Sat, Dec

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago captain Tasha St Louis (right) holds off Grenada defender Treasher Valcin during 2019 World Cup qualifying action at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 27 May 2018. (Copyright Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Crisis? What crisis?

A potentially tricky assignment was last night transformed into a “coming out” party at the Ato Boldon Stadium, where the Trinidad and Tobago Women’s National Senior Team put a humbling 13-0 whipping on their Grenadian counterparts.

The Women Soca Warriors needed only six goals to qualify and, by halftime, they had already got those. Coach Jamaal Shabazz revealed that he had asked his players to take their feet off the gas, once they hit double figures—but his plea fell on deaf ears.

“I was more nervous than them [on the night before the game],” said Shabazz, at the post-game media conference. “[…] They never doubted… They have a deep desire to go forward and they demonstrated that today.

“[…] I was trying to call them off when we had 10 goals and they said, ‘No, let’s play and let’s devour them.’ And they did.”

There will be tougher opponents than Grenada—who conceded 27 goals in four matches—to contend with before Trinidad and Tobago’s France 2019 World Cup campaign reaches a climax. But at least the Women Warriors have got over their first psychological hurdle with flying colours.

Shabazz, who has endured more lows than highs since returning to the women’s programme to replace Italian Carolina Morace in mid-2017, took the opportunity to pat himself—and his technical staff—on the back as they too emerged creditably from yesterday’s challenge.

The veteran coach suggested that he had had his entire squad to choose from against Grenada but opted to rest key midfielder Karyn “Baby” Forbes, emerging talent Shanelle Arjoon and the experienced Patrice Superville, for the uncomplicated midfield offerings of Naomie Guerra and the teenaged pair of Aaliyah Prince and Kedie Johnson.

Johnson got the first goal of the match with a gorgeous left-footed strike, Prince notched a hat-trick—her second against Grenada in just over a month, after her treble in the CFU Challenge Series—and Guerra was a breath of fresh air in the midfield.

“Sometimes people underestimate the work that we do [as coaches],” said Shabazz. “We know what we are doing. Sometimes the result will not go the way we would like or we expect but this is football.

“[…] Everybody except the reserve keeper got a chance to play and, at this stage, we accomplished what we set out to do: to widen the pool and to start to re-establish ourselves as a dominant team in Caribbean football.”

In August, the Trinidad and Tobago women, who—lest we forget—are the reigning Caribbean champions, will play in the final round of the qualifying series, where they take on Jamaica, Cuba, Bermuda and Antigua and Barbuda.

The top three nations progress to the Concacaf stage and, with Haiti already out—eliminated on goal difference by Jamaica—the Women Warriors are favoured to sail right through the next round with the “Reggae Girlz” likely to offer the toughest opposition to their title aspirations.

Before then, Shabazz will take his squad to Colombia for battle in the July CAC Games,  where they will face Mexico, Nicaragua and Haiti in Group B.

Four years ago, Trinidad and Tobago women’s coach Randy Waldrum, who was an unpaid volunteer, controversially opted to skip the CAC competition as he juggled duties between the Women Warriors and his club employers in Dallas.

Shabazz, who earns a salary paid by the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA), will not do likewise and he expressed his eagerness to face tougher opposition before their final Caribbean qualifying phase.

“It’s just the kind of exposure we need before we get to the Caribbean finals in August,” said Shabazz. “[…] Going into the CAC Games, we will be aiming to get a medal in that tournament. But because the CAC Games doesn’t qualify us for anything, it is a chance to experiment [and] see what we can get away with and what we cannot get away with.

“It is something we are looking forward to.”

The senior team will take a few days off to rest and “assess” the players with knocks and bruises before they begin preparations for the next phase.

Venezuela have asked for a practice game in the next two weeks and Shabazz hopes it becomes reality and also wants another friendly next month. By then, there should be some new faces in the national squad.

“We have five or six players on the outside to bring into the squad to compete for places,” he said, “and we will re-invite some players locally and start to prepare for the CAC Games—[with] four, five days a week preparation.”

This time, Shabazz shied away from naming the players he wants to insert into his squad, which is just as well—after being rebuffed by his former captain, Maylee Attin-Johnson, last week.

Often one to split opinion, Attin-Johnson’s blunt views on the team’s chances under the current technical staff are believed to have been met with mixed responses by her former teammates.

