Time to bridge the gap.
When Trinidad and Tobago came tantalizingly close to qualifying for the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals in Italy back in 1989, two things stood out to me that just couldn't be ignored.
The first thing was the fact that CONCACAF was only allotted two qualifying spots to the FIFA World Cup. The second impressive fact was that the Trinidad and Tobago team which was made up of 100% locally based players who never played at a professional level; still managed to come within a point of qualifying for its first World Cup.
We must pay tribute to then head coach Everald Cummings for such a huge accomplishment despite the heartbreak in the end. The Striker Squad made a lasting impression on the entire country, the Caribbean and to an extent, the world. They caught the eyes of everyone who followed football and one must feel honoured to have witnessed the historic event.
The team did so well that it united the entire country and built fan support from the ground up. However, it was no easy task in building such a reputation. The Strike Squad eliminated Guyana and Honduras in 1988, and then finished the job the following year by eliminating both El Salvador and Guatemala. T&T also had impressive 1-1 draws with group leaders and World Cup bound teams Costa Rica and USA, to finish 3rd in the group from a five team home and away series.
Now, you're probably asking yourself, why bring this up now? Well, it's evident that with the current state of our football, T&T needs to go a step back in order to make two steps forward.
When you have a team that is comprised of mainly foreign-based players it's very difficult to play on a regular basis. This is due to the limited FIFA friendly match dates and the cost of flying players from across the world to exhibition matches. This is a luxury T&T simply cannot afford with its limited resources and support. Not to mention, the infrequency of games that causes the team to break any momentum it may have developed.
The last time the Soca Warriors won the Caribbean Cup was in 2001 and the team was mainly made up of locally based players. Despite one defeat to Martinique, T&T managed to beat Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and Barbados to cop the prestigious award for the late Ian Porterfield coached-team.
To take it a bit further, the previous Copa Caribe Cup (1999) under Tobago-born coach Bertille St Clair, T&T also won the title with a squad made up of 97% locally based players finishing flawlessly with victories over Cuba, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Grenada and Jamaica. Let’s not forget that some of T&T's most successful local coaches such as Cummings and St Clair mainly had so called ‘B teams’ to draw from.
While not comparing players in anyway as circumstances were a bit different then, my main focus in this article is to highlight the importance of having a local core of players. This local core can be supplemented with a few available foreign-based players and will no doubt do wonders for T&T by catapulting the overall squad to a much higher level.
When you look at CONCACAF teams like Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, USA and Mexico, they seem more serious about the game because they play matches outside of the FIFA window. These teams field mostly local players when their foreign-based aren’t available, and utilize their time, resources and leagues efficiently. Why can’t T&T do the same? As a T&T fan all you can do is shake your head in disappointment at this fact.
In my humble opinion I think the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) should do all in its power to provide coach Hart with a comprehensive local programme that will provide him with a foundation to build on and at the same time help him integrate and develop younger players coming up.
The current professional league is a dying one, with no money, infrastructure, gyms, crowd support and proper planning, it has been a major downfall to T&T players and though it provides employment opportunities, it can also stagnate local players’ development. Yes, we've managed to catch a few standouts who eventually go aboard and our clubs do relatively well at Caribbean level competitions, but that’s hardly a surface to gauge what our players can really do as they usually fail considerably at CONCACAF level competitions.
This is why having a local core of national players can help raise their level and make them better prepared for the rigors of domestic and international football.
After following the local league for quite some time, a few names stood out to me that can add value to a solid Soca Warriors A or B team. These players include, but are not limited to-
Darren Mitchell, Aquil Selby, Jean-Luc Rochford, Andre Ettiene, Alvin Jones, Curtis Gonzales, Kishun Seecharan, Sean De Silva, Nathaniel Garcia, Kaydion Gabriel, Leston Paul, Neveal Hackshaw, Jesus Perez, Jabari Mitchell, Jomal Williams, Aikim Andrews, Shahdon Winchester, Kevon Villaroel, Jamal Jack, Jason Marcano, Jelani Peters, Jerwyn Balthazar, Makesi Lewis, Shackiel Henry, Kareem Freitas, Kadeem Corbin, Ricardo John, Ryan Stewart, Nathan Lewis and Brent Sam.
These are local players who I think can hold their own given the proper training, international experience and knowledge to know what it takes to become better athletes physically and mentally.
We've seen over the past two years that coach Stephen Hart has a knack for bringing out the best in players. He's experienced and intelligent, but is currently hanging on the edge of a cliff due to the lack of planning and support for him to provide the necessary coaching to his players, especially on the local front.
Many fans including myself have no idea what’s in-store for T&T football, as new president David John-Williams has been very silent since assuming his head position. His reluctance to speak with media outlets on main issues has been frustrating, however, I can only plead with him to do all in his power to help save our football (both men’s & women’s programmes) and get us back on track in the football world.
There are many positives to having a local core of national players in training. It is inexpensive to set up, it would give coach Hart a better indication of the capabilities of his local players and would better prepare the local Soca Warriors contingent for international duty. This is an experiment that's worth the gamble.