Ex-World Cup Player Takes His Game to Norwich

Friday, June 27, 2014
Norwich — The World Cup experience didn’t faze Chris Dawes much. Playing soccer in front of 40,000 Frenchmen isn’t intimidating, not after doing the same thing under the gaze of 100,000 Mexicans.

Every four years, Dawes gets a reminder of what he accomplished as a member of the Jamaican national team in 1998. Now a 40-year-old youth soccer coach, the squad forever known as the Reggae Boyz made the World Cup in ’98 for the first and only time in Jamaica’s history.

Dawes has enjoyed frequent recollections the past two weeks, remembering the opportunity to star on the World Cup stage to acquaintances new and old through the Norwich-based Lightning Soccer Club.

“That was a difficult group,” Dawes said of the 1998 tournament. “We had Croatia in our first game, then Argentina. Our third game was against Japan, which we won, so that was really good for us.

“Playing in France, we played against great players. … We were kids watching those players playing in big European clubs. To play against them, that was unbelievable. It’s difficult to express the feeling, but it was a great feeling.”

Dawes’ playing career straddled soccer’s most significant growth period in Jamaica. He suited up for five different semi-professional clubs in his home country, played in Belgium and also spent the 2001 campaign with Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids. He retired to become a coach eight years ago.

Born in the capital of Kingston, Dawes grew up in a very poor neighborhood. “All day, we played soccer in the street. Just played ,” he said. “We weren’t being coached; I was just out playing with friends. … I was just playing, learning the game, not being coached.”

Dawes never had a coach, in fact, until he was in his early teens. As he and his young peers thought fancifully of a life in the game, Jamaican club soccer was only a semi-professional pursuit at the time.

Two breaks opened Dawes’ professional doors. The first came in the form of a chance to play for a third-division squad in Belgium. The second came with the 1994 hiring of Brazilian coach Rene Simoes, which kicked off the country’s futbol ascent.

“He really turned around the sport in Jamaica,” Dawes recalled. “He taught us the other side, the professional side, the business side of the sport. He brought the country together and helped us to qualify.

“We’d tried to qualify. We were playing, but didn’t have the chance to qualify; ’98 was the first time we really got that chance to qualify.”

As United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann has done with this edition’s team by drawing on American players with German backgrounds, Simoes searched the British realm to bolster Jamaica’s chances. It worked.

The Reggae Boyz — so dubbed by the British press — beat Suriname and Barbados head-to-head and won their third-round CONCACAF group ahead of Mexico to make the confederation final round for France. They would eventually join the Americans and Mexicans at the World Cup, playing the former to a 0-0 tie on Nov. 16, 1997, in Kingston to secure the invitation.

“That last game in Jamaica we needed a draw, and we got the draw,” Dawes said. “It was a big, big thing. The following day, the prime minister at the time gave a public holiday for everyone to stay at home and celebrate. It was a huge thing in Jamaica.”

Coaching has continued Dawes’ connection to soccer.

He first started by founding a youth program, Sporting Central Academy, in his home nation, later connecting with Lightning Soccer director of coaching Charles Mhlauri at a team prep camp in Portland, Maine, seven years ago. Mhlauri invited Dawes to join his staff, and Dawes took up the offer last September.

His first stint was divided between three different age-group squads. After a brief departure, Dawes returned in February — like many Upper Valley transplants, he’s no fan of winter — and hopes to make his stay a long-term one.

“They have huge potential; the only problems is I don’t think they practice enough,” Dawes said. “To get better, you need to practice more. I understand the culture and the environment, there are other sports that they play; that’s the big setback here. In the south of this country they play more because of the weather and stuff. They get to play more.”

As a soccer fan, Dawes remains true to his Jamaican roots. His club attention drifts to England’s Arsenal and Spain’s Barcelona “because I love the way they play, their philosophy,” he said.

Dawes has been rooting for England in the current World Cup, in part because of the Jamaican heritage of forward Daniel Sturridge and midfielder Raheem Sterling.

Those matches have stirred recollections of Jamaica’s World Cup heyday. And Dawes happily recounts them when asked.

“It’s the greatest honor for you to represent your country,” Dawes said. “It’s the greatest honor for anyone, to represent your country.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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