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Sat, Sep

Typography

In my Hockey-playing days at Paragon, a certain coach would repeatedly admonish us, whenever we lost a game, about our tendency to look at the immediate results and not the overall picture when analysing our problems. Specifically, he would note we saw clearly the defender who was beaten, but not the point earlier at which we lost possession.  That old lesson comes to mind whenever I ponder the plight of our national football team.

In the results-oriented world of professional sport, individuals’ contracts are signed and terminated with the regularity of the rising and setting sun. Make no mistake, pro sport is all about money; and nowhere, it seems, are the stakes higher than in the game of soccer. American gridiron football and baseball may command equal or greater figures, but it is in Association Football that hacking and hiring takes place at a speed to rival the very action on the field of play. The Bosman ruling of more than two decades ago has to bear the blame: the emergence of the “free agent” blew the roof off the salaries of players worldwide, and resulted in the mind-boggling spending wars of club football in England, Spain and Italy that we observe daily in the sports news.

Big spending draws “big” players, sell-out crowds and worldwide TV audiences, but here in the Caribbean, we enjoy none of the above. In the early nineties, riding on the success of the “Strike Squad” and its near-miss at the World Cup Finals, an attempt was made to run a Caribbean Professional League. It soon crashed for want of finance; the costs involved in flying teams around the region, without returns (very low ticket sales, no live TV revenue) quickly put paid to that idea. Two decades later, only Jamaica and T&T have leagues of any significance, and both are handicapped by the continuous bleeding of their leading players to the minor divisions of England, Scotland and the American MLS.

The region simply is not in the league of the developed countries; yet our football administrators insist on operating as if we were. The present quagmire in which the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation finds itself regarding the national team and its aspirations for World Cup 2014 is, to all extents and purposes, the result of that blinkered approach.

In recent months, the national team, under head coach Russel Latapy, has been suffering a series of unflattering results against regional opposition- teams that T&T would have laughed off the pitch in times past. In that period, dissatisfaction with those results and Latapy’s performance has grown to mutterings, mutterings have risen to national debate, debate has elevated to public admonishment by those who pull the strings, and Latas’ days as the man in charge are clearly numbered. A brief respite, provided by the team’s total dominance of Group ‘F’ in the Digicel Caribbean Cup has ended even as I write; Cuba has beaten T&T 2-0 on the opening night of the finals in Martinique.

It matters not whether the team is able to recover from this setback and battle their way to the final; the powers-that-be have openly stated, when publicly delivering Latas an ultimatum, that they will not risk T&T’s chances at Brasil 2014 any further- Martinique is the end of the line for Russel Latapy. Fair enough, you would think; after all, only 12 months remain following the Digicel finals before qualifying begins for the Brasilian World Cup. But that is precisely the problem; 12 months is not enough, not nearly enough- the bird has flown; our only reasonable hopes lie in qualifying for 2018.

Call it fate if you will, or call it pure irony, but coinciding with the team’s departure to the Digicel Finals was the passing of judgment in the four-year-long running battle between the Soca Warriors and Mr. Warner, the TTFF Special Advisor, over bonus payments that were promised them after reaching the finals in Germany 2006. As so many local journalists, including yours truly, have argued time and again, the repercussions of this dispute exercised the greatest influence in the country’s failure to capitalise on the momentum created by the Soca Warriors in making it to Germany 2006.

For the benefit of the uninformed, I will explain for the umpteenth time: the nucleus of the 2006 squad were ageing heroes- Latapy, Shaka Hislop, Dwight Yorke, Stern John, Dennis Lawrence, Marvin Andrews, Brent Sancho, Clayton Ince and so on. They succeeded by a combination of their experience, the defence-oriented approach of Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker and the FIFA decision to grant three-and-a-half berths in Germany to the CONCACAF.

It is the TTFF’s role- indeed it is their duty- to seek the best interests of our nation’s football at all times. In the post- 2006 period, a transition/succession plan ought to have been put in place immediately, if not sooner, to manage the structured replacement of the aforementioned stars and thus the consistency of the team’s performances- as younger legs and hearts systematically relieved them of duty. Instead, the heroes were unofficially blacklisted and the national team hung in limbo for several months. Beenhakker was wise to the debacle and exited before the proverbial substance hit the fan, leaving his countryman Willy Rijsbergen holding the empty reins after the horses had all bolted.

