Leading from the forefront.
Newly appointed Minister of Sport and former Soca Warriors defender, Senator Brent Sancho has aspirations of making a positive change in this Country’s sporting industry and at the same time bringing some professionalism and pride back to a ministry that many consider corrupt.
It's the first time in T&T's history that a national footballer is holding such a prestigious government position. Although Sancho may have gotten some stick for aligning himself with a government embroiled in controversy, it was welcoming news for many that a prominent footballer now has a chance at making a positive change to T&T football and sports on the whole.
The Belmont born, former Trinity College and St. Johns University student, will celebrate his 38th birthday while in the hot-seat on March 13th. The once tough tackling defender has had a well-decorated career as a footballer. He has played for his country's junior teams before graduating to the seniors where he racked up 42 international caps. These caps could have been greater in number if it wasn’t for Sancho being blacklisted by the former TTFF; which was spare-headed by disgraced football don Jack Warner and his sidekick, Oliver Camps.
Even at the beginning of his career Sancho face major adversity, as he had to battle former T&T coach Bertille St Clair to be selected for national team duty. The hard-nose defender possessed all the ingredients for the game, but his hairstyle was a major point of contention for St Clair. The Tobago-born head coach viewed long hairstyles as a hindrance in football and England's Peter Crouch may have proven that he had a valid point. (laugh).
Sancho’s performance at his club Portland Timbers and his determination to play for his country eventually forced St Clair's hand and he made his T&T debut on March 2000. Along with his international accomplishment, Sancho has also played for over 14 professional clubs throughout the world.
Sports Company of Trinidad and Tobago (SPoRTT) and the Minister of Sport has had a bit of controversy in the past dating back to 2009 when the then Sport Minister Gary Hunt purchased a 2 million dollar giant T&T flag. Mind you, our very own Warrior Nation fan club got its flag for a mere fraction of that cost and it’s 3 times the size of Hunt's.
The move turned out to be Hunt's retirement ticket and he was subsequently replaced by the unscrupulous Anil Roberts, a one time Jack Warner enemy turned friend. At the time Warner himself was part of the T&T government and had found favor with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Roberts, however, really stole the show as he ran a corrupted and unsupervised LifeSport programme where millions of tax payers’ dollars were unaccounted for. As a result, the former Minister was forced to resign his post amidst corruption allegations and was replaced by Dr. Rupert Griffith, a Science and Technology Minister. As the interim Minister of Sport, Griffith did not make any significant changes and 6 months into the job he gladly made way for Sancho's appointment.
Sancho subsequently became the third sports minister under Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar's leadership.
The newly appointed minister is known for his professionalism and determination to get the job done. He has however had to overcome many challenges on and off the field as a T&T national and even at club level.
He's had to battle Gillingham's chairman Paul Scally for undermining him when Sancho choose country over club during the 2006 World Cup build-up.
He also led the 2006 Soca Warriors to battle the untouchable Jack Warner for promised World Cup bonuses.
Also in 2003 the articulate, Sancho along with former T&T teammates; Travais Mulraine, longtime pal Kelvin Jack and Gary Glasgow assumed the role of spokesmen for 19 national footballers fighting for better playing conditions. The players eventually withheld their services and went on strike.
Still Sancho and the striking footballers remain uninhibited and determined to form a Football Players’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago (FPATT). The players’ union was formed to safeguard the right to compensation for services rendered and also to secure proper working conditions for present and future national footballers.
In the end, FPATT never took off and no particular reason was given. Sources however, did mention it fell apart mainly because local players were unsure about the Union and were scared of being blacklisted by the then TTFF Adviser Jack Warner.
Today, Sancho's main aim is to stabilize the Sport Ministry in the potentially limited time he has to make a difference. As T&T's general election is months away, it’s likely that the unpopular current government will lose, and Sancho could make way for a new minister.
Sancho, a longtime supporter of the Soca Warriors Online (SWO) was all too pleased to touch base with us. Read Sancho's first SWO interview since his M.o.S. appointment.
Mr. Sancho, on behalf of the SWO, I would like to say congratulations on your new position and good luck to you in the hot-seat.
MoS: - Thank you on your kind sentiments. Whatever I do, I maintain a high level of professionalism and this I will bring to the position. With respect to the comment on "time", I am aware that the period for being Minister of Sports will be short due to the upcoming elections, therefore I will not be pursuing any huge projects. However, I will be influencing improvements in ongoing projects as well as to make tangible inputs into upcoming policy decisions. My goal is to make a positive impact on the Ministry so that whoever takes over my portfolio will have streamlined procedures, structured policies and motivated staff.