She had an unlikely ally in the soft-spoken Prince, though. The 17-year-old starlet, who barely lifted her voice above a whisper in front of the tape recorders, had a firm answer when asked for her favourite player, male or female.

“Maylee Attin-Johnson,” responded Prince, who just graduated from Success Laventille. “[…] She is the one who inspired me to start playing football.”

While Attin-Johnson’s own international future is shrouded in doubt, there is no question that the diminutive Prince’s is on the upswing. Shabazz credited her tactical discipline today, when she started as a right-side attacker rather than in her preferred role through the centre.

“She fitted in well with the seniors [and] we consider her a player,” said Shabazz. “She is one player who we feel has a bright future. We are very pleased with her performance and, most of all, we are pleased with her attitude [because] she in no way feels she has arrived.

“She listens to the older players and I think this is a player we need to keep our eyes on.”

Amidst the smiling faces and optimistic forecasts, there was also a note of caution from 28-year-old Trinidad and Tobago defender Jenelle Cunningham.

“Basically, we need to up the intensity of practices and make sure we have a healthy squad for the next round,” said Cunningham, who has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and is employed as assistant coach at Angelo State University in Texas at present. “The sessions [have to be] more conducive to what we are facing next.”

Shabazz suggested he was comfortable with the greater role that Forbes and Cunningham were playing behind the scenes. And his assessment was similar.

“I am comfortable with the knowledge base of the players [particularly when we are changing formation during the match],” said Shabazz. “I think right now we need to get fitter. And we still have a lot of work to do psychologically as well.”


Shabazz talks missed chances, Maylee and the Almighty’s will; St Kitts challenge with “fire in [their] eyes”
By Lasana Liburd (Wired868).

“What a game, eh!” exclaimed Trinidad and Tobago Women’s National Senior Team coach Jamaal Shabazz, as he opened last night’s post-game media conference. “[It was] not one [that’s] good for the heart but sometimes you have to fight.

“Sometimes you don’t like to fight but fighting sometimes is good for you. And tonight it proved good for us.”

The Women Soca Warriors have a fight on their hands if they are to advance past the first phase of their France 2019 World Cup qualifying adventure. Last night, despite enjoying home advantage at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva.they trailed St Kitts and Nevis until the 77th minute and could eventually only muster a 1-1 draw.

St Kitts and Nevis, mind you, are ranked 130th and 118th in the world in the men’s and women’s game respectively while their entire population of 55,000 people is less than the residents of San Fernando.

The Trinidad and Tobago women’s outfit spent the better part of the last 15 months together, training as often as five times a week with many squad members pocketing monthly stipends of up to TT$8,000—which makes them the best paid footballers based in the country, regardless of sex.

All 14 players used by Shabazz last night have represented Trinidad and Tobago at Concacaf level before while six were key components of Randy Waldrum’s team, which came within a whisker of the Canada 2015 World Cup Finals.

On the other hand, St Kitts and Nevis, according to their spritely 34-year-old coach Earl Jones, only brought their full squad together three and a half weeks ago.

Yet, on Sunday evening, when a place in the Caribbean final round will be at stake. the pair of two-island countries will be on virtually even terms.

Trinidad and Tobago have a two-goal advantage on goal difference over St Kitts and Nevis and, when they begin the second game of tomorrow’s double-header, the hosts will know the score required to see them through. SKN face the United States Virgin Islands from 4pm while T&T tackle Grenada from 6:30pm in Couva.

As usual, Shabazz was paternal, easy-going and engaging when he faced the media yesterday. But he may need some more prosaic qualities tomorrow with the women’s game much closer to the precipice than his composed demeanour might suggest.

Since he reclaimed the women’s position from Carolina Morace last July after a six-year hiatus, Shabazz’s tenure—judging from the ‘wins column’—has been a disaster. The National Under-17 Team failed to advance past the Caribbean stage while, despite having home advan, the Under-20s finished bottom of their Concacaf group and without a single point.

Perhaps Shabazz spoke too soon last Monday when, after a 10-0 mauling of USVI and 3-0 win over Dominica, he declared that he had “a little smile.”

“I have not been smiling for a long time since I came back in women’s football,” said Shabazz. “Fa-Inna maAAa alAAusri yusran [which is Arabic for] verily after the hardship comes the ease.”

God, as we should know by now, has a wry sense of humour.

Three days later, Shabazz’s former captain Maylee Attin-Johnson, whom he had graciously invited to rejoin the team for the next round, declared on TV6 that she would essentially be wasting her time if she climbed on board.

