Russell Latapy

WHEN T&T WERE ONE: Against a backdrop of all-red decked fans, Russell Latapy, centre, the Strike Squad’s 21-year-old playmaker, drives past USA’s Paul Caligiuri, left, as Philbert Jones supports during their decisive World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium in Port of Spain on November 19, 1989. The US won 1-0, taking the second and final CONCACAF spot in Italy 1990. 

Thirty years is certainly a long time.

Thirty years since the football world was locked on to tiny Trinidad and Tobago to learn if we would deny a superpower the final berth at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the man who was then coach sent me a message on Saturday night asking on what channel he could find the national team playing Honduras in San Pedro Sula.

Sitting at my desk at the Express, having to tell a national hero that no local or CATV station was carrying it, I marvelled at the tenacity of the man, still concerned after three decades of disappointment and ridicule that followed the 0-1 loss to the USA that day in November, abruptly and painfully ending one of the greatest periods in our football history.

Hurt and anger followed that failure, by one point, to book our tickets to Rome. Instead of seeking to build on what we had, the people largely condemned and cursed the Strike Squad for not delivering a victory that their very detractors had been celebrating days in advance. We reap what we sow: on Sunday, barely a murmur was heard as the Hondurans dismissed the current squad, 4-0.

Most fans will argue that the Soca Warriors’ appearance in Germany 2006 was the greatest period in our football history. Certainly, it was the greatest achievement but the composition of the squad and the means of qualifying were instructive. Several key players were already in their 30’s and some – Latapy, Yorke, Hislop and Ince – were on the wrong side of 35. This was a one-off affair and anyone who thinks otherwise ought to remember that the facility of thee-and-a-half places to Concacaf, through which the Warriors squeezed with a 1-0 win in Bahrain, has since been withdrawn.

Among the reasons for the country’s long-running football apathy are the distractions – the constant changes in coaches; allegations of corruption and the battle for control of the football association; the discontent of the few remaining die-hard fans as playing standards plummet to the point that even a good domestic club match is hard to find; and above all, there is the inundation of matches involving the world’s greatest players of the time live from Europe on our TV screens.

To be frank, Everald “Gally” Cummings operated in a far-less complicated football landscape when he took over as national coach in 1987 following a 4-1 hiding at the hands of the US in an Olympic Games qualifier. The TTFA then was controlled, arguably, by one man; the pool of home-based players was all amateur and, of the two pros living abroad, one brought division and controversy, the true facts of which the general public would never learn and, in some cases, chose not to believe.

Additionally, the people cared about “our” football and understood then that turning up in numbers only for matches against Mexico and the US did not constitute “support”. They watched playback of the English and German leagues on TTT but no reporter, TV anchor or man in the street had the crassness to publicly declare that Liverpool, Manchester United or Barcelona was “my team”.

What seemed to work for Gally, more than any other coach before or after, was unifying the players. He did, of course, work on strategy but so have many others, with varying levels of success. He was careful to assemble a group of players and technical staff who were incredibly loyal to the cause.

The current group of players, several earning their living abroad, would do well to learn from the 30-odd policemen, soldiers, carpenters and what not who cost US soccer officials countless sleepless nights before it all fell apart at the final hurdle. It was not style or skill alone that saw them through.

At Queen’s Park Oval in 1988, a Honduran beat T&T’s offside trap and goalie Michael Maurice, who had charged out of his area to offer a desperate challenge. The striker had the goal at his mercy but Dexter Francis and Hutson Charles, tracking back, refused to give up and “bluffed” their adversary; in panic, he shot overbar and the match ended 0-0.

‘Away goals’ rule

In the return game, the same Charles turned in a Dexter Skeene cross to earn a 1-1 draw, with which T&T advanced to the final round on the “away goals” rule.

In Tegucigalpa 1989, his teammates having missed several chances, Maurice made an incredible double-save at point blank in the dying seconds to preserve a 0-0 draw with El Salvador. Kerry Jamerson had suffered an apparent groin injury and, at the whistle, Dr Rawle Sylvester told the players to lift their teammate from the field. “Don’t let him walk!” he shouted.

I felt the goodly doctor and physio Lester O’Souna were desperate, especially when, back at the hotel, I saw Francis and others carrying “KJ” up the steps to his room (there were no elevators). One week later, in Guatemala City, Kerry played the full 90 and crowned off a fine game with a right-footed volley, off a Latapy pass, that earned the Strike Squad two vital points away from home. In the return game at Port of Spain, Leonsen Lewis burst down the left flank and found Philbert Jones to cancel out Julio Rodas’ early strike. But the Guatemalans opened up T&T’s defence again and it was only the quick-thinking left-back Marvin Faustin, who tracked Rodas to the right side and desperately twisted and turned with him every way he went, who denied the striker a point-blank shot from inside the six-yard box.

Faustin’s frantic heroics were probably forgotten by most of the teeming National (later Crawford) Stadium crowd when, in the 88th minute, another Latapy turn and cross found Jamerson and his thunderous volley fairly ripped the goal net pegs out of the ground as it flew into the far corner.

Today, there is reason to wonder whether the players’ never-say-die has been replaced by wrong attitudes, carelessness and irresponsibility. There can be no doubt, however, that loyalty is gone. Trinbagonians stay away from local matches and players believe it is better to ply their trade in Vietnam than to push their bodies to the limit before 50-odd onlookers in the domestic league, unsure as to when they will be paid.

The country’s so-called fans will risk losing their jobs to see Messi, Ronaldo or Salah in the Champions League during office hours and spend their last dollar for a genuine Madrid or Barca shirt. They are unaware or uncaring that, were they at the Bernabeu or Nou Camp in the flesh, they’d be fortunate if a banana was all that some of the locals, supporting the same team, would throw at them.

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