Lanze A. White.
It's approaching the 90th minute and you glance over to the sideline as you see the fourth official put up the board. He indicates two minutes of stoppage time... It's now or never. The score line is locked at 2 all after an enthralling 90 minutes of football in the cup final. Your team has been pegged back twice after you've given them the lead on two separate occasions. Twice now you've had your hands firmly on the trophy only to have your grasp loosened by the sting on an equalizer! You're on a hat trick but you'd trade your two goals in the final for your team to find that winning goal... The stage is set and the time is now for you to dig deep and push your team over the line. Can you carve your name into the history books of your boyhood club and become a legend of the game?
You snap back into action after your brief glance over to the sideline and realize that the ball is breaking over the top of your opponent's defence. The breakaway had resulted from a corner kick for the opposition with them pushing numbers forward in the dying embers of the games in search of glory... but has that move backfired?
The counter attack is on as your goalkeeper claims the cross from the corner kick with some commanding presence in his box before springing an arrowed pass over the top of their high lying defensive line. You were lurking around the halfway line, waiting for your moment... The ball goes over the head of the last defender and you burst into action chasing after the loose ball with blistering pace! You’re onside and cutting the distance between you and the goal with every stride. Suddenly the goal keeper makes a split decision to charge out of the goal, but you’ve got time and space, you’re composed and ready to seize the moment. But then the unthinkable happens… in the height of the excitement you feel your legs give way and you go tumbling to the ground as you were approaching on the rushing keeper. The goalkeeper hadn’t made up the ground as yet so surely this challenge came from behind. Disgusting! You think to yourself as you spring to your feet to appeal to the referee. Surely that must be a red card, surely a last ditched attempt from a desperate defender to stop you from claiming your place in history as a club legend. But as you look around you realize that there is nobody close to you. The referee hasn’t stopped the game and the defenders and goalkeeper continue their charge towards you. Confusion sets in but you quickly snap out of it and as you look down to retrieve the ball and get on with it you see the real culprit… sat right beside the ball is a massive rock that could easily be the same size as your fist. Then the realization hits you that you’ve been taken out by stone and that’s not the only thing that hits you, as the goalkeeper who had been coming towards you at breakneck speed clatters into you and sweeps away the ball. The chance is gone and the referee promptly blows the final whistle.
Your team would go on to lose on penalties. Devastated and still in disappointment over your unbelievable misfortune, as you walk up to collect your runner up medal, you can’t help but think that if it weren’t for the poor state of the field, silver would be gold.
Too often scenarios like this are the case for our local footballers who toil through countless struggles, from the youth level up to senior football in the name of the game we love so much. The state of so many of the playing fields in the country is nothing short of deplorable and it’s our youth players who utilize most of these cow pastures we call football fields. So what really causes our playing surfaces to be this bad? How much do they affect our players? The most important question is what can we do to improve them?
The main cause is negligence, not a lack of finances which is often cited as the reason by many, but negligence. Too often we neglect our responsibilities and refuse to stand accountable for this long standing issue that has been a thorn in the side of the progression of Jamaican football. Good playing surfaces are essential to the development of good football players so just as we would place importance on providing proper boots, gears, footballs and other training equipment, we must also prioritize one of the basic components of the game, the field. The time has come for us to stop evading the responsibility of providing proper playing surfaces by citing financial constraints as the reason for some of the eye sores that we call football fields. Don’t get me wrong now, because I am fully aware of the challenges that can arise when it comes to trying to get the most out of a football program with limited finances. It won’t be easy but I think it all comes down to where we place our priorities and good football fields must be up there at the top of that list.
It’s not that it can’t be achieved because at times I’ve seen some top quality pitches in Jamaica. The Anthony Spaulding Sports Complex in Arnett Gardens, Drewsland Mini Stadium in Waterhouse, Drax Hall in St. Ann and the Montego Bay Sports Complex in St. James are just a few of the venues that sometimes have outstanding playing surfaces. The challenge we face is that once a top quality venue with a good playing surface is identity, organizations such as the JFF, ISSA and the PLCA exploit them with little concern about maintaining the quality of the field. These fields are overworked, often being used to host matches and other events for 2 or 3 days in a row and even to host 2 or 3 games back to back in a single day! These playing surfaces become worn out and need a proper rest, one which they are not afforded as well as a lack of proper maintenance so they deteriorate, fast. We exhaust one field, and then move on to the next and this vicious cycle needs to end.
The implications of watching football being played on bad fields go way beyond the fact that it may very well be the equivalent of poking yourself in the eyes for 90 minutes. Uneven, dirt patches, with well concealed sink holes and hidden surprises that can best be described as cow pastures disguised as football fields are one of the main reasons behind the stagnation of Jamaican football. From the early stages of grassroots football where toddlers learn to pass and control the ball and more importantly, to enjoy the beautiful game, a safe and proper playing environment is crucial. It will encourage best practices from an early age which align with international standard as they begin to develop proper football technique and habits. When you are playing on a poor field your technique and football practices on the field tend to be altered as you develop mean of adapting to the surface. It is fair to say that it forces our footballers to be more focused and disciplined in the way they move the ball along the ground as they anticipate unexpected movements of the ball as a result of bumps and holes in the ground. However… this also develops bad habits as it encourages the players to find ways to work around the bad fields. If you can’t move the ball freely across the surface in a slick and quick manner to speed up the buildup play, what will you do? Go route one. Frustrating playing surfaces often result in what has become sort of a playing style in our local game as we launch the ball long and rely on pace to cause any real damage instead of any patient, possession based buildup play to break down stubborn defenses. For me, this is not the answer to our cow pastures problem. These unsightly fields are also safety hazards to the players who use them. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been playing football and rolled my ankle in one of those well concealed holes I mentioned earlier or got a cut from one of those hidden surprises. So a lot of the fields that we have our youth and senior players using don’t only encourage bad practices but they’re also injuries waiting to happen. Don’t be so glum though as all hope is not lost if we can start to be a little more considerate and a lot more efficient.
Which brings me to my final point of what we can do to improve these playing surfaces? It all starts with being more considerate and where we place our priorities. It is no secret that most of the football teams, from the youth teams to the senior sides face great financial obstacles so it won’t be easy. I’m not asking for perfect playing surfaces right across the island because that won’t happen overnight but rather a shift in the way we view and approach this issue, because it is a big one. From the youth straight up to the senior level, measures need to be put in place to ensure that practices to develop proper fields and to maintain them thereafter are carried out. One of the main reasons for the state of so many of the fields locally being so bad is as a result of them being overworked and not enough effort being put into maintaining the quality of the surface. This needs to change. Another solution that might be an option for us is the use of artificial turfs. With that being said I must commend the Jamaica Football Federation for the initiative they have shown to build the first full sized artificial playing surface in Jamaica up by the UWI-JFF Captain Horace Burrell Centre of Excellence. It is a beauty to behold and it feels heavenly. They have utilized it for training session of all the national teams and even youth tournament and practice matches for some of the local clubs which is just brilliant. The difference in the quality of the movement of the ball by the players and the speed and slickness of the buildup play when they use the artificial turf is justification enough for its installation. However, although it might be a remarkably efficient solution, it is also a staggeringly expensive one as well! The surface cost the JFF a reported US$600,000… So even though it would be ideal to have at least one of these artificial turfs in each parish across the island, I think we are still a long way off from achieving that. That means we must start where changes can presently be made, and that is with a change in our mindsets and the way we look at this issue. We need to do it for the benefit of our players and ultimately the progression of Jamaican football. So until we implement changes, we will never know if the grass is truly greener on the other side.