Coach says Girlz aim to show best side at World Cup

Jamaica’s Khadija Shaw (centre) celebrates scoring against Dominican Republic as teammates Courtney Douglas (left) and Chinleyu Asher react during the World Cup qualifying match at Sabina Park in Kingston on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz have been drawn in a tough group at the FIFA Women’s World Cup to be co-hosted by Oceanic nations Australia and New Zealand, but they are undaunted by the obvious mountain in front of them.

Against the odds, the Caribbean flag-bearers intend to parade the best of Jamaica’s women’s football on the greatest stage, and their Assistant Coach Xavier Gilbert has committed to delivering on that vow.

“We can promise Jamaica that we will give of our best from both players and staff, and we want to be as competitive as we can be against these oppositions and hopefully surprise some people and get some positive results,” he told the Jamaica Observer recently.

“The expectation is that we should do better than we did in 2019 … a lot of them have garnered more experience this time around and most of them, with the exception of a few, would have been playing professionally, and that in itself would have been a positive for us over the last time,” stated Gilbert.

GILBERT…what we have done over the past years, in terms of playing tough opponents, would have served us wellPhoto: Observer file

In their historic tournament appearance at France 2019, the Girlz lost all their Group C matches in a baptism of fire at women’s football holy ground. They lost 0-3 to Brazil, 0-4 to Italy, and 1-4 to Australia.

And it will not be any easier in the remarkable repeat.

For in Australia/New Zealand, they will face Brazil again, plus European powerhouse France and Concacaf rival Panama in Group F in the July 20 to August 20 showpiece.

“It is a tough group with two tough opponents as both are ranked in the top 10 — France and Brazil. But what we have done over the past years, in terms of playing tough opponents, would have served us well.

“We certainly are going to give it a good shot and hopefully we will spring a few surprises…we are optimistic of performing well against these top oppositions,” Gilbert noted.

In the same breath of soaring optimism ahead of kick off, the successful coach at school and club levels expressed disappointment at corporate Jamaica’s iffy support of women’s football. This, he argues, prevails even with the obvious growth of the women’s game and the beyond-belief qualification to consecutive World Cup tournaments.

“Having made it to back-to-back World Cups, I would certainly hope that we would have garnered a lot more sponsorship from corporate Jamaica and the wider Diaspora…but we have to just continue to work hard and do what we have to. But certainly, I would have loved to see more support coming for our ladies,” Gilbert charged.

Meanwhile, as the pre-tournament preparation kicks into higher gear, playing as many friendly games as possible is seen as crucial to the process. In this vein, there is said to be talks taking place with the aim of tying up two matches against Colombia and Puerto Rico later this month. Details of these are still being worked out, but they are expected to be played on June 12 and 20.

“It is extremely important to have games heading into the tournament and you would want to play teams with similar playing styles to the ones you will face in the World Cup, and this will be a guide how we plan defensively and offensively.

“Again, we need the games to see a lot of things: for example, how we play, the camaraderie, and to ensure that we make the right decisions, in terms of having the right players in the right positions,” Gilbert said.

The veteran coach says the proposed friendlies will provide critical analyses on the state of players as the technical staff zeroes in on their final squad.

“We are almost settled on the squad, just one or two people on the bubble, and that’s why it’s so important, why we need these games to see persons, some of whom are coming back from injuries, and we would like to see where they are in terms of match fitness and readiness — physically, mentally, and tactically,” he noted.

Head Coach Lorne Donaldson had said recently he hopes to grab a few more players to fill key positions.

Meanwhile, Gilbert — a recognised antagonist of the feminine version of the beautiful game — sees the defensive and midfield planks as areas of priority.

He thinks the team is better endowed with talent on the offensive front, led, of course, by the irrepressible Manchester City standout, Captain Khadija “Bunny” Shaw.

“I think our strength lies in our attack, and as you know, we have one of the most lethal strikers in the world in Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw based on what she has achieved in England.

“A lot will rest on her and that’s normal, as every top player in the world has to deal with this, but what’s also important is the supporting cast, and we think she has that support,” he said.

Gilbert thinks Shaw — recently voted Concacaf’s Women’s Player of the Year — will have a supporting cast worthy of backing the regional legend.

“Also, we have Jody Brown, and we saw what she did on the college circuit, so I think in attack is where our strength lies.

“We expect ‘Bunny’ Shaw to lead the attack with the supporting cast, with the likes of Brown, Tottenham Hotspur’s Drew Spence, and Atlanta Primus, and from a more defensive perspective the Swaby sisters [Chantelle and Allyson] and our goalkeepers should also do well,” said Gilbert.

He said that other players, who generally operate in the shadows but with positive effect, should rise to the occasion.

“We expect the other players, who play in England, to do well… there are also other players who have been hitting top form, and we can now only hope that mentally and physically they are prepared and will give a good showing,” Gilbert asserted.

The Girlz kick off their World Cup campaign against France on July 23 at Sydney Football Stadium. They follow that with a match against Panama six days later at Perth Rectangular Stadium and close out the preliminaries on August 2, with another World Cup meeting with Brazil at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.

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