As the Soca Warriors prepare to kick-off yet another solitary international friendly, during a nine day international match window that ordinarily would accommodate two matches, there is no palpable excitement surrounding the fixture. In its essence, football should stimulate an enthusiastic appetite in the days building-up to a match. However, followers of the game in Trinidad and Tobago have suffered descending spirals of incivic discourse, poor stewardship and wanting governance that have to an undeniable degree impacted the body of work presented by national teams as representative of “our football”.
In short, the principal player off the field has sucked the oxygen out of the stadium and precipitated multiple causes of action that have directed the public’s attention to the lowest common denominators, while propelling any remaining prestige into the negative. And, those who ought to be the game’s main protagonists – the actual players – have hemorrhaged through a litany of indignities. Consequently, progress within domestic football has been recalibrated to match the descending spirals of inept outcomes that masquerade as competent leadership decisions laced with bad luck. Nonetheless, within a space of tempered expectations, once again Trinidad and Tobago is bestowed with the responsibility of providing good opposition for an Iranian national team, prior to Iran’s participation at a major tournament. And, once again, unsurprisingly, optimism or self-deception is being recycled in a broadly unserviceable and dysfunctional environment.
In June 2014, the Soca Warriors assisted Iran in its preparation matches for that year’s World Cup in Brazil. Grouped with Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran sought an opponent that, at optimum, would approximate, rather than necessarily replicate, elements of the playing rendition expected of the Super Eagles. At that time, in discussing Trinidad and Tobago in anticipation of the match-up, Carlos Queiroz, the head coach, stated: “I know the team, I know the players, I know the quality of the players, the technique, the power, the speed and it was not possible to find another team similar to the problems that for sure Nigeria will create against us. So to play this game with Trinidad and Tobago is something very important for our preparation and I want to [say] thank you to the federation of Trinidad [and Tobago] and all the support, the availability to come here and play against us and in these conditions and we’ll keep Trinidad and Tobago in our hearts for sure because to be part of our preparation was something fantastic for us.”
Iran won the official but closed-door match by two handy goals that punctuated the end of the first half and the early phase of the second half. During the World Cup, in a match that featured significantly superior possession by the Africans by more than a ratio of 2 to 1, the Iranians achieved an encouraging point from a goalless draw against Nigeria. The same eleven starters assigned by Queiroz to face Trinidad and Tobago at Corinthians’ training complex had been employed versus Nigeria, although the responsibilities assigned to Ashkan Dejagah and Ehsan Hajsafi were modified.
In the succeeding group stage match against Argentina, the Iranians lost in stoppage time due to a memorable combination of Messi’s brilliance and tactical error that would have amused Arjen Robben. In that match, aside from the introduction of Masoud Shojaei as the "10", Iran made no other personnel changes to its favored XI, but again tweaked roles and responsibilities. In light of Trinidad and Tobago’s perennial difficulty with maintaining consistent and sustained possession of the ball, Queiroz’s equating premise regarding Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago, may have flattered the Soca Warriors but, from an Iranian perspective, there was certain utility in having played the outing. Nonetheless, there's little doubt that another CAF candidate could have been sourced for the purpose (other than Angola, who were sourced), even given the question of preserving confidentiality in preparing for the group stage matches.
On this present occasion, Iran is in preparation for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup in which it is grouped with immediate neighbor Iraq, regional neighbor Yemen and Vietnam. Perhaps the wily Queiroz has identified another useful compatibility between the Soca Warriors and one of these opponents. Or, perhaps the Soca Warriors are merely amenable rather than preferred opponents, as they were when Trinidad and Tobago travelled to Ecuador in 2017. Either way, Queiroz soon will be equipped to make a direct comparison of his charges because Iraq plays Bolivia next week - an opponent Iran defeated at the Azadi Stadium during the window of October friendlies (2-1).
Although the respected Portuguese coach remains at the helm of Iran, there are not many holdover players from the engagement against Iran in São Paulo. Of the squad currently assembled for Trinidad and Tobago’s match in Tehran, only Sheldon Bateau, Ataulla Guerra, Khaleem Hyland, and Lester Peltier (starters), Joevin Jones (subbed in) and Curtis Gonzales (an unused substitute) were present for the previous proceeding. Lamentably, Marvin Phillip departed Brazil prematurely due to a loss in his family, leaving Jan-Michael Williams to boss custodian duties. In contrast, on this occasion, there is a full complement of three goalkeepers in attendance and Phillip has the opportunity of finally playing against the Iranians. In 2014, Trinidad and Tobago started Williams, Abu Bakr, Bateau, Marshall, Justin Hoyte, Hyland, Boucaud, Molino, Peltier, Guerra and Kenwyne Jones. Kevan George, Gavin Hoyte, Marcus Joseph and Trevin Caesar also featured as substitutes.
