🇯🇲 Hallgrímsson finds adventure with Jamaica - and work to be done
Ahead of the Gold Cup opener v. the USMNT, the coach tells me what drew him to the Reggae Boyz & what he hopes to accomplish
Reporting from Chicago
Heimir Hallgrímsson could easily be sitting at home in Iceland, enjoying the comforts of home, settling back into the routine of life as a dentist. Maybe he’d even enjoy the occasional free beverage from fans who still remember what he did for his home country when he managed the national team and led it to its first-ever Euros, then followed that up with its first-ever World Cup.
Instead he’s sitting here at Soldier Field, answering questions about what it will be like to lead a soccer team he has no prior connection to against the United States in the Gold Cup.
Why opt for the pressure of his current job as Jamaica men’s national team manager, a role he accepted in the fall of 2022, instead of something less demanding?
“As you can see from my career, I’m not afraid to leave my comfort zone, looking at new options, new things to do. Being a dentist, jumping to being a coach, leaving the comfort of a good job in Iceland to go to the Middle East” he told me Friday. “Now, this. This is a little bit adventurous.”
Hallgrímsson isn’t one to turn down an adventure, least of all one like this. In a way, he’s no different than the retweet-chasing accounts that every few months post a graphic begging you to imagine what Jamaica would look like if every eligible player fully committed to the Reggae Boyz.
He sees the potential Jamaica has, the ability to blend uber-talented players born on the island like Aston Villa’s Leon Bailey or the Philadelphia Union’s Andre Blake with UK-born stars like West Ham’s Michail Antonio and new recruit Demarai Gray.
“Most of all, it’s the hope that we can do something great with Jamaica. That’s what drove me to take this job,” Hallgrímsson says.
The record under the Icelandic manager doesn’t yet reflect that potential, and there is growing criticism within Jamaica as the nation eagerly awaits its first victory under the new coach.
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That said, Hallgrímsson hardly is taking the easy route.
Days after being named manager, Hallgrímsson and his coaching staff were frantically working out a way to stop Lionel Messi and Argentina in their first game with the Reggae Boyz, falling 3-0 in a friendly to the future world champions.
“As a newcomer, you can take the safe journey and say, ‘I’m not going to be in charge against Argentina, it’s too premature. I’m going to sit in the stands and watch.’” he said. “But we thought: OK, let’s jump into it and see what we need to fix.”
Jamaica then went to Cameroon as the African squad prepared for the World Cup. After a pair of friendly matches with Trinidad and Tobago, it was time for Hallgrímsson’s first official game: An away tie against Mexico at the Estadio Azteca.
The team secured a 2-2 draw thanks to a wonder goal from Bobby Decordova-Reid and a strong overall performance, but that first win still has eluded Halgrimmson.
Jamaica goes into Saturday’s Gold cup opener against the defending champion U.S. on the back of a training camp in Austria, one Hallgrímsson embarked upon despite knowing many of his top players wouldn’t be present for friendly games against Qatar and Jordan.
Both of those ended in defeat, meaning Jamaica currently is on a 10-match winless skid. For that reason, Halgrimmson hesitates when I ask him if he’s having fun in his current role.
“I can't say I'm having fun. It's been a lot of work - a lot more work than I thought,” he said. “So, hopefully in the end it will be rewarded with positivity around the national team, and I hope we can build positivity and connect better for the people in Jamaica than in the past.”
Despite all that, there are reasons to show off that well-maintained smile.
While fans still aren’t convinced by Hallgrímsson and the progression to 2026 he’s setting out, his players are. That matters for any team, but especially in a team that has gone through as much off-field turmoil as Jamaica has in the last decade.
“They believe in us. They see the talent we have and they think we can do big things,” Decordova-Reid said Friday. “We understand what they want. It’s togetherness and a team effort that ultimately will give us a chance to do something big.”
Another reason for optimism is a beefed up support staff. A new strength and fitness coach, a new press officer and others are helping create the type of environment Jamaica needs to be a contender in the region.
The balance can be fragile working with the Jamaican Football Federation. The women’s national team recently published a letter asking for more support from the federation as they prepare for the World Cup, efforts Hallgrímsson says he and his team strongly support.
For now, he says his relationship with the administration he’s working with is mostly positive as he tries to push things forward and find the type of support he had when he took Iceland to the World Cup in 2018.
“I don’t know what is possible,” Hallgrímsson said. “I’m trying, with my staff, to improve the professionalism and the efficiency surrounding the team. We know there are limits and at the moment are trying to improve what we have, but of course at the moment it’s even far away from what Iceland did for their players.
“The support can of course be much, much better than it is, but we also have to take into account it’s not a financially strong federation. We also need to understand the sky is not the limit and there’s always a limit to what they can do, but I think if we work together and talk about what we need, what’s best for the team, slowly it will become more professional.”
Administrators from federations both financially flush and frugal, though, are not always known for their patience with managers’ processes when there aren’t good results along the way.
There were learning moments against Messi and Mexico, but the Gold Cup presents Hallgrímsson the bast chance to show he can harness the potential Jamaica has and push it toward a first World Cup since 1998.
“Hopefully, I will prove I’m worth the risk for them, and hopefully this will be a decision worth the risk for me,” he said.
If not, Hallgrímsson will have options to find a new adventure, but he’d much rather be back in the United States in 2026 getting ready for another tournament, taking hard questions and preparing a team for a deep tournament run.