1. What are your plans for T&T Football, our local leagues and the SSFL from an overall standpoint?
a) The TTFA has been having a hard time paying off millions in debts which has been "one" of the main factors in them not being run effectively. Off course, there are other matters that I personally feel they can improve on.
b) The local league is somewhat stagnant and does little to develop young players and market its brand.
c) The Secondary School Football League is essential as its the oldest and most supported league in T&T. It however affects the development of young players, because there isn’t an age cap for older players.
MoS: - Everyone in Trinidad and Tobago would like to see improvement in men and women football, whether it is grass roots development, school football, professional or semi-professional, international, and the ably-challenged. To date, I have met with several National Sporting Organizations and made my message very clear: the Ministry is not a charity or a cash dispenser. The criteria for being granted funding are: 1. All transactions must be transparent and there must be accountability for the funds provided. 2. I want value for taxpayers’ money. I want to know "What's in it for the T&T citizen?" ie coaches supporting the various programmes; our youth being welcomed at events; I want to see development of our young talent. 3. Organizations must be able to show that they are attempting to become financially independent thereby weaning themselves away from government support. This will involve showing how they are engaging the corporate sector in assisting in their programmes and how they are developing income streams for themselves. Besides providing funding, the Ministry can provide assistance with their audits and accounting.
I will be convening a symposium with major corporations to promote the value of investing in sport and will be encouraging the various bodies to become involved in future facilities so that they can generate income and control their own destiny.
TTFA has gained financial support to build their own training facilities which is how I wish other organizations to emulate. There will be very little input from the Ministry, but I will be working closely with the TTFA to ensure that the benefits derived will include the community.
I have met with TT Pro League and despite my offers to assist them in meeting the requirements to achieve funding, Larry Romany - Chairman, assured me that they have their affairs in order and will be able to provide the relevant requirements by mid-March. Mr Romany advised that their only barrier to financial self-sufficiency was the lack of community grounds which I will be looking into. In fact, one of the projects that I inherited is North East Stars obtaining access to a football specific facility in Sangre Grande before the end of 2015. I want to see this fast tracked and to be used as a template for similar facilities around the country.
I cannot comment too much about SSFL and its role within football - that is a question for the TTFA.
I am encouraging all organizations to put aside internal politics and to bring all the stakeholders under their umbrella to develop their respective sports. I have seen too many different entities within a sporting discipline working unilaterally. This "splintering" is an ineffective use of resources and talent. Most sports require teamwork, even if the team consisted of an athlete, coach and administrator. There is no "I" in TEAM.
2. Guys like TTOC president Brian Lewis, TT Pro League Chairman Larry Romany, TT Pro League Dexter Skeene (etc) to name a few have been involved in T&T Olympic and Football League for quite sometime. Will we see a new law that prohibits one from serving over two, maybe three terms as head of an association. Or can individuals be properly and honestly evaluated at a point in their careers if they are to serve over a proposed term?
MoS: - If a person is right for the job, I see no reason why they can't work in more than one discipline, providing they are effective and efficient. However, I am not particularly fond of "professional board members" who attain positions, yet contribute little. I also am not happy about people who contribute little to the sport, either financially, emotionally, or don't have the potential to impact the sport. In my view, a chairman or president is similar to a referee. He observes, listens and enforces the regulations, but he should not influence the players’ ability to make their own decisions. I note your point about long serving officers, and again, providing that a fair, democratic process has kept them in place, I have no issue.
3. There are so many Stadiums and community fields in T&T and yet our athletes suffer when it comes to gaining access to it particularly around Carnival time, especially the local league who has had to cancel games or make last minute fixture change because unavailable venues. Will we see something done to fix this? I also find it very upsetting that teams have to play at the controversial Marvin Lee Stadium which is owned by the infamous former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.
MoS: - I was one of many, who complained about using the stadiums for fetes especially when it affected fixtures. However, now that I am privy to the mindset of SPORTT I can see the rationale. The stadiums are provided free of charge to the Pro League, but renting the stadiums for commercial use is good financial policy. If I want to make a case for a particular budget, it's important that I can argue that the Ministry is an income contributor. In fact, I use this point when explaining to the sporting bodies why they must give me value for money. My goal is to better utilize the country's stadiums to generate income, thus making a case for their regeneration and maintenance. Meanwhile, it is essential to get the Pro League out of the stadiums into their own income generating facilities that will allow fixtures to be met in a public private partnership format. I see this as a way forward in relieving the Ministry of some expenses, create some income and giving the clubs the ability to control their own futures.
4. The local league needs a home field. Where it’s strictly for league games. Is there any possibility the League can be provided a stadium? For example, can the Ato Boldon Stadium, which is centrally located, be leased out to the league at a relatively low price for 20/30 years? This will allow the League to have a reliable full time calendar and it would also be responsible for maintaining it.
