Trinidad and Tobago’s Strike Squad entered the final phase of the 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign with an away match to the United States of America on May 13, 1989 and took a valuable point with a 1-1 draw. This was followed by another 1-1 draw on May 28, this time at home to Costa Rica and a 0-1 loss in the return leg on June 11.
With the team starting to find its best stride, the Strike Squad would whip El Salvador 2-0 at home (July 30) and then snare another valuable point on the road on August 13 when they held the Salvadorians to a goalless draw. And the dream really came alive when they eked out a narrow but all-important 1-0 away win against Guatemala (Aug 20) before going on to triumph by a 2-1 margin in the return leg on home soil on September 3.
With two points being awarded for a win, the Strike Squad had amassed nine points from a three-three-one, win-draw-loss record, having scored seven goals while conceding four. It left them with just the home leg in the tie against the US remaining and one point away from making a historic debut at the FIFA World Cup.
And after a frenzied build-up to the November 19 encounter, that had some elements of mass hysteria, USA’s central defender Paul Caligiuri shattered T&T’s dream with a goal against the run of play in the 30th minute at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain.
Twenty-five years later, Strike Squad coach Everald “Gally” Cummings told Express that although time heals all wounds the memory of that day remains fresh in his mind.
“At that time I needed family, I needed friends and I had friends.
“The players were lying on the field crying and I had to go out there and literally pick them up and had them wave to the crowd as I always believe in the saying ‘enter the game as a gentleman and leave the same way.’ After going to the dressing room the people called us back out for a standing ovation and I saw on the billboard, “Strike Squad we still love you.”
Cummings said that despite the loss it was one of their better games and he has always felt the game had divine intervention.
“Coming out of the 1990 commission of enquiry into the match it was revealed that the stadium was built to accommodate 25,000 people and anything more than that could have resulted in structural damage to the facility.
“We had almost doubled that amount so had we scored a goal the resulting mass celebration could have led to the stadium crumbling under pressure leaving many patrons injured if not dead.
“I had my wife and children in the stadium so I was not thinking about the money certain individuals would have made knowing the result was a done deal, I was more concerned about innocent Trinidadians and Tobagonians who were there giving their honest and godly support to the team.
He said he firmly believed his unit was ready for the 1990 World Cup.
“It wasn’t easy to build that team because I had all the ills of the 80’s, mid-eighties and early eighties to deal with as well as all the problems players were having with money and the fact that the football association had no money, so it was like building a house and living in it at the same time.
“The football association did not make it any easier for me because when we were going to play matches they threatened that they could not give the players out of pocket allowances such that the team had to make money for itself,” he continues, “In fact, the football association did not make any money, we made money for the football association.
“The Strike Squad made money for the Strike Squad to continue its qualifying campaign.”
He said they were a team about discipline, integrity, commitment and patriotism, which is what the Strike Squad represented, and one with a lot of depth.
“Brian Williams, who was one of our key players, did not play in our win against Guatemala because he had picked up two yellow cards. Dexter Lee replaced Brian and he played a tremendous game simply because I had 22 players in a squad where Russell Latapy was not the dominant figure and everybody was replaceable.
“On November 19 the mood in the camp was one full of confidence,” Cummings said, adding that they had the kind of unity that had never been expressed in T&T, which led to people coming together behind the team.
“And it was not about politics, it was just that people loved what they saw and they got on board.”
Cummings said that one of the things that left a sour taste in his mouth was the fact that T&T had over a two-months break from it penultimate match against Guatemala on September 3 to its final match on November 19 against the USA, while other teams were playing their matches within a two to three-week span.
“Why it is we had to wait almost 11 weeks for our final match and no one from the football association asked a question or lodged a complaint.
“They say time heals all wounds so no one has to explain to me why that was done because I know it was done for a reason and that reason has unfolded over the course of time.”
He said what began happening was that a lot of politics was being played and certain individuals started to override his authority.
“Arrangements for the team to go Cabinet were made and a church service was organised on another occasion while the kind of warm-up matches I requested, to keep the boys at peak level, never materialised,” he said, adding that he began to feel like he was losing the team.
“I started to understand certain things after we lost the game.
“They began pushing the mantra ‘94 for Sure’ and then Jack Warner and his boys wanted the Strike Squad to do a Caribbean tour where we would play Barbados, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Grenada and a few other regional teams.
“I said no problem but we want 50 per cent of the gate receipts. That created a problem as I was told I would be contacted in two weeks to be informed of when to start preparing the team, however, the morning after that meeting I heard on the radio I had gotten fired.
“What was interesting is that the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation did not hire me since I was working for the ministry of sports, so how could you fire someone you never hired,” he said.
He added that he was not the only one disrespected as the players were promised a specific sum of money, regardless of the outcome of the match, which was never paid to them.
“I believe the entire population, not just the team, was disappointed at the outcome, however, more so over the manner in which I and the players were treated as well as over what they saw taking place at the level of FIFA and which is now playing out in the public domain.”
Cummings said with a little more polishing the Strike Squad would have been ready for the World Cup as the team had only reached about 60 per cent of its capabilities and was performing at a level just above what was required.
“We were waiting for the next challenge to take our game to another level.”
In hindsight, he said if he could have done anything different he would have based the team in another country and then fly in for the game.
“I would have had the team stay in Barbados or Grenada and then come in for the game as there was too much of a Carnival-styled atmosphere with too many pre-match celebrations, including a holiday being given.
“I think we were overexposed to too much of the Carnival mentality.”
Cummings believes the way forward for local football has to start with administration.
“Bringing in a new coach will not solve our problems. You have to solve the problems at the administrative level and have a proper foundation for the sport.
“Administration, the business community and the government all have to be on the same page in order for the sport to move forward,” he said.
He said he recalled Finland’s coach telling the media, after the Strike Squad had beaten them in a warm up match at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in 1989, that our team was ready for the World Cup but not our people. “That statement resides with me up to today.
“We cannot afford to make those mistakes again.
“The Strike Squad was a team that had energy, love for each other, understood roles and responsibilities and played its own brand of football, kaisoca football, which identified the team with its people and culture,” Cummings said.