“At international level, it more often that not boils down to coaching and tactics,” said Attin-Johnson. “And I don’t think the staff they have is good enough.”

The timing was unhelpful but so was Shabazz’s decision to start inviting players to join his squad in mid-tournament. And now, here we are.

“[Maylee] is [like] my daughter […] and sometimes daughters say hurtful things about fathers,” said Shabazz. “But you have to accept that this is a girl (sic) who always speaks her mind and it is no problem for us. We accept that this is her view and her opinion […] and I love her very dearly.”

For now, the Women Warriors have to forget about Attin-Johnson, Kennya Cordner, Arin King and the other talents who may or may not join the squad in the later rounds. St Kitts and Nevis, as they have already demonstrated, are not here to act as door mats.

“We [did not] come here to lie down,” said Jones, who was a blur of movement on the touchline last night, “and we are coming with fire in our eyes… I guarantee you that!”

Trinidad and Tobago took the kick-off last night; yet, within the first minute, SKN had already won two corners. Veteran Warriors defender Ayana Russell clumsily allowed the second set piece to hit her hand and opposing captain Phoenetia Browne made no mistake from the penalty spot.

Browne, who was born in St Kitts but migrated to the United States at the age of seven, was one of four overseas-based players in the SKN line-up along with the Canada-bred trio of midfielder Cloey Uddenberg, attacker Brittney Lawrence and goalkeeper Kira Dickinson.

Dickinson, a former Howard University student and her national team’s vice-captain, now plays professionally in Sweden and was, arguably, the game’s outstanding player last night.

“Coachman, I am not going to let you down tonight,” Dickinson had told Jones before kick-off.

And Dickinson’s competence on set pieces and grasp of angles was more than a match for the Trinidad and Tobago offence, which kept trying to recreate the long-range crackers that had produced goals earlier in the series.

Three saves in particular from close quarters—against Mariah Shade, Tasha St Louis and substitute Aaliyah Prince—were of exceptional quality. And, even when St Louis did beat her with a free kick on the edge of the SKN penalty box, Dickinson got a hand on the ball but just could not claw it away.

“We created 16 or 17 chances, the same amount and even more than when we played the other teams,” said Shabazz, with only a slight exaggeration. “[…] They are better on the ball [than our earlier opponents]. They have three or four really talented players in attack and, for the first time in the tournament, we really had to defend.

“If we had scored our chances, it would have been an easier game but Allah prescribes for us, not we prescribe for us. The Almighty decided we must fight and it was a good tonic [as opposed to us] getting accustomed to rolling teams.”

Shabazz had a point. Trinidad and Tobago created more and enjoyed more possession than any of their opponents in Group C. And, while SKN were at full strength, the hosts have an embarrassment of riches—at least by Caribbean standards—still expected to join the team.

In that sense, it would be overly dramatic to use the word “crisis.”

Sooner or later, though, Shabazz will have to prove his worth in results.

“Throughout this tournament, the speed of [play by Trinidad and Tobago] is a bit worrisome,” said the veteran coach. “It is an area we need to work on, bringing the ball forward a bit faster.”

But Shabazz has been in charge for 10 months already while the Women Warriors have played eight internationals under his watch.

If they cannot deliver emphatically on Sunday against the group’s bottom-placed team, Attin-Johnson will not be the only person who thinks Shabazz has passed his sell-by date. And, frankly, qualifying from such a straightforward group is the least local football fans should expect and does not in itself remove all doubts about the current direction of the team.

For now, Shabazz is the epitome of coolness.

“If we understand the game, we will see we created chances; we [just] didn’t score our chances,” he said. “It is not a major concern because we got the point; all of this too is part of the growth.

“[…] They showed good character to claw their way back, they showed they wanted it and I am happy with that.”

There is one hurdle left on Sunday before the Women Warriors can begin thinking about the next step in earnest. If the Almighty is willing, of course.

Shabazz—who also made a gesture of solidarity to Muslim trainee teacher Nafisah Nakhid, who was prevented from taking up duties at Lakshmi Girls’ unless she removes her hijab—urged Trinidad and Tobago football fans to continue to stand by their women.

“While you’re in the situation, you’re thinking, ‘My God, will we be humiliated today?’” said Shabazz, “but it is part of the journey to have difficult moments, to have moments of anxiety. The nation must feel that with us too.

“[If] you’re supporting but you’re only supporting when we’re up, then you’re not supporting.”