Tue, May

Learning from ourselves: Gally reflects on Strike Squad concept.

EVERALD 'GALLY' Cummings’ autobiography is an engrossing recollection of the football life of one of Trinidad and Tobago's elite sportsmen, from his beginnings in Newtown and the East Dry River, Port of Spain to his phenomenal development as a young footballer. He was selected at 15 to play for Paragon and, not long after, was called up for the T&T men's team, the youngest player to date to have that distinction.

While still at Fatima College, Gally was contracted to play professionally for the Atlanta Chiefs, in the then-racially segregated US city of Atlanta. Over the years, he moved to the less forbidding atmosphere of Vera Cruz in Mexico and later to the New York Cosmos before returning home to Trinidad to pioneer a professional league, and to further prepare himself for a coaching career.

In writing that reveals a keen awareness of his world and careful appraisal of the individuals that enter his orbit, Gally showcased characters from the tragic Glory Guys’ captain Clyde Blondell to the notorious Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, along with different generations of national and club footballers, and the activity at the foundation of Trinbago’s football.

His remarkable personal achievement as a footballer at home and abroad, his successes coaching Glory Guys and other local teams, compared to the disastrous performances of the national team in its qualifying matches in regional and global football during the mid-1980s, made a persuasive case for him, and the TTFA (TT Football Association) eventually offered him the position of men's team coach.

This was his opportunity both to motivate a dispirited team for a game at home against the United States a few days later, and to resurrect the national effort to qualify for the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. To do this required that T&T football - its administration even more than the players - moved from its old ways of thinking into the self-awareness of the value of its own style. Gally knew what he had to do.

Many years earlier, as a young professional interacting with footballers from different parts of the world, Gally recognised that the different playing styles they exhibited was the expression of the different cultures from which they had come. The culture that gave T&T's game its shape, rhythm, deceptiveness and acceleration was Trinbagonian. But the continuous introduction of foreign coaches had, he complained, convinced the T&T team players to adapt their styles.

What the T&T team needed, Gally emphasised, was to develop within a culture that was their own. This was what he sought to do. With the help of kaisonians, soca singers and rapso artists, the style soon had a name: Kaisoca. The national team would be the Strike Squad.

By the time November 19, 1989 arrived, the Strike Squad had established themselves as a force in CONCACAF. Players who had been largely unknown became household names. Now, with one game to play, the team needed a single point from their final qualifying match against the US to secure a place in Italy .

Gally detailed the dramas of that day – the team’s accustomed routine changed to something grander and more insane; the bigger church in which the players were to be blessed; the red carpet under the bus; the premature declaration by the government of a Strike Squad public holiday; the tickets for the game vastly oversold and more than half the fans holding tickets unable to get into the stadium to see the game; the players, overwhelmed by suffocating supporters, having to fight their way to get past the stadium gate. At the end of 90 minutes of play, Trinidad and Tobago were not going to Italy.

In his autobiography, Gally did not back away from identifying the forces he believes responsible for contributing to the unhappy outcome. He had his say to the Commission of Inquiry established to investigate the overcrowding of the stadium on the day. The inquiry was aborted and never resumed.

In the eerie aftermath of the game, Gally is removed as coach and two interim coaches were installed in his place. The first request reportedly made by them was that the national team no longer be called The Strike Squad. What had made the Strike Squad name so objectionable? Did it now mean that we were to get away from the culture that Gally had been ringing in our ears and return to foreign coaches?

But that is not so easy now; for what Gally had done in his tenure as coach was to emphasise T&T's football as an expression of the nation's culture.

Gally’s autobiography is a testimony of a serious participant whose football career has spanned our entire Independence period. He has left us with a wisdom he has himself lived: that as we go forward as a civilisation we need to not only value, as we have been taught, what we learn from our colonisers, but to value what we can learn only from ourselves.