MoS: - As you will see from my answer above, I have a different perspective. Our stadiums are too big for the crowds attending games. There is need for more intimate, compact, football specific venues where camera points can be effective. There should be no running tracks separating supporters from the football action.
Stadiums can be utilized for other sports. I'm sure athletes get frustrated when they cannot train in the stadiums due to football activities!
5. Will we see some changes in the law, for example;
a) Allowing foreigners of Trinbagonian grand-parentage eligibility to represent T&T in sport?
b) Giving companies a tax break if they sponsor local sports?
MoS: - I'm not sure that I can change laws on my own!! But I take your point. I would prefer to focus on developing our homegrown talent, which I believe is greatly untapped at the moment. Companies do get tax breaks, but the procedures are not attractive at the moment. For example, if I'm a Brand Manager with a budget of $1 million in 2015, it doesn't interest me that my company will get a tax rebate in 2016.
This is why I will be meeting with corporate leaders to encourage methods of sponsorship. For example, if we build facilities as mentioned above, would they pay naming rights? Would they lease corporate boxes? Would they install for example, KFC's, TGI's, Digicel outlets? Would drinks companies pay for exclusive pouring rights? We need to bring business into sport to create income for the stakeholders and to reduce the dependency on the Ministry of Sports. Remember that our whole economy depends on energy prices, so we must develop income streams outside of the government, which will include sports tourism, which, I predict, will greatly increase in T&T over the next few years.
6. Our past ministers have wasted millions on sporting facilities like the controversial Brian Lara Stadium and corrupted programs like LifeSport, among many others projects. Not to mention they spend millions of tax payers’ dollars fixing the stadiums and then allowing them to be used to host fetes. In return the fields are damaged and the government have to spend millions more for repairs. Will we see changes in the way the ministry in run in the near future?
MoS: - I too am disappointed with some of the items you have listed above. In some cases, the situations have developed through lack of understanding of what exactly is needed. For example, you cannot use the same designs for a football stand as a cricket stand. Changing rooms for cricket teams need to be designed differently than football teams. Also, we try to accommodate all sports in one venue and fit square pegs in round holes. Often, this is due to budget restrictions. I intend to include athletes at the design stage. We have international athletes, who have visited the best stadiums worldwide. They will know what athletes require. If we want to attract overseas athletes, we must provide top class facilities. They don't need to be in mega stadiums or billion dollar projects, just sport specific venues. How could we ask Blackburn Rovers to visit and shower under a standpipe?
7. Now that you are in a ministerial position, will we see a renewed court battle to go after Jack Warner to recover the millions that were stolen from T&T football. Can you also touch on the Marvin Lee Stadium situation? Many would like to know who owns it, how was money accumulated to purchase it, who owns the land and why are games still be played there? Doesn’t the ban FIFA imposed on Jack Warner prohibit him or anything he owns to be associated with football?
MoS: - I cannot shed much light on these points at the moment. Certainly, the players involved in the court case made a commitment to carry on the search for missing funds. I, personally, have to step away from that fight now, but that still leaves 12 players to continue. The use of Marvin Lee, at a cost, is a necessity at times, especially when the Pro League can't use the free stadium facilities.
8. You were accused by Jack Warner of working for SIS and being a man of many caps, can you touched on this? Also, who will be part of the staff you plan on hiring to help you succeed in your term as Minster of Sports.
MoS: - I certainly am a man of many caps....over 40 for the senior national team! I would like to set the record straight on the statement made, that I worked for S.I.S.. Central F.C.'s first sponsor was S.I.S. and they have contributed generously to professional football in T&T. They were interested from the beginning in investing in the community and they felt that Central F.C. was a good conduit. I will say that once the club developed, they also caught the football bug.
Banker's Insurance Group are now their major sponsor, but there are other sponsors who assist the club, for example, Phoenix Park Gas Processors funded last season's women's programme including Treat Her Like A Lady and the All Female Football Camp. Clearly I have had to step back from Central F.C. and the other members of the board are now making decisions. With such a short period of time ahead of me, I am blessed with many good sporting contacts worldwide.
9. SWO heard a rumor that you gave the TTFA an ultimatum, that in order to get all funding requests, they must hire your colleagues Terry Fenwick and Kevin Harrision. Can you elaborate on this?
MoS: - I have not had that discussion with the TTFA and Kevin is my personal advisor. He works for me not the Ministry.
Flex, thank you for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with the forum. For many years, you guys have pleaded for sports people to get involved in administration, so now that I'm here, I hope you'll support me and, like in Germany, if I score an occasional own goal, allow me another game to put it right!
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