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There’s No Happy Beginning for Upstarts From Jamaica

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On paper, it is the most seductive story line of this World Cup: Free-spirited, buoyant soccer, played to the rhythms of Bob Marley and Steel Pulse by a bunch of irrepressible newcomers naive enough to believe they can actually capture the golden trophy this summer.

Unfortunately for Jamaica and all lovers of the blind-faith underdog, World Cups are won with a touch more pragmatism--with crunching slide tackles and cunning set pieces and opportunism at the first sight of a rebound pinging off the crossbar.

Croatia, a far less charming story than Jamaica, is well-versed in the hard facts of international football. Sunday night in Lens, the grim faces in the red checkered shirts gave one tough tutorial, overwhelming Jamaica in the second half for a 3-1 triumph at Stade Felix Bollaert.

Jamaica had its legion of yellow-black-and-green clad supporters dancing in the aisles at halftime, the score remarkably tied at a goal apiece following Robbie Earle’s equalizing header seconds before the first-half whistle.

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During intermission, Croatia Coach Miroslav Blazevic gave his players a terse, but most effective motivational talk.

“When I sent the team out [of the dressing room] again after halftime, I told them they would not be allowed back without the three points,” Blazevic said.

Not wanting to be stranded on a soggy pitch in Lens, the Croatians needed only eight minutes to regain the lead--and 16 more minutes to put the match out of reach.

On a free kick to the left of the Jamaican penalty area in the 53rd minute, Croatia played the ball to midfielder Robert Prosinecki. Prosinecki faked a quick shot, lulling Jamaica’s two-man defensive wall, then dribbled left and hooked a 25-yard arching shot into the far corner of the net over the head of goalkeeper Warren Barrett and off the arm of defender Onandi Lowe.

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Then, in the 69th minute, Croatian striker Davor Suker received a cross from Mario Stanic, teed the ball up in the Jamaica penalty area and blasted the ball off the leg of Jamaican defender Ricardo Gardener--deflecting the ball past Barrett into the net.

“I don’t know if it’s naivete at this level, but we’ll have to do better at set pieces if we are going to have a chance of getting to the second round,” said Earle, who plays professionally for Wimbledon of the English Premier League. “I was disappointed in the way we conceded the second and third goals. That killed us.”

Croatia formally welcomed Jamaica to the World Cup with a goal in the 27th minute--Igor Stimac pounding the ball off the crossbar, Stanic pouncing on the rebound and sliding it past Barrett.

Jamaica retaliated just before halftime when Gardener broke loose on the right wing and crossed to Earle, who headed crisply past Croatian goalie Drazen Ladic into the back of the webbing.

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It was the first goal of 33-year-old Earle’s international career. This is because Earle’s international career consists entirely of seven appearances for Jamaica. He was one of eight British imports--English players with Jamaican heritage, at least by some loose definition--brought in by Coach Rene Simoes over the last 12 months.

Earle believes the newness of the experience came close to overwhelming Jamaica at times.

“There was a bit of anxiety,” he conceded. “It’s the first time we have been here, the first time on this stage. We were always chasing the game.”

Technically, Croatia was also making its World Cup debut after achieving independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. But the team had served notice in 1996, when it lost to eventual winner Germany in the quarterfinals of the European Championships, that it would be a World Cup contender once it qualified.

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“Probably we won it because we had a little more experience,” Blazevic said, “and, without any disrespect to Jamaica, because we are also the better team.”


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