With the moment when the Golden Jaguars clinched a Gold Cup spot still etched in fans’ minds, the minnows face a rude welcome to the competition

Its name doesn’t exactly lend itself to elegies or poetry, but everyone at the Synthetic Track and Field Facility in Leonora, Guyana, on March 23 remembers the beautiful scene.

Built to contain 3,000 spectators, the crowd swelled in the venue sometimes simply called National Track and Field Centre.

The Golden Jaguars could lock up their first-ever place at the Gold Cup with a victory over Belize on the final day of qualification. A penalty put them on top of the Central American side early, but the visitors hit back in the 25th minute. Emery Welshman had the hosts back in front ahead of the halftime break. But the minutes in the second half felt like they were taking forever to pass.

Finally, the whistle blew. The Guyana players came together in a dogpile. Soon they were joined on the field by fans celebrating their national team’s first-ever berth to the Concacaf championship.

“It was an amazing moment for everybody involved – staff, players, the fans, the country. It was a surreal moment,” Guyana coach Michael Johnson told Goal this month. “When the whistle blew, the stadium usually holds maximum 2,000-3,000. There were 5,000 in the stadium, and still more coming in on the final whistle.

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“What was so emotional was at the end, everybody ran onto the pitch and in front of you there were grown men, women, children crying because this is a moment they’d waited for all their lives – to see their men’s team qualify for a major tournament, obviously with all the trappings that brings.”

Geographically in South America but long a member of Concacaf and its sub-confederation in the Caribbean, fans in Guyana have seen their teams achieve some success before. There were decent results in the Caribbean Cups of 1991 and 2007. But federation trouble saw the team suspended from World Cup qualification in 2002, and further issues meant the Golden Jaguars were totally inactive from late 2012 until October 2014.

Guyana needed a reboot. It got started with former Leeds United youth coach Ian Greenwood’s appointment as technical director in fall 2016. The restart coincided with Concacaf’s efforts to give teams like Guyana more rhythm with competitions like the Concacaf Nations League. Ahead of qualification for that tournament kicking off, Guyana looked for a coach. Former Grenada international Jason Roberts put Johnson’s name in the mix, and the former Jamaica international emerged as the top candidate. He took over in June 2018.

Now, Guyana players like midfielder Neil Danns, an England-born player who started representing the country of his grandparents in 2015, are crossing the Atlantic more often and seeing the same staff each time they travel for matches.

“I think it’s that regularity, just really getting to know each other and implementing stuff in team that has helped us to prosper,” Danns told Goal. “I’ve personally had five years. We’ve had a lot of people come in and out. I think it’s just nice to have someone come in and give us regularity.”

While things are on an upward trajectory for Guyana, the debutants may be in for a rude welcome to the top tournament. The first match of group play is against the United States, the current Gold Cup holder. Johnson says he’s ready for a challenge against the U.S., even after the Americans’ friendly defeats leading into the competition. Yet, he noted, the obligation that comes with being a regional power and the atmosphere surrounding Gregg Berhalter’s team may work in his side’s favor.

“We’re under no illusion. It’s a fantastic team we’re going up against,” the coach said. “But the pressure is on them. We have no pressure whatsoever. 

“Everybody says we’re fortunate to be here, I’ve heard people say they’ll be looking to score a goal and might win a game. So, all the pressure is on the States. That’s what makes it such a beautiful game is the unpredictability of it, is that on any given day we can beat them. If they have an off day, then there’s an opportunity for us to really capture it and do something special.”

Even if the U.S. is on its game Tuesday night, and even it’s a quick three games and a flight home, players like Danns, long-time captain Sam Cox and domestic-based regular Daniel Wilson, already have set down a foundation for the nation to build on.

“It means so much,” said Danns, who at 36 is set to discuss his future with League One side Bury after the tournament. “From where the structure of everything was when I first came to where it is now is just night and day. It’s completely different.

“To be a part of that is something you can always take with you. Hopefully, this is just the first stepping stone on the road to improving Guyana’s future and inspiring the next generation. You can always look back, and you would like to think that you played a good part in it.”

If Guyana, The Land of Many Waters, pulls an upset in Minnesota, The Land of 10,000 Lakes, it would have to spark celebrations similar to those that took place in March when the Gold Cup place was secured. Who knows, it might even call for an even higher honor. Sam Cox Field at Synthetic Track and Field Facility has a nice ring to it.