Schoolboy football in Jamaica is religion.
From early September to early December the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) schoolboy football competition dominates the sporting landscape. Over the course of the season urban area schools compete for the Manning Cup while rural area schools battle for the daCosta Cup. Representing all-island supremacy, the prestigious and much-coveted Olivier Shield pits the rural champions against the urban champions. Uniquely, it is high school competition, not the Premier League, that acts as the incubator for the development of Jamaican national players.
Held on the second weekend in August, the 2012 St. George’s Invitational was a friendly four-team pre-season high school football tournament between Jamaica College, Manchester High, Cornwall College and the reigning island-wide champions and host school St. George’s College (STGC). On the move since we touched down in Kingston at the beginning of the week — and after a late-night street dance deep in Trenchtown on Friday — we decided it might be beneficial to our health to devote a couple afternoons that weekend to high school football.
Home to one of the better playing surfaces in the country, the Winchester Park field at STGC on North Street in downtown Kingston is lined with corporate advertising. This year alone, Digicel, Gatorade and KFC together have pledged $40 million ($450,000 USD) to sponsor high school football, and RJR Communications Group has had to shell out $3 million ($34,000 USD) to snatch the local broadcast rights for the games from their main competitor. Like many religions, schoolboy football is also big business.
Carrying the craze wherever the Union Jack flew, roving redcoats and the merchants that followed in their wake introduced the game throughout the British Empire. By 1893 Jamaica (a British colony from 1655-1962) had its first registered football club. Always on the lookout for novel ways to help mold the next generation of gentlemen, educators in the island were quick to embrace the game, trumpeted as it was by propagandists as a healthy means of mental, physical and moral growth.
Advertised benefits notwithstanding, the history of schoolboy football in Jamaica has been fraught with struggles to mitigate what was known euphemistically in the colonial period as the incidental evils of competition—what you and I might refer to as hooliganism today. Over the years, competitions have been suspended or cancelled due to habitually rowdy crowds in the prior season (1944); an attack on a referee (1960); foul play (1966); a deadly mauling during a full scale riot (1972); and multiple cases of intimidation of school officials, including death threats to administrators and coaching staff at various schools (1997). People take high school football very seriously.
On this particular pre-season weekend, however, serenity held sway. Supporters came and went, kids ran around the grounds, vendors walked their wares up and down the sidelines, food was shared and jokes were told. With squads incomplete, coaches testing new strategy, and players vying more for their position in the lineup than a team win, the outcomes of the games were immaterial. Of course there were flashes of the ritual rivalry that typically defines fan culture in Jamaican schoolboy football, but aside from an occasional beer and the not-so-gentle men partaking of the herb in the corner under the tree at the back of the field, I think even the old colonial educators would have been proud of the conduct on display at the 2012 St. George’s Invitational.