Wed, May

Trinidad and Tobgo's starting eleven pose for a team photo ahead of a Copa America play-in match against Canada at the Toyota Stadium, Frisco, TX on March 23rd 2024.

One of my brothers is the football buff in the family. He played at the local club level and eventually received a scholarship to play and study at a US university. He now teaches at a Miami-based school where he also coaches a middle-­school football (or soccer, as the Americans call it) team.

I would later make a similar journey, from Trinidad and Tobago to the US, though not to play football. I discovered in secon­dary school that my skill was with a pen in my hand, not a ball at my feet. Still, I could appreciate the doors that football opened for my brother. Recently, he shared a video with me of our national footballers giving an impassioned locker room speech after the 2-0 loss to Canada at the Concacaf Nations League tournament.

The Nations League provided a barometer for where the Soca Warriors stood heading into qualification for the 2026 World Cup. This World Cup presents a golden opportunity for the Soca Warriors as a record eight Conca­caf teams can potentially be at the tournament. As joint hosts, the US, Canada and Mexico automatically qualify for the World Cup. Given that these three nations would have been the favourites to be at the World Cup anyway, the final round of qualification is now wide open. There are also two play-off spots for teams that finish fourth and fifth who will play two games, home and away, against teams from other confederations.

On paper, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama appear the favourites to land the three automatic spots. Football, however, isn’t played on paper, so the Soca Warriors need to be ready to seize the opportunity of qualification. What must take place on the field needs to be complemented by stakeholder interventions off the field. Du­ring qualification for the 2006 World Cup, the majority of the nation was sold on supporting the Soca Warriors. For the 2026 FIFA World Cup, we need that support rekindled.

In the “post-Jack Warner” phase of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) administration, the FIFA-­appointed Normalisation Com­mit­tee (NC) was set up in 2020 to effectively run the TTFA’s daily affairs and oversee its financial decisions. The main problem with the committee, as described by former national goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, is that T&T football has become deeply politicised, to the extent that the committee was accountable only to FIFA. On April 13, 2024, the TTFA held elections to determine an executive board that could restructure T&T football, and as much as possible undo the poor administration under the NC executive.

The incoming TTFA executive, led by newly elected president Kieron Edwards, will have to hit the ground running and, more importantly, learn from the mistakes of the NC. A 2021 article via explained that the NC lacked the capability to organise practice games for the Soca Warriors. Lack of practice affects competition readiness. As indicated by NC chairman Robert Hadad, upon the handover to Edwards, the sport was always secondary to the financial management of the TTFA. Hadad took pride in leaving the TTFA “in a good place” and “debt free, save for the financial agreement with FIFA which will be paid off over the next ten years”. He didn’t expand on any details about this “financial agreement with FIFA”. Nevertheless, it is up to the Edwards administration to get T&T football back on track and prioritise 2026 World Cup qualification.

Fan support will also be a major factor in pushing our Soca Warriors towards qualification. We remember the road to the 2006 World Cup: the windshield banners, the flags, and even the national holiday declared to celebrate our team’s qualification. Fans, like the players, must recognise the golden opportunity of 2026 qua­lification, as well as the invaluable contribution they can make by attending matches at the Hasely Crawford Stadium. While it’s true that Trinis can make a party out of nothing, given the chance, we’d rather party as winners.

As further motivation, the TTFA and Ministry of Sport and Community Development should consider bonuses for players if the team was to qualify for the World Cup. Granted, the last time bonuses were promised, the lack of payment resulted in a bitter feud between the players and the TTFA—another unenviable legacy of Jack Warner. Still, given that each of the 32 teams that qualified for the 2022 World Cup received a minimum of US$1.56 million, the TTFA would find it worthwhile to make the case again for player bonuses, this time administered properly.

Even if football remains uninteresting to the majority of T&T, our nation should think back to the 2006 qualification. The feeling of national pride united us. Qualification for the 2026 World Cup can reignite that feeling. And if the sibling rivalry with Jamaica, who like T&T has only qualified once, provides an extra layer to our motivation, we’ll want to either get a one-up on our regional neighbour or qualify alongside them. What better way to establish our regional position than with a record two Caribbean islands at the World Cup being played in North and Central America.

North America, in particular, which has the largest Caribbean diaspora, should give us extra motivation to be at the World Cup. The road to 2026 begins on June 6, 2024, against Grenada at the Hasely Crawford Stadium. I plan to be there. You should, too.

—Author Jarrel De Matas is a PhD candidate and teaching associate, Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

SOURCE: T&T Express