Soca Warriors captain Khaleem Hyland and veteran defender Sheldon Bateau are urging stakeholders to remember the young men and women who play the game, as they pointed to the desperate financial state of many local-based players at present.
Former Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president David John-Williams left office without paying match fees for the Warriors’ last nine international outings, worth between US$300 and US$1,000 each.
It is the sort of money that anyone would miss, but the local-based players are especially vulnerable. Pro League salaries have dropped to between TT$3,000 and TT$6,000 per month at most clubs; and, even then, there is no guarantee that players would be paid at the end of the month.
The Covid-19 pandemic stopped the domestic game altogether, as the Pro League ended in March and most clubs did not even pay salaries that month. Local footballers have not earned a dollar since—with the exception of Terminix La Horquetta Rangers players and those fortunate enough to be employed as soldiers or police officers at Defence Force or Police FC.
Hyland, who plays for Al Faisaly FC in Saudi Arabia, said the Warriors are really hurting and pleaded with stakeholders to show more compassion towards the national athletes.
“This is a tough situation and it is worse for the players who are back home, as football hasn’t played there in a long time and the income is so small anyway,” Hyland told Wired868. “They have kids and families and it is unfair to the players at this point in time. I would just like and hope that the TTFA or the prime minister or sport minister can assist somehow with the national footballers.
“Most of the players are owed between seven to nine games, dating back to the St Vincent and the Grenadines friendly.”
As team captain—and without a functioning players’ association—Hyland represents the Warriors in negotiations with the local football president. It is a job that became so frustrating under John-Williams that the midfield workhorse gave up, and began to just rely on then coach Dennis Lawrence and team manager Richard Piper.
“For a long time, I would have conversations with John-Williams concerning the players’ money and he would give me promises and not keep it,” said Hyland. “Eventually I started going through Dennis and Piper. I like to deal straight up and I don’t like people who aren’t straight to me.
“It was unfair to the players knowing they are squeezing up in economy—which is not usual for our national players—and going all over the world playing games, and the TTFA is getting money for those games but then doing other things with the money and not paying the players.”
Since John-Williams was voted out of office on 24 November 2019, Fifa withheld its annual subvention to the TTFA. Relations between the two entities took a turn for the worse on 13 March, when the world governing body announced a normalisation committee on the twin island republic, which sought to bring the term of new president William Wallace to a premature end.
Wallace and his vice-presidents, who refer to their slate as the United TTFA, are contesting Fifa’s decision in the local High Court.
Hyland said the situation is frustrating, although he refused to point fingers at either Wallace or normalisation committee chairman Robert Hadad.
“It is difficult to blame Hadad or Wallace, as the money was owed before either of them even came on board,” said Hyland. “They have to patch up what was left there for them, so I am not blaming anyone. I just want the players to be paid.”
For national coaches, creditors and journalists, Hadad is so unreachable that he might as well be a ghost. Hyland had a better experience, although he said the normalisation committee boss explained that his actions are restricted by Fifa.
“I spoke to Hadad on the 14th and he said he is hoping that, if everything goes in his favour, he can move how he would like to; and he gave me his word that he will make the players a priority,” said Hyland. “I don’t want the players to get involved in the political thing that is going on with the United TTFA and Fifa. That is not our business.
“I know Mr Wallace personally, as he was the manager for our [national senior] team and I know he is someone who will fight to the end, because he used to fight for our rights and match fees under [then head coach] Stephen Hart. All I can do is wish him the best.”
Hyland, a former East Mucurapo Secondary schoolboy, admitted that the players are very concerned at the possibility of a Fifa ban, which would spell doom for their Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign.
Trinidad and Tobago are scheduled to host Guyana in their opening preliminary qualifier on 8 October. Both nations are in Group F along with Puerto Rico, Bahamas and St Kitts and Nevis. The group winner will advance to a two-legged play off for a shot at getting into the final eight team Concacaf qualifying round, with three and a half World Cup places at stake.
“I know if things go wrong and Fifa gives us a sanction, the players of Trinidad and Tobago will feel it,” said the 31 year old midfielder. “We have World Cup qualifiers very soon and hopefully we can put all this behind us and go out and represent our country. We are praying that Fifa sees this isn’t the players’ fault.
“If players don’t have this opportunity to live their dreams, who knows what they might turn to. People need national caps to go abroad and further their careers, so I hope Fifa doesn’t make the youths of tomorrow pay for what is going on today.”
Bateau, a Fatima College alumni who plays professionally for KV Mechelen in Belgium, was more outspoken over the current legal wrangling between Fifa and the TTFA.
Bateau represented Trinidad and Tobago at the South Korea 2007 Under-17 and Italy 2009 Under-20 World Cups—Hyland joined him at the latter—and is desperate for a chance to wear red, black and white at a senior Fifa World Cup.
“For me, it is a bit frightening because after personally working so hard and qualifying for two World Cups, the dream is to play in a senior World Cup,” said the 29 year old defender. “And to know we can lose that opportunity for things outside our control—if it comes to that and we actually get banned due to the actions of Wallace and [technical committee chairman Keith] Look Loy and the other people, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.”
Bateau is particularly upset over what he felt was a lack of communication by Wallace and his elected officers to the players.
