Mon, Jul

Brent Sancho has seen it all -- the despair, the apathy and the jubilation, all from the sidelines. But for World Cup long shots Trinidad and Tobago, the long shot out of St. John's University was on the field for the greatest soccer moment in the history of his country.

Filling in for injured Marvin Andrews, a center back at Scottish giant Rangers, the dreadlocked defender not only played the entire 90 minutes, but he was one of the Soca Warriors best players in an improbable goalless draw with heavily favored Sweden in Trinidad's first-ever World Cup match Saturday in Dortmund.

As is the case for Trinidad, known as a cricket country, few gave Sancho a chance to be on soccer's biggest stage. But here he was in Germany, battling the likes of Henrik Larsson (Barcelona), Fredrik Ljungberg (Arsenal) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Juventus) as the first player in St. John's history to compete in a World Cup.

At St. John's 10 years ago, Sancho played sparingly on a Red Storm team that won an NCAA Division I national championship in 1996. Poll his teammates, friends and coaches back then, and a handful of other candidates would have been named before Sancho to possibly play in a World Cup.

But while many of higher profile college teammates have since hung up their cleats, Sancho has remarkably reached the pinnacle of his sport.

"I wouldn't think when I was at St. John's in my wildest dreams that I would be playing football now and representing Trinidad at the World Cup," he said in a phone interview.

It hasn't been easy. He paid his dues in Finland and in the USL First Division at Charleston and Seattle. Sancho made the move to the Scottish Premier League and Dundee, but his club was relegated and Sancho was released.

He caught on with Gillingham in the English First Division but nearly blew that opportunity when he went against Gillingham chairman Paul Scally's wishes and traveled with Trinidad to Bahrain for the team's final World Cup qualifying match Nov. 15.

Sancho knew he wouldn't play -- he was ruled out with an injury -- but he wanted to be there regardless. And he was ready to face the circumstances.

"I tell you now, I'd do the same thing again if I had the chance," he said. "I go over and over and over, I go back and play for my country."

Trinidad won the match and the tiny Caribbean country was going to Germany as the smallest country to ever qualify. The mood back home was like none other for Sancho.

"When I first left St. John's and went to the mall, nobody noticed me but I went to that same shopping mall the week that we played Peru [May 10] and I was absolutely mobbed, signing autographs," Sancho said. "I never thought I'd see the day where you get mobbed in Trinidad. It's good to see that, a country like Trinidad that was a cricket country. The kind of love we got there was a good experience."

Back in England, though, the atmosphere wasn't quite as joyous. Scally was so angry that Sancho disregarded his order that he told the press Sancho would never play for Gillingham again. Sancho sat on the Gillingham bench for two months and saw what appeared to be a sure move to Swansea City on loan denied when Swansea learned they would have to reapply for Sancho's work permit.

Because he wasn't playing with his club team, Sancho's inclusion on Trinidad's World Cup squad was in serious jeopardy and he was left off Leo Beenhakker's side for a friendly against Finland Feb. 28.

But with the Gillingham defense decimated by injury and suspension and with the Kent side sinking towards the relegation zone after a 6-0 thrashing to Bristol City, Sancho returned to the Gills starting lineup against Brentford March 21. He scored for nine-man Gillingham in a 3-2 win and his club went on a critical six-game winning streak.

"I knew that once I'd get my opportunity I was going to grab it with both hands," he said. "I knew once I'd get on the pitch for Gillingham, I'd get called back to the first team."

While many thought Sancho would ever compete in a World Cup, the Caribbean country of just over one million thought the same about the Soca Warriors. Trinidad had its chance, they said, and it was blown on Nov. 19, 1989.

Sancho was 12 at the time and had a very good view of Paul Caliguiri's "shot heard round the world." He was standing directly behind the goal as a stunned ballboy. While the U.S. team celebrated its first trip to the World Cup in 50 years, Trinidad went in despair.

"I can remember my heart dropping. To be honest with you, I was in disbelief," he said. "Even after the final whistle blew, I thought this is not right, you're dreaming. Then the reality set in and you see everyone crying in the stadium. To go from that to where you are now, you can't believe it."

Some 17 years later, Sancho isn't watching from the sidelines. He is playing, and playing well, for Trinidad in the World Cup. After a stunning draw with Sweden, the 1,001-1 underdogs to win the World Cup have a date with mighty England Thursday in Nuremberg.

A tie against Sweden is one thing, but a win against England?

"We wouldn't just be national heroes in Trinidad," he said. "We'd be national heroes in Scotland as well."