Big dream: Reggae Boy Antonio hoping to add Gold Cup to Europa Conference League triumph

By June 23, 2023
Michail Antonio Michail Antonio

 

Though he is still yet to fully absorb West Ham United's UEFA Europa Conference League triumph, Michail Antonio is hoping to add a bit more history to that club success, this time for his country by upsetting the apple cart at the Concacaf Gold Cup with Jamaica's Reggae Boyz.

The 16-team biennial championship for North America, Central America and the Caribbean gets under way at Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday, with the Reggae Boyz set to open against reigning seven-time champion United States in Group A, which also includes Trinidad and Tobago and first-timer St Kitts and Nevis.

Antonio, who was instrumental in West Ham's successful run to their first major European honour since 1965 when they defeated Fiorentina 1-0 in the Europa Conference League final earlier this month, said the feeling is still somewhat indescribable, but lifting the Gold Cup would certainly help him snap out of his dreamlike state.

The 36-year-old was the Hammers's top scorer with 14 goals in the season, which he pointed out was the most enjoyable of his eight seasons at the club, and he is now aiming to bring that form to the fore on the international stage.

"Obviously, I know I won the Europa Conference League, but it hasn't set home as yet, but it was amazing feeling celebrating with the Jamaican flag, everyone there was celebrating their country, so I was definitely celebrating mine and the island where my mom grew up and the place where she always brought me from when I was young. 

"So, it (winning the Europa Conference League) was an opportunity for me to have the Jamaican flag around me and I was never going to miss that opportunity. But I'm here now with the Jamaican team and hoping to win another title," Antonio said.

He will have plenty more opportunities to celebrate the black, gold and green, provided all goes accordingly for the Heimir Hallgrimsson-coached Reggae Boyz throughout their campaign.

Should the Jamaicans come out successful at the end of this year’s Gold Cup, it would be their first title in the history of the tournament that started in 1991. They went close in the 2015 and 2017 finals which they lost 3-1 and 2-1 to Mexico and United States respectively. 

Aside from their 2015 upset semi-final win en route to the final, the Reggae Boyz have struggled in games against the United States in the tournament, losing five of their last six meetings, the most recent being in 2019 and 2021, when they went down 3-1 and 1-0 in the semifinals and quarterfinals.

By virtue of those statics, Saturday's opener will by no means be easy, but Antonio seems confident the Boyz will test the mettle of the B.J. Callaghan-coached United States team that is missing some key players, who factored in their recent Concacaf Nations League triumph. 

"It (our build up) has been good, spirits seem high, everyone seems confident, and the training went well. It was my first session with the team and I'm quite positive. Obviously, I've got one cup down and like I said, I am here for another," Antonio reiterated. 

"I am definitely enjoying coming here (into tournaments) and linking up with the boys, we have a good bond now, as the atmosphere and the camaraderie is always good. I enjoy it and we're going to keep going," he added.

With the Reggae Boyz team bolstered by other Premier League attacking talents such as Aston Villa's Leon Bailey, newcomer Demarai Gray of Everton and Fulham's Bobby Reid, Antonio believes the team has enough quality to not only end Hallgrimsson's seven-match winless streak, but more importantly, lay a solid foundation, as they build towards the 2026 World Cup. 

"One thing with the Jamaican team is that there is a lot of potential and quality out there and people are starting to turn up. Obviously quite a few Premier League players are now in the setup, Demarai Gray, Bobby Reid, Me, Bailey, so there are some quality players turning up here," Antonio said. 

"But it is not just the Premier League players, obviously there are a lot of quality players from the Island, Andre Blake, being named keeper of the year last year in the US, so it's a good squad being built," he ended.

 

Sherdon Cowan

Sherdon Cowan is a five-time award-winning journalist with 10 years' experience covering sports.

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    For Demarai Gray, the journey to recover from a broken collarbone in time for the Copa America has been a testament of resilience, passion, and an unwavering commitment to representing Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz.