In comments following the 2014 friendly, then national team coach Stephen Hart identified several characteristics of the Soca Warriors’ play that could be instructive in assessing whether performances as a national team have evolved in any meaningful way since his departure. According to Hart, on June 8, 2014, the Soca Warriors were predictable in attack, played too slowly in the attacking third, exhibited possession that lacked penetration, and failed to recognize how/when to place the Iranians under pressure. Optimistically, we were taking the long view and regarded the closed-door affair as an early stage of our 2018 Russia preparations. Then TTFA president Raymond Tim Kee opined: “I think the match comes at a really good time and will be a fantastic opportunity for our current national senior team to experience playing such a game just mere days before the start of the World Cup and in the country where all the action will be taking place. I am excited by this and it will allow our country’s national flag to be flown in Brazil, which is always a proud moment”. He continued by noting “this game will hopefully go a long way in helping prepare our players for our upcoming Caribbean Cup campaign later this year and for our 2018 Russia World Cup campaign.”
Off the field is on the field
When the national team plays abroad, it is difficult for fans to gain an appreciation of the milieu in which matches are occurring. Frequently, it is important to be attentive to what is taking place in the hosting space because cultural, economic, political and social realities often present real-time information that impacts the context in which matches are distilled. Notably, according to Rensmann and Abdolmohammadi, writing in the Washington Post during the Brazil World Cup, "soccer has now become one of the most significant, contested and politicized arenas of Iranian social and cultural life." This assertion is not exclusively evident in the battle of women to access Iran's stadia. At the moment, other developments are occurring on the margins of Trinidad and Tobago’s second friendly against Iran within four and a half years. Despite current preparations, Iran’s participation at the AFC Asian Cup, slated to commence in the United Arab Emirates in January 2019, is formally in jeopardy because the Majlis, Iran’s constituent parliamentary body, has affirmed a law that is regarded as encroaching on the principle of non-governmental and parliamentary interference in the conduct of federation operations. Specifically, the law precludes retirees from being employed by entities that receive state funds or utilize state facilities and the Majlis has construed the FFIRI, Iran's federation, as a “non-government public body”.
Mahdi Taj, president of the federation and other functionaries are said to be potentially impacted by the law that impinges on FIFA and the AFC’s rejection of third-party influence in the management, direction and governance of national federations. The AFC has issued a statement expressing concern about the parliament’s designation of the FFIRI as a non-government public body and the employment of retired persons. Zero tolerance has been confirmed as a guiding principle on any such interference that would threaten or compromise the independent conduct of the federation.
Jlloyd Samuel tribute
The friendly occurs six months from the day of the passing of Jlloyd Samuel and it is fitting that both federations have concurred on honoring a player who bravely ventured into Iranian domestic football and contributed to its credibility. Samuel, a player who did not need to be naturalized to play for Trinidad and Tobago, merited significantly more caps than he earned. In the future, perhaps this discrepancy will provide guidance in the handling of future native sons and daughters who have achieved abroad, or in a less cynical and reluctant embrace of foreign-born players. Maybe Chris Birchall should be tasked with that ambassadorial portfolio because it seems to present a deceptively challenging task for decision-makers who hold pecuniary interests in local-based players.
At some point, it would be responsible to reciprocate by hosting Iran in Trinidad and Tobago. Clearly, that point would intersect with the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) being in enhanced financial health and capable of being a proper host. It should also intersect with our ability to return sizeable crowds to the national stadium.
Maybe when football's funding model changes, there will be fewer convenient clichés and more frontal assessments regardless of who is willing to fit the bill. Meanwhile, but for these invitations to play abroad, there would be no meaningful activity on the international match calendar.
Regardless of the opponent, pre-match preparation interviews seem to be packed with the same repeated clichés and recycled optimism that are not necessarily grounded in reality but which have been determined to present well to the viewership. Going into this battle versus Iran, the attentive follower should be careful to assess whether we are in yet another well-intended cycle of going through the motions.
As the saying goes, it's always a pleasure and a privilege to represent the national team. As the other saying goes, at what costs?