problem. Since I did not achieve qualification for the World Cup nor the Caribbean finals, I felt the decent thing was to offer my resignation.”

Shabazz‘s legacy was to help a number of Guyanese players get professional contracts in the Trinidad & Tobago league and he has also returned there, working as technical director of Caledonia AIA and coaching for the T&T FA.

Shabazz’s assistant Wayne Dover succeeded him as national coach. Selection has since been restricted mostly to local players but Guyana showed their potential in winning the Surinam Independence Cup last year.

Yet for those players playing abroad, what seems like a new dawn has dissipated. Collie Hercules, who plays for Tobago United in T&T and is widely considered one of the country’s best-ever players, says: “It was my dream to play in England or one of the other big leagues, but that opportunity was never there. Today opportunities are greater but still not that easy to come by. There isn’t much help, if any at all, to get our players in a decent league.”

Two decades after coming to power as GFF president, Colin Klass has still not secured a permanent home for the national side – who currently play at a cricket ground – and money seems to remain a problem. A £275,000 training-centre project, of which FIFA granted £250,000 in 2006, had still not arrived by the start of this year, and Guyana still has no professional league, even though the annual Kashif & Shanghai Knockout Tournament attracts enthusiastic crowds.

Using FIFA’s stipend of £630,000 every four years, plus commercial backing, Klass hopes to introduce a development league by 2011 and believes qualification for the Gold Cup is “a realistic goal, sooner or later”.

Despite this, stalwarts such as Hercules, who played the last of his 33 games for Guyana in 2009, see the end not a beginning. “It’s pretty hard to say I will not play for my country again but under the current administration I don’t see it happening,” he says.

National team captain Shawn Beveney, who had a spell in England with non-league Dulwich Hamlet, does see a solution. “It would be such a big thing for the team if the English professionals like Leon and Carl Cort could come back and play,” he says. “I think we could qualify for the Gold Cup. They could do for Guyana what Jocelyn Angloma did for Guadeloupe.”

Angloma, a former France defender, helped Guadeloupe qualify for their first Gold Cup in 2007, when the French colony went on to reach the semi-finals – despite losing to Guyana 3-2 en route.