Wed, Aug

THE REGGAE BOYZ' formula for success during the "Road to France" campaign is being sampled by fellow Caribbean hopefuls Trinidad and Tobago as they make a final push for a place in the 2006 World Cup.

Thrust into the heart of T&T's drive to football's biggest stage in Germany is Christopher Birchall, a tough tackling English-born player. He could help erase the so-called "soft" tag long linked to T&T's football teams, and put some real fight into the Soca Warriors. Either way, some regional football observers agree, patterning the Reggae Boyz is worth a try.

"I know that all the countries are trying to give a fair deal to the citizens and because of this, if there is a player who shows up in England who is from Trinidad and Tobago, they certainly will entertain him," said Alvin Corneal, a former T&T national coach who attended the recent Gold Cup as a technical consultant for CONCACAF and FIFA, the sport's governing body.

"Whether it's going to be successful or not we're not quite sure. It worked for Jamaica in the 1998 World Cup."

Not flashy

That Birchall's style is not the finesse version typically associated with T&T national teams - Jamaicans will remember Russell Latapy and Leonsen Lewis - bothers neither the lad born in England to a mother from Port of Spain and a father from Liverpool, nor his new teammates. The Warriors have embraced him from day one, Birchall says, and that's good enough to ease his transition. That leaves him to focus on his job to help them get where they have never been in the world game.

"I think I've been accepted already," said the 21-year-old, blonde, blue-eyed central midfielder from Port Vale in Britain while representing T&T at the Gold Cup in the United States.

From the moment I first come into the camp the lads have been great with me. No one has been difficult with me. They've all been good."

If Gold Cup observers weren't sure what he could do, a swerving long distance strike against Honduras in T&T's opening match served up a timely - if surprising - reminder. That goal helped T&T secure a 1-1 draw with the eventual Gold Cup semi-finalists.

Former Peru World Cup great Teofilio "Nene" Cubillas, who worked the Gold Cup as a CONCACAF consultant, admitted that Birchall and T&T opened his eyes to the fact that good football can come from the Soca Warriors.

"Trinidad and Tobago for me is a surprise," Cubillas told THE STAR.

Being voted the best player in that game by Cubillas and the media, some of whom openly marvelled at the "white guy" roaming the midfield for T&T in Miami, did not hurt Birchall's growing popularity either.

"Playing the first game, getting man of the match, brought a lot of confidence for me," Birchall said. "Especially getting the goal. It's my first goal for Trinidad."

English flavour

Football fans in Jamaica were long convinced that the influx of English-born professionals was among the main reasons the Reggae Boyz reached the 1998 World Cup in France. It started with the arrival of Deon Burton, Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson. Later, the British influence grew.

The Reggae Boyz needed a heightened sense of professionalism and the Brits brought it.

During that time T&T, with a couple exceptions, stayed true to talent born in the twin-island republic. That plan did not succeed, as T&T were repeatedly knocked from the final stages of World Cup qualifying, the most cruel blow in 1989 when needing only to draw with the U.S. at home, the Soca Warriors buckled to a devastating 1-0 defeat.

T&T's players' association with professionalism was never in question, most of their national players have been in European leagues for years. But Jamaican coaches spoke openly and often about the Warriors' vulnerability to rugged, rough-and-tumble competition.

This time, with the Soca Warriors currently struggling to stay afloat in the final qualifying group, some good ol' English punch might be enough to get them over the top, despite competing in a group with world class teams Mexico and the U.S., plus Gold Cup finalist Panama and ever dangerous Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Birchall has already sampled the intensity of World Cup qualifiers, his steady, hustling, but less glamourous style offering a contrast to the smoother skills of veterans Dwight Yorke, Stern John and Angus Eve, knitted with a younger brigade.

So far, Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker has not been disappointed in what he has seen, publicly congratulating Birchall on his fine show against Honduras in the Gold Cup. But others are more inclined to wait and see.

"I don't think (Birchall) will ever be one of the creative players that will turn Trinidad and Tobago's midfield around," said Corneal. "It's not gonna happen."

Yet Corneal did concede that Birchall is a good fit for T&T.

"Certainly (Birchall) is footing the bill now," he said. "He's ball winning. He's definitely earning his keep. At the moment, he's doing a good job."

For T&T, there's no time like the present. They travel to the U.S. in mid-August to begin the return leg round of World Cup qualifiers, after being beaten by the Americans the first time. T&T are on four points in the group, tied with Guatemala for the second-from-last place occupied by Panama, who are on two. Mexico and the U.S. are clearly ahead on 13 and 12 points, respectively. Costa Rica are on seven, and in the coveted number three automatic qualifying spot. The race is far from over.

After Jamaica were eliminated in the semi-final round, T&T became the English-speaking Caribbean's last hope for a place in World Cup 2006. But whether or not Birchall can rev-up T&T's engine is yet to be seen. He still battles the higher temperatures of the region, but the warm welcome from the T&T supporters has been encouraging. He feels he owes them now, for getting the opportunity to play international football, and hopes to repay a country long wanting to emulate its Caribbean neighbours Jamaica by appearing at football's biggest show.

"I've got to be grateful to the fans," he said, "...and maybe I can give some of it back by trying to get us to the World Cup."