The restructuring of the local football landscape is compelling, crucial and requires a great deal of knowledge, time and creativity. For far too long when things go wrong, our leaders or persons in charge have scrapped the old and presented something new that may have worked elsewhere but not respecting the dynamics of our sporting culture.
The facts to consider are that Trinidad and Tobago is made up of primarily 2 ethnicities that represent about 75% of the population. English native speakers with direct access to US culture even though a former British colony. A Caribbean island of 1.3 million people that enjoy two main sporting passions. Topping it off with our love for carnival, the oil/gas industry and education accolades make our dynamics totally different from most.
The persons entrusted with the project of restructuring arguably the most popular sport in the country must have a track record of success in sport management over the last 10 years. The industry is growing at a critical speed and strategies used 15 years ago are no longer applicable. The country cannot again fail at another football reinvention, as it is now risking the entire image of the local game.
Key points for restructuring would start with improving participation. What is required is the implementation of mechanisms to encourage our children both boys and girls to want to play football. For this to happen, the image of the sport, visibility of its local players, and post career opportunities must be highlighted. Our culture is heavily motivated by education so the school is seen as a positive and safe institution, there is a need for more talks between football stakeholders and the Ministry of Education or school departments to encourage academies/youth teams to use school facilities for their activities. These grounds are more centrally located, they provide parking and security which at the youth level are decisive factors for the parents.
Coaching education/certification should be another priority in the restructuring process. For far too long our better coaches are only amassed at the elite football positions. This is not to say that those charged with grassroots coaching aren’t qualified, but the majority are not. This means that our players are entering the national youth systems with technical deficiencies. The federation must continue to regularly qualify these coaches and offer incentives to do so. This can come in many forms like discounts for sporting equipment, preferential access to coaching badges, waived tournament fees etc. Our grassroots and youth football head coaches should at some point all be in possession of the equivalent of a “C” or “B” license.
The competitive football framework is the most tedious of the lot. The Super League has been able to reach communities far and wide. The persons charged with running the organization are interested in doing the work, but what is missing is additional funding. The Super League is an amateur or at best semi-pro league by definition. Funding by government or the federation is needed and should not be denied, their contribution warrants it. They are not here for a month only or a one-off tournament. The funding should be able to cover uniforms for the season, transportation from one central point to and from the game venue, a stipend and refreshments for players on game day and inter-island travel.
The Super League and Pro League need to play in an inter-league tournament/cup format possibly divided into north and south zones, which then leads up to an eventual winner for the first half of the football season. After which the clubs return to play in their respective leagues for the second part of the season, so the most amount of elite football can be played throughout the year.
The Pro League after almost 20 years, may be the hardest hit if the restructuring is done right. The local fans have not bought into 9 months of constantly supporting football at this level. Reasons for this are less disposable income, more access to international football matches, alternative entertainment options etc. The Caribbean Premier League (CPL) may seem to work because it is only a few days over a 2-month period, and the players involved are world renowned, but compare it to local/first class cricket or community leagues and the difference is clearer. The players of the Police and Defence Force teams receive their salaries as service men while plying their trade in the league. It may be in the best interest to add other teams that can offer the same. It provides stable employment, constant physical training and added value of civic duty. A serious look should be given bringing the Prison Services and Fire Services into the discussion. Additionally, the University of the West Indies (UWI) and University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) joining, can bridge the gap for our elite youth players from secondary school to professional status. This alternative has been missing, and leads to the talent getting lost after attaining scholarships abroad. They will be student athletes and will continue to receive already existing bursaries/stipends or benefits. This will give way to 5 or 6 teams that don’t need additional governmental assistance.
Trinidad and Tobago´s population only realistically need a 10-team pro level football league at best. Clubs that are not able to finance or operate at the highest level can look at entering the Super League as the financial obligations would be less. The shares of those clubs can be bought over and costs the government or financiers less in the long term. Those that want to remain, can look at merging or remaining as is, once finances can be met. The ‘owner mindset’ speaks to resources under their control in order to achieve personal objectives. This mentality of entitlement needs to be put aside, as the business mindset of football is necessary for its survival.
The final piece of the puzzle is with the responsibility of the media. The country presently has the most number of national athletes more specifically footballers playing abroad. Those are the stories that should be dominating the sports segment of the local print media. There are online media houses able to do it, proving the information is attainable. There is no need for the foreign sports headlines to take up more than two pages, that information is everywhere to be found therefore local news should be priority one. As for television, again there is a need to limit foreign highlights, reason being that occurrence has been viewed by many, multiple times in real time before the primetime news airs. The internet age is here, the highlights of our athletes abroad are easily accessible. This gives to our local fans and more importantly the young ones, the belief that local athletes are also making a mark globally, which in return grooms better prepared minds for the successful generation to come.
About the Author: Narada Wilson is a sport executive at The Brazil Link (TBL).