    The England-born winger, who suffered the injury earlier this year, while representing Saudi Pro League club Al-Ettifaq, recently returned to fitness, and his joy and excitement about being back in Jamaica’s setup are palpable, as he prepares to parade his skills in one of the most prestigious tournaments in international football.

    “It's good to be back; I was disappointed that I missed the World Cup qualifiers, but I'm happy the boys got the six points. I am glad to be back with the boys and excited for this tournament,” Gray said in an interview with the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) media.

    “It was a difficult end (to the season) with the injury, I had about six weeks out, but over the last few weeks, I've been working and trying to get as fit as possible for the Copa. So, we've got a few more days for me to build, and hopefully I can get off to a good start against Mexico,” he added.

    Gray going through his paces in training.

    Gray's injury initially cast doubt on his availability for the Copa America, but the 27-year-old's return to a clean bill of health represents a significant boost for the Reggae Boyz, who view him as a crucial component of their attacking force.

    Since he made the switch to represent Jamaica in 2023, Gray has quickly become a fan favorite, celebrated for his electrifying speed, deft dribbling, and ability to change the course of a game. His contributions have been instrumental in the Reggae Boyz's recent successes, including crucial goals and assists that have propelled the team forward in international competitions.

    Reflecting on his journey with the Jamaican national team, Gray expressed deep pride and a sense of belonging that transcends his England roots.

    “Yeah, it's been good. I've seen a lot since playing for Jamaica, playing back in Jamaica and being at the Gold Cup, and now being at this (Copa America) competition. So it's been good. It's been exciting, and fans have shown me a lot of love and respect, and the boys have been good,” Gray shared.

    “So, yeah, it's been a good experience and, you know, with these tournaments and the World Cup qualifiers that we've got ahead, there's a lot of exciting things to look forward to, and I'm just taking it each game at a time, trying to achieve and contribute as much as I can for the country,” the soft-spoken player declared.

    In 11 appearances so far, Gray has scored five goals, and he was instrumental in Jamaica’s historic third-place finish in the 2023-24 Concacaf Nations League campaign. That is an accomplishment that the nippy player prides himself on, and one he hopes is the first of many to come on the international stage.

    “Throughout my career, I want to get as many medals as I can, and win as many things as I can. I think we're a nation that's slowly building, I think you can see the talent and the potential that we've got, but things don't happen overnight, so we have to be a bit patient, but there's a lot to look forward to.

    “Just qualifying and making different competitions is good for us as players, the young players coming through and the fans, it's just good for the whole nation. So I think that would be the main objective, just trying to be as successful as we can in competitions and just keep building,” Gray noted.

    As the Reggae Boyz gear up for the Copa America, Gray's presence adds a layer of optimism and confidence to Heimir Hallgrimsson’s squad. He is focused on making a significant impact and is determined to help Jamaica achieve new heights on the international stage.

    The Boyz will kick start their Group B campaign against perennial rivals Mexico, before rubbing shoulders with Venezuela and Ecuador later in the tournament.

    “I am very excited. It's one I've been looking forward to. Obviously, if you look at the history of this tournament, see how many good players have played in it, and it's a very competitive tournament and testing tournament and I want to be tested at the highest levels in the best competitions,” he said.

    “I'm happy that we're in this and got an opportunity to showcase what we're about. It's going to be a tough tournament because it's very high quality, but without these tests, we're not going to push ourselves. I'm very excited. I can't wait for the first game,” Gray ended.

  • Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders

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    Messi was the joint-leading scorer at the 2021 Copa America, netting four goals to lead the standings alongside Colombia’s Luis Diaz.

    The Barcelona great is expected to be right up there again when it comes to the 2024 Copa America Golden Boot race, and here, we dive into the main candidates for that award.

    Lionel Messi

    Not only did Messi finish as joint-top scorer at the 2021 Copa, he was also the leading assister and then, 18 months later, he went on to lead Argentina to World Cup glory, scoring seven goals in the process, from 6.6 expected goals – only Kylian Mbappe (eight) netted more times in Qatar.

