HAVING stumbled on the turn into the final straight, Trinidad and Tobago has now found itself having to play catch-up in a race in which really only the top three get the prize - a place in the World Cup.
Jamaica, as we all know, has surged ahead to join the USA at the front of the pack; Costa Rica and Honduras are in the middle; Trinidad and Tobago only has the very slight consolation of having pre-race favourite, Mexico, for company at the rear end. However, Ian Porterfield's team is reaching a point in the race whereby it is bearing down on Costa Rica, with a chance of getting back into the thick of things.
Question is: Can the Trinidad and Tobago national team overtake it's opponent, a rather strong horse?
The Answer: Only by working harder than it has ever done before.
The fact of the matter is that Trinidad and Tobago simply did not play to the best of it's ability in Kingston, last month, and allowed its rivals to out-hustle their way to three-points. The ultimate price for this is an already tough fixture in San Jose, being made even tougher. Costa Rica has always been a tough team at home with Trinidad and Tobago failing to record a victory there - including five World Cup meetings in the Central American country. In fact this country has only three victories over Costa Rica at senior level - all coming in regional championships. The first was a surprising 3-1 win idid not celebrate its first victory over Costa Rica until getting a luck-tinged 2-1 win at the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup. It was to be another nine years before the second triumph came; in the quarter-finals of the 2000 Gold Cup. Otherwise, Trinidad and Tobago has been at the negative end of the score line whenever meeting the Costa Ricans, especially in their backyard.
The same has gone for other countries as well. During the last World Cup qualifiers, Costa Rica went unbeaten in all eight of its home games, played in the two rounds in which it competed - the semi-final and final group phases. In the latter stage, Costa Rica won all of its home fixtures, against Guatemala, the USA and Trinidad and Tobago. In the final round, Costa Rica defeated the United States, again, along with Jamaica and Canada. There were also two draws, with Mexico and El Salvador. But, for Costa Rica, playing away from home was akin to eating a bad doubles and then, maybe, a hot Solo. Costa Rica won one, but lost two of its three away games in the semi-final round then, in the final round, lost four out of five away ties with the other finishing in draw. It was this sad statistic that put Costa Rica, a very talented team, out of the running for place in France '98.
But the Costa Ricans have made it back and, along with Mexico and USA, are one of the top three favourites to make it all the way, this time around. They may have stumbled a bit themselves in having to beat Guatemala in a play-off to get to this stage and then being held 2-2 by Honduras in their final round opener on February 28, but with players such as Paulo Wanchope, Jafet Soto, Harold Wallace and Italia '90 veteran Hernan Medford there is every possibility that Costa Rica will be the formidable opponent it has frequently threatened to be.
This is why Trinidad and Tobago will have to ensure that, once again, it travels with its strongest side. The resurgence of Dwight Yorke, the goal scorer, at Manchester United is a welcome sign. Hopefully, Russell Latapy will not be distracted by the failure of contract negotiations at Hibernian and one should wish that others, such as Angus Eve, Tony Rougier and Marvin Andrews stay healthy going into the match.
Next week's game is going to be a test. A test of whether the national team has what it takes to be a winning thoroughbred.