This country paid in full for that period of stagnation; the qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010 will go down in history as one of the nation’s most deplorable efforts, if it could be described as such. But have our officials learned? Latapy was thrown in during the death throes of that wretched campaign, and kept on as head coach in the aftermath; but the real issues were never addressed. To date, no succession system exists- a system whereby an under-18 player can fit into the Under-21 squad, an under-21 can walk into the Under-23s and an under-23 can join the senior squad. Trinidad and Tobago continues to prepare teams- scouting for players and arbitrarily selecting a coach whenever a tournament is coming around: CONCACAF Under-17, Under-23, Digicel Cup, Gold Cup, World Cup- you name it, the approach remains unchanged. It could be described as a “jump in and hope” system- one does not know whether a net exists below- one merely assumes it is there.

That is what makes the recent ultimatum from the powers that be almost laughable- except that the situation hurts all citizens with national pride, whether or not we love sport. To some extent, Messrs. Warner and Roberts are absolutely correct; in the European leagues, in the national teams of all the world football powers, when a manager is sacked, his replacement is expected, in fact required to produce desired results almost immediately. But that is because the player options are always there- the manager merely has to cut and paste to suit his plans. It is this adaptability, if you will, that ultimately separates the world powers from the minnows of football. Trinidad and Tobago, like most of the Caribbean, has no such system in place; therefore changing coaches cannot be expected to produce the miracle the authorities are hoping for. Having talent is one thing; harnessing it is quite another. As a country, we may actually be producing more potentially talented ten-year-olds per capita than England or Spain; but we have no system for nurturing that talent, preventing the best from falling through the cracks and ensuring that they all can fit in when moved up to higher levels.

As I noted from the outset in this piece, our administrators appear at times to be wearing blinkers, able to focus only on one aspect of the problem, intoxicated by the lone success amidst years of switching coaches, blinded from the other key elements that made the Germany 2006 dream come true.

Lest my message be misread, it must be made clear that this is not a defence for Latapy; there are probably other coaches who would have gleaned better results in the time the Little Magician has had with this team- a win against the Cubans certainly, and perhaps a win or a draw at home to Jamaica. What really disturbs is the talk about World Cup qualifying and time to prepare. Surely ministers Warner and Roberts were referring to the 2018 qualifying campaign.

Meanwhile, the Corbeaux, patiently circling Latapy’s death camp for months, are finally beginning their descent. Those with eyes to see would not have overlooked the resistance he encountered from certain Pro League clubs whenever a national team practice was scheduled. It was no coincidence that certain players were never made available to him in preparation. Sure enough, at least one coach from those very clubs was openly critical when those same players were overlooked for the Digicel campaign, as Latapy quite correctly stuck with those with whom he had been working, and added a couple of others campaigning in the US.

The TTFF did not intervene when access to those players was being denied, but they are listening to Latapy’s critics today. The day after the loss to the Cubans, Jabloteh coach Terry Fenwick spared no words as he waded into Latapy’s handling of the team, and his tactics. Others with national coaching ambitions have been more restrained- they are not foreigners and therefore must tread carefully.

Foreigners fare differently in this land where local is another word for “to be trampled upon”. It is undeniable that Beenhakker achieved his mission, but the list of imported coaches who failed us miserably is long. Among them are Porterfield, Araujo, Onigbinde, Simoes and Maturana; they were all paid handsomely and afforded every convenience in blind hope, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. For them, Mr. Warner used his considerable clout to pressure British clubs into releasing our leading pros within FIFA-stipulated times, and the local clubs would not even dare to consider withholding their players from a foreign national coach.

It remains to be seen whether Fenwick will be granted his unspoken wish; neutral observers are already pointing to his inability to repeat the success he once enjoyed in the Pro League, now that Jabloteh can no longer draw upon the finances of CLICO to raid the cupboards of rival clubs. Whatever happens, it is a fait accompli that Latapy can start packing his bags, regardless of the outcomes in the remaining matches at the Digicel Finals. It is equally to be anticipated that a stranger from either Europe or South America will take over the reins just before the start of World Cup qualifying in 2012. After all, that is how they operate in the big countries, and we want to rank among them. As my old coach used to say, we are missing the bigger picture. Some things never change.