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    Messi has scored 13 Copa America goals, which puts him joint-seventh on the all-time list, alongside fellow Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta. If he is able to replicate his four goals from the 2021 edition, then Messi will join Norberto Mendez and Zizinho at the top of the all-time charts – that is unless Peru’s Paolo Guerrero and/or Chile’s Eduardo Vargas were to net at least four times each to set a new record.

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    If the Selecao are to challenge the holders, then they need Vinicius in top form.

    While he played as a split-striker for Madrid this season as Carlo Ancelotti found a way to get the best out of Jude Bellingham, Vinicius is more likely to play wide left for his country, though his cutting runs from out-to-in will make him a constant threat, as long as the likes of Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta can pick him out.

     

    Vinicius netted 24 times for Los Blancos in 2023-24, and attempted 286 dribbles – 10 more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues across all competitions. He averaged 8.4 take-on attempts per 90, a tally bettered by only Jeremy Doku, while Vinicius also boasts a dribble completion rate of 3.3 per 90.

    He is yet to score at the Copa America, however. That being said, he did not make a single start in 2021, with all four of his appearances coming as a substitute, having only one shot and completing only one of his seven dribbles. But such has been his stellar form under Ancelotti in the intervening three years, there is no doubting he is now Brazil’s main man.

    Brazil face Costa Rica, Paraguay and in-form Colombia in Group D, but none of those defences should strike fear into Vinicius.

    Luis Diaz

    Diaz enjoyed a superb campaign three years ago, scoring two absolute screamers – one came in the group stage, an overhead kick against Brazil, while the other came in the third-place play-off as Colombia beat Peru; it was a stunner from outside the area, with the then-Porto winger lashing into the top-right corner after skipping in from the flank and taking on several defenders.

    Indeed, the quality of Diaz’s finishes are shown by his xG in 2021, which was just 1.0. And Diaz’s excellent shooting at that edition is further evidenced by his expected goals on target (xGoT) figure of 2.2.

    Diaz had only 10 shots, 18 fewer than Messi, yet boasted a hugely impressive 40 per cent shot conversion rate. Only Messi (57) and Neymar (77), meanwhile, attempted more dribbles than Diaz (43) at the 2021 edition, while it was just that superstar duo that completed more dribbles, too (Neymar 35, Messi 34, Diaz 26).

     

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    However, he has not netted for Argentina in 2026 World Cup qualifying, and is not a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni, so chances may not be of a premium for him. That being said, he did score twice in Argentina's 4-1 win over Guatemala on Friday.

     

    Endrick

    Boy wonder Endrick, who will link up with Vinicius, Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season, has scored three goals for Brazil in his last three appearances.

    He scored those in successive matches, though he was unable to become the first Selecao player since Neymar in 2021 to net in four consecutive games as Dorival Junior’s team drew 1-1 with the USA in a warm-up match. At 17, Endrick looks like a superstar in the making, and he could be an outside bet for the Golden Boot.

    Luis Suarez

    Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer Suarez is bang in form heading into this tournament. The veteran has 68 goals in 138 caps and has netted 12 times already for Miami in MLS this season, averaging a goal every 96 minutes.

    Of players to score at least five times in MLS in 2024, Suarez has the fourth-highest shot conversion rate, too (33.33 per cent). Uruguay are ranked as the third-favourites by the Opta supercomputer, so Suarez could have plenty of matches to add to his international goals tally.

    Christian Pulisic

    The USA cannot find much consistency under Gregg Berhalter, though they did draw 1-1 with Brazil in a friendly on June 13. If the hosts are to make a serious run, then they will need to channel through Pulisic.

    While he is more likely to act as a creator, the attacker has proved he is more than capable of putting away chances. He scored 15 goals for Milan in 2023-24, making it the best goalscoring campaign of his career.

  • Italy 'like looking in the mirror' for Spain, says De la Fuente Italy 'like looking in the mirror' for Spain, says De la Fuente

    Luis de la Fuente sees striking similarities between Italy and his Spain side as La Roja prepare to "get muddy" against the Azzurri at Euro 2024.

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