Sat, Aug

Leonson Lewis still stiffens up and swells his chest when he hears Trinidad and Tobago's national anthem played at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.

Lewis, 38, misses the thrill of battle, the adrenaline rush that comes from important matches. And none come bigger than the games in the red, white and black strip.

Sixteen years ago, Lewis was on the field when Trinidad and Tobago's national football team-dubbed the "Strike Squad"-came within a point of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup only to fall 1-0 to the visiting United States.

As the country again flirts with a World Cup place, only two Strike Squad players remain in active duty and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lewis is grateful for the connection.

Arguably Trinidad and Tobago's deadliest striker of the 1990s, Lewis offered generous praise for his former teammates Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy.

On November 12 and 16, he hopes the pair help their teammates to outdo Bahrain in a two-legged play-off for a 2006 berth in Germany at football's showcase tournament.

"If you can pick two players to represent Trinidad and Tobago in a World cup," said Lewis, "it would be Russell and Dwight. Russell to me is by far the best player ever to put on a Trinidad and Tobago jersey. And Dwight deserves to play (in a World Cup) because he is the most famous player from Trinidad and Tobago.

"So there you have the best talent Trinidad (and Tobago) ever produced and the most famous and I would like them to both go."

Perhaps there is an cathartic element in his blessings. The idea of Strike Squad players-even just two members of the outfit-competing in a World Cup is intoxicating to Lewis.

As the ghost of November 19, 1989, still haunts football fans and well-wishers of that era, so too the communion of the Strike Squad lingers on.

"We are a bunch of people who have been through something together," said Lewis.

The old teammates still get together at least four times a year and are considering forming a committee that will press, among other things, to make November 19 into a National Heroes Day.

They rarely discuss that day anymore but Lewis confessed that, a generation later, he could still recall the emotion of the event. At the time, it was too much for a team and administration consisting solely of amateurs.

The team decided to stick to their routine by setting up camp at Forest Reserve in South Trinidad rather than moving to a closer location like the US squad, who stayed at Holiday Inn (now Crowne Plaza) on Wrightson Road, Port of Spain.

But, on match day, everything around the team had changed.

Lewis recalled the uproar when the Strike Squad, flanked by hundreds of fans, turned up at an Oropouche church for their traditional morning service.

"To get to the church, in the church and out of the church was real terrible," he said. "I remember my aunt was there crying: 'Oh God, Leonson. Look how far you reach Look how far the football take you. We never believed the football could take you so far.'

"I had to be consoling my aunt because she was in a mess. The whole thing was mad. People were snatching you and pulling you and giving you all sorts of advice.

"When we were on the highway, everybody driving alongside you blowing horns and you were seeing red on people's houses and on banners and everywhere We did not think it could be so big.

"By the time we got in the stadium, we were mentally tired."

Lewis, who was 22 at the time, went on to become one of Trinidad and Tobago's more successful exports in Europe and played professionally for more than a decade in Portugal.

At present, Lewis is assistant coach to Stuart Charles-Fevrier at T&T Pro League leaders Vibe CT 105 W Connection, as well as the club's under-18 head coach.

He does not believe Trinidad and Tobago are producing the calibre of players they did in previous decades but he is convinced that the Pro League is on the right path. He praised the attitude of the local players.

"You see a different pride in the (local) football, especially where the Cups and so on are involved," he said. "I think we can only go forward from here."

Lewis, who is in his fourth year as a coach, spoke in glowing terms about the tactical nuance of Fevrier. He dreams of eventually emulating the St Lucian by taking over the post of Trinidad and Tobago senior team coach, although he urged players to show their regional coaches the same respect as they do Europeans and South Americans.

On November 12, his first instinct may be to think as a player and not a coach when he watches his country square off against Bahrain. He knows the pressure that awaits national players like Stern John, Kelvin Jack and Carlos Edwards better than most.

Sixteen years on, he still plays over their fateful loss in his mind.

"There was a situation in the game where I hit a shot with my right foot and it hit a defender and almost scored," he said. "It was like inches away. I still see that up to today. If that had scored, everybody's life would have changed. It haunts me up to today.

"I started playing professional football and you try hard to win every game but if you lose you don't cry because you lost something that meant so much. It was like something died and you can't get it back."

Victory against Bahrain, particularly with Yorke and Latapy in the line-up, will go some way towards easing the pain.