It wasn’t until Deon Burton returned home that he fully appreciated what he’d done. Settling in front of the TV to watch the latest headlines suddenly provided the clarity that a whirlwind two weeks in France had been missing.
Burton had played at the World Cup. And what’s more, his Jamaica team had rubbed shoulders with some of the tournament’s leading lights as a plucky underdog even the least romantic neutral struggled not to fall for.
As the knockout stage unravelled, the then-Derby County striker watched from his sofa as Davor Suker – the Croatian hitman he’d faced in the group phase – clinched the Golden Boot and another recent adversary, Diego Simeone, became England’s persona non grata due to his role in David Beckham’s second-round sending-off in defeat by Argentina. Maybe it hadn’t all been a dream.
“When you’re there in the bubble, it felt just like another tournament and we were focused on it,” recalls Burton 20 years on from his career highlight.
“It wasn’t until we got knocked out and I was watching the second part of the tournament at home when it became real and I thought ‘hang on a minute, I was playing in the World Cup last week’. That was when it hit home.”
Appearing at a World Cup was the realisation of a lifelong ambition for Burton – a bucket-list item many footballers get nowhere near ticking off. But the striker’s experience at France ’98 wasn’t quite how his boyhood dreams had envisaged it.
A promising forward who was on the verge of earning England Under-21 recognition, Burton always thought that if he made it to a major tournament, he’d be wearing the Three Lions of his home nation, not the yellow of the Reggae Boyz. But after making an impromptu pre-season trip to Jamaica with friends Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson, Burton found himself training with the national team of his father’s country instead. Then, he had a big decision to make.
“At the time, I was close to getting in to the England Under-21s and there was talk of me doing that, so that was my focus really – playing in the Premiership and getting the chance to play for England,” Burton explains.
“But when this opportunity [to play for Jamaica] came around by luck, it was meant to be and could so easily not have happened if I didn’t go over to Jamaica with Paul [Hall] and Fitz [Simpson].
“I had a long conversation with my friends and family, and we all sat down together to consider the pros and cons of everything and, looking back, I made the right decision.”
Hindsight proves Burton’s point. Following a nail-biting conclusion to Jamaica’s World Cup qualifying campaign, the minnows had already written their name in the history books as the only Caribbean nation to reach the finals. And that was long before they even set foot in France.
Drawn in Group H alongside Croatia, Argentina and Japan, Burton and co. weren’t expected to progress to the last 16, but retained a staunch belief within the ranks that they could cause another upset.
Unfortunately, those hopes were dealt a major blow when they were beaten 3-1 by Croatia in their opening match – although Robbie Earle’s thumping header in the first half had given Jamaica hope.
With the small matter of facing Argentina next, Jamaica were on the ropes long before a rousing performance from Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega resulted in a 5-0 shellacking at the hands of the Albiceleste.
With Croatia also beating Japan in the group’s other match, Jamaica’s third fixture would be a dead rubber – at least in terms of the tournament. For the Reggae Boyz, though, it was another chance to chalk up a maiden World Cup victory, and they duly obliged as two Theodore Whitmore goals helped them to a 2-1 win.
“Looking back on it, it was such an achievement to make it to the World Cup in the first place and to do what we did to qualify,” Burton reminisces. “And, yeah, we’d have liked to go further and everything could have been different, but I still wouldn’t change it.
“Even when we were 5-0 down to Argentina, the carnival atmosphere from the fans was amazing. If you ask anyone who their adopted team was at France ’98, I guarantee that most fans would say it was definitely Jamaica.
“It’s a different mentality to playing for a major nation. It was such a big achievement for us to play at a World Cup and everyone was just happy to be there. Yes, we wanted to get out the group and that was our plan, but it never came about.
“It was about doing a good job and giving a good account of ourselves. We lost to Croatia and they finished third in the tournament, but we lost 3-1 and we maybe shouldn’t have lost that game looking back on it.
“Argentina was a different scenario because Daryl Powell was sent off in the first half, so it was always going to be tough. Then we beat Japan and, if you look at how many teams have gone through World Cups without picking up a point, that result meant we were one of the top 25 teams in the world at that point.”
Despite their early exit, Jamaica’s sheer presence in France provided colour to the tournament. The droves of yellow-clad Reggae Boyz fans brought the party with them to create a memorable atmosphere. The effects were also felt back in Jamaica, resulting in an increase in tourism and a drop in crime rates.
For Burton, a number of moments stand out in his France ’98 fairytale: sharing a dressing room with the globe’s top superstars as Jamaica’s representative in a pre-tournament showcase match, facing Derby team-mate Igor Stimac while playing Croatia, and simply achieving qualification in the first place.
But the 41-year-old has no intention of letting his Jamaican story end there. Now a coach at West Brom’s academy, Burton is earning his stripes off the pitch and harbours ambitions of leading the Reggae Boyz to another finals when the time is right.
“In the future, who knows what will happen?” Burton poses. “Now I’m a coach and I’ve got all the badges, maybe I can be part of a coaching team that gets Jamaica to another World Cup.”
Having already realised one unlikely goal with the Reggae Boyz, you wouldn’t put it past him.