The following is a column I wrote the week leading up to Trinidad and Tobago’s opening game at the 2006 World Cup versus Sweden. It was put together while we were in camp at the Landhaus Wachtelhof hotel in Rotenburg.
Way back when I first started playing for Trinidad & Tobago in 1989, we had a ritual of stopping off at church on the way to the national team’s games in Port of Spain .
I don’t usually talk about religion – like politics, you can never win no matter what you say. But my islands are places where people are strong believers, and that remains the case with this squad.
The archbishop of Port of Spain has always been closely associated with the team. We’re a small nation, and everybody knows each other. He travels to our games, and will sometimes say a word to us as a group on the eve of matches. He’ll be here in Germany too.
But for the last few years, we haven’t been doing the church stopover. Not because we don’t still pray before taking the field. But because we have our own fully-qualified minister sitting right there are the heart of the dressing-room anyway.
You all know about Marvin Andrews’ work away from football, not that he distinguishes between what he does on the field and how he spends his time off it. And we’re certainly delighted to have him as our pastor on match-days. Tomorrow and the opening of our World Cup bid against Sweden will be no different.
When we get to the stadium in Dortmund , we’ll follow our usual routine in terms of getting ready to play the game. And just before we run out the tunnel, we’ll complete that ritual with Marvin leading us in prayer.
It’s really a very simple message that he’ll say, although he might have something a little bit extra to say on this occasion. Basically, he’ll thank the Lord for getting us to these Finals, and for getting us to the dressing-room safely.
Then he’ll ask God for protection once we get out there onto the pitch, but he’ll ask God to protect both teams from injury. He doesn’t ask God to give us the results we’re looking for, that’s not the point. But it’s a special moment that we all share in.
I don’t know if other teams do that, I don’t especially care. I doubt many other sides have someone with Marvin’s qualifications anyway. But once we get out onto the pitch, we know we’re approaching everything in the right manner.
In terms of the actual football, the key to doing well in any tournament is peaking at the right time. And that’s something Leo knows a whole lot about having managed a Holland squad famous for their fall-outs, not to mention giant club institutions in Ajax and Real Madrid.
Obviously, he’s been concentrating on different aspects of what we have to do at different times over the last few weeks. Fortunately, the emphasis now will increasingly be on rest ahead of Sweden .
I’ll be honest, I wish we had the luxury of being together for two or three months ahead of the finals, as some of the other nations have been able to do. Everyone saw how Guus Hiddink welded South Korea into such a strong force at the last tournament. He has told Leo he would never have reached the semi-finals had they not been given that opportunity.
Unfortunately for us, that’s not been possible. We have had to fit in a lot in a relatively short space of time, and while there might be some things we’d have liked to have spent more time on, we have quite a lengthy list of things we’re not so good at … all of which needed working on!
Still, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be – and the truth is, we can’t wait for Sweden . I think a lot of people in England have been overlooking the Swedes, just assuming the group will be sewn-up for them with wins against Paraguay on Saturday and then us next Thursday.
By my reckoning, though, Sweden have three outstanding front players who could damage just about any team in the competition. He may be almost as old as your very own Methusela here, but Henrik Larsson showed once again his genuine world class in last month’s Champions League final.
Maybe only Frank Rijkaard really knew just how good Henrik already was when he first left for Barcelona , but everyone else certainly found out that night in Paris . I’m quite friendly with his team-mate Deco, who has kept a home near to mine in Porto from his days at my old club there.
We’ll share a drink when we’re both back chilling on breaks, and I can tell you they know fine well what a loss his returning to Sweden with Helsingborgs is for them. Deco already knew that having been on the opposing side that night in Seville …
Fortunately, Marvin also knows what a handful he will be. But whether that will be enough to stop him, I just don’t know. Dennis Lawrence, who will partner big Marv at the back, is one of the tallest players in the game at 6 ft 7 in. But Henrik is also one of the most agile players I’ve ever seen in the air.
I remember watching him as a young substitute at the USA ’94 tournament, and having played against him often enough in Scotland - when people didn’t always give him the credit he gets now - there’s something quite comforting about knowing I’ll have played on the same stage as Henrik right at the end of our international careers.
With Henrik, Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Freddie Ljungberg the pick of a very strong bunch, Sweden is probably an even tougher test for us than England . Most of our players play in England or Scotland – and their style of play will come naturally to us, for all we’ll be trying to impose our own game.
Besides, the first match is always of extra importance to any side, but while I expect both teams to be a little cautious initially, and I think Sweden will show us more respect than the English pundits have, we have to guard against the game turning into a rude awakening.
Football isn’t only about great players with extraordinary talents. It is also a game of errors, and while that can work both ways, we’ve obviously been working hard to try and limit the number of un-enforced mistakes we make.
Mexico are no mugs, and we beat them to earn our play-off berth against Bahrain . But if we managed to limit the errors in qualifying, especially after Leo came in for the run-in, we know we have to reach an altogether different plane now.
If I’m honest, I’d have to admit we’re not yet at the level I’d hoped we would be. But equally, we are a much better team now than we were in beating the likes of Panama and Guatemala to get back into the qualifying hunt in the first place.
We're well used to the craziness of our World Cup bid now, with about 4,000 people from Rotenburg turning out for a training session the other night and girls waiting at the hotel gates to shout for Jason Scotland becoming a regular feature of our days here too!
I’ve actually autographed pictures of myself as a 19-year-old, I’ve no idea where they’ve come from. Looking at them now, it feels like it was 200 years ago.
There’s always something we have to do, like yesterday it was Fifa lectures for first-time teams. They remind us about referees and the laws of the game, but also briefing us on what to expect seeing as we are new to the World Cup.
The number of Fifa staff is just incredible. I think our party numbers about 50 in our hotel, and there are almost 70 staff just for us. I must tell big Yogi to get me my own personal butler when I get back to Falkirk next season …
I’m not sure if Yogi’s going to make it out for the Sweden game, maybe the England match. But Pedro Moutinho and a few of the boys are coming out for the game, so it’ll be nice to see some more faces from back home.
All in all, we're focused and together as a team as we can be. We'll be heading off to Dortmund ahead of our first training session at the venue and we're all looking forward to it. We all have big expectations but the anticipation around it is massive with so many different elements involved. I know quite a few Trinidadians and supporters of the team from different parts of the world including Scotland have made the journey to witness this experience. This is our first step onto the biggest stage in world football and we'll be going out to show that we belong.