“We know they will have their reasons for fighting Fifa but, for me, it looks a bit selfish, as the players are the ones who stand to lose the most,” said Bateau, “and you would expect there would have been some level of communication to see how we felt about it. I feel they didn’t do enough of that and they just made their decision.
“If we are banned, the players would feel it the most because this is the players’ bread and butter. For the local players, the goal is to get on the national team to be seen or earn a proper match fee to add to their small salaries.
“As one of the older guys in the game, I feel I can speak for the younger ones. This will damage players’ careers and it will have a huge negative effect on not only our generation but future generations.”
Hyland and Bateau both played as teenagers for San Juan Jabloteh, under current Men’s National Senior Team head coach Terry Fenwick, and are enthusiastic about the immediate future.
Still, the Warriors are coming off the worst run of result in the history of the TTFA. Bateau said the players must be the first to hold their hands up for their on-field performances. However, he suggested that many things worked against the squad during John-Williams’ tenure.
When ‘DJW’ was elected president in 2015, the National Senior Team had been quarterfinalists at successive Gold Cup tournaments and drew twice with Mexico and once with the United States in that same calendar year.
Bateau felt the instability that followed took its toll, along with the issues surrounding the domestic game—which went from being a seven month competition offering roughly TT$8,000 per month, to a four month event with less than half that salary.
“The last campaign had so much drama and chaos, with how they removed Stephen Hart and all the players coming in and out, that I believe we didn’t have a fair chance,” said Bateau. “Obviously with Dennis, the record wasn’t the best and as players we need to take some responsibility. I think the coach would also accept some responsibility.
“But I think the results came from the chaos behind the scenes, as there were a lot of things that were not in our favour. We have been fighting an uphill battle for years to put a positive face on the football, and now to come into this situation…”
Bateau pointed to the TTFA’s controversial Home of Football, which was spearheaded by John-Williams, as another example of how players are disregarded.
The defender has not visited the venue himself, but the reports from his teammates was that the venue is awful for multiple reasons.
“If you have players in a camp setting, you must have a games room—whether it is a table tennis board, a pool table, a big screen television where we can watch football together, and four or five tv screens with play stations,” said Bateau, who has 42 full senior international caps. “It cannot be designed as if you are in a prison. Yes, you have to be focused but you also need to relax. There isn’t even a conference room from what I understand, or a proper kitchen.
“When I played in Kazakhstan, we had a home of football, and of course past players like Kenwyne Jones know what a proper facility is supposed to have. John-Williams meant well but, if he had consulted with players, he would have had a better concept for what he was trying to do and would have designed a better venue, without necessarily spending more money.
“They need to better utilise the past players who have that experience and can help.”
Bateau criticised the standard of the local game too, which fails to provide national teams with the right structure.
“All the successful countries have a proper local league and I feel enough of our past players and presidents, who know that, do not put enough pressure on the Association and the government to make sure there is proper structure in place for us,” he said. “In other countries, no matter who comes or goes at the top, the structure is there. As a youth, we played football every Saturday and Sunday in the savannah whereas there doesn’t seem to be enough football for the youths anymore.
“Fenwick took me and [Ronald] Primus at 17 and 18 and we were the starting centre backs for Jabloteh. But nowadays, players are staying in the schools’ game until 19 or 20—whereas we have a 19 year old at Mechelen from Burkina Faso, Issa Kaboré, who just signed for Manchester City.”
Despite the problems, Bateau feels that, given the chance, the Warriors can get back on track for the 2022 campaign. Nine members of the current squad, including ace midfielder Kevin Molino and versatile defender Daneil Cyrus, played together in at least one youth World Cup and have enough experience at the top to face all comers.
“We have a generation of players who have been to at least one youth World Cup if not two and the core of the team has been together for a few years,” said Bateau. “And we have Terry Fenwick—a lot of us worked with him before and we were successful under him. With these things, I think we have a real good chance and we can do very well.
“With our full team and the right structure, I definitely think we can do something positive by getting into the [final Concacaf round]; and after that it is all about how badly we want it as a team.”
Hyland, who has 87 full senior international caps with four goals, will be competing in his fourth World Cup qualifying campaign—Fifa threats notwithstanding. After spending most of his professional career in Belgium, he is enjoying life in the Middle East and has a first hand view of the improvements there.
“It will be great for everyone to see the love that people on this side of the world have for the great game of football,” he said. “We hear a lot of the negatives but people don’t really see the great structure or understand how strong the leagues are here… It is something the outside world should see for themselves.
“I think the Qatar World Cup will be a great one and I hope I can achieve my dream by qualifying for it.”
Closer to home, Hyland wants to leave a lasting mark too.
“I want to play for as long as I can give back to my country and I want to help guide the younger ones and give them something [solid] to walk on,” he said. “I don’t want them to go through the struggles we went through as players… I think we have a lot of potential and quality and we need to guide the future players. We cannot just walk out and leave the younger ones to fend for themselves.
“I feel like the ones who played before us never put things in place to look after us. True, they qualified for a World Cup but we didn’t have a platform as players—or maybe with the blacklist [due to the infamous bonus dispute], they never got the chance.
“As a small country, we have so much talent in every category: sport, music, running, cricket, acting. We need to wake up and see the beauty and potential in our people and start building up each other instead of bringing down each other.
“[…] If we get together as one people and support each other, we will have a bright future.”