Until very recently, Russell Latapy had been on retired, through his own choice, from International Football and representing his native Trinidad and Tobago. After well over one hundred caps, and a glittering career for the Soca Warriors, he’d felt it was time to hand over to the younger guys.
That didn’t stop hundreds of emails arriving at his respective clubs since he stepped down, begging him to return and pull on the red and black again. Falkirk FC received countless emails from Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed beyond, during the recent campaign for qualification for Germany ’06, and finally, the wee man relented.
Why though? Russell was happy to explain, “There were a number of factors that convinced me to return to International Football. The first thing was that because of the social state of Trinidad, we needed something to happen to unify the Country and everybody knows that there’s nothing like sport – and success at sport – that can unify a Country. That was one of the main reasons. However, that wasn’t all, it was a combination of reasons, including the fact that I hadn’t been home for a while and it was an opportunity to get over there to see friends and family, as well as get on the park again. Finally though, I had contemplated going back for quite some time and I’d had a conversation with Dwight (Yorke) and he had said that there was a real possibility that we could actually qualify. He’d seen the teams involved and was convinced we could get through. We needed a bit more experience and creativity and he kind of pleaded with me to come back and give it one last shot for two games, which were the matches with Guatemala and Costa Rica. If we’d lost those two games we were out, but it so happened that we won one and lost one.”
Which, of course, meant that T & T still had a strong chance. Whilst that was the case, there was no chance Russell wasn’t staying on further than the original two matches planned, and he laughed heartily as he elaborated, “Well, then I thought ok, I’ll go back again because there are only two more games and we’ll see where it goes. We won those two as well, so we got into the play offs, and it was only two more again! It just kept going, two and two and two! So here we are and we managed to get there.”
Of course, it was publicised in the build up to the second match against Bahrain, that Russell and the Socas had missed out on qualification 16 years ago for Italy by one goal. And how much sweeter that must have made it for Russell as that final whistle went signalling the culmination of a roller coaster ride that lasted a decade and a half. However, Russell remained dignified and was extremely sympathetic to Bahrain, “We can understand the disappointment that Bahrain felt, they came to Trinidad and did all the hard work and got the away goal. It was just like what happened to us in that campaign, because if we’d have drawn we’d have been there.”
That sympathy was despite being the target, along with Dwight Yorke, of a reign of missiles from the stands as Russell tried to take a late corner. Not that it fazed the magician, “Nah, it wasn’t scary. I’ve been in hostile atmospheres and difficult places before, and you just concentrate on the football. That’s the way the game is, it means so much to the fans. If you go to places like Fenerbahce or Galatasary, the atmospheres are a lot worse. I told the younger guys on the pitch at the time not to get involved; we were leading one nil, they want to put you off your game, keep the concentration. The bottom line was we did, and we’re going to Germany and they’re not.”
It was an 131/2 hour flight from Trinidad and Tobago to Bahrain. A four hour drive is exhausting for most people, so how did Russell cope with that, “People thought it was more difficult for Bahrain to go to Trinidad then come back, but because of their financial circumstances, the majority of the team were in the Caribbean a week to ten days in advance so they had plenty of time to overcome their jet lag and acclimatise. Going there was the same for both teams, they left a couple of hours before us and to be honest, the T& T FA did brilliantly for us by chartering a flight allowing us to get there as soon as we could have done which was a big help.”
Russell went on, “We always had a chance, despite the distance. A big difference between this squad and that of ’89 is the experience. Back then the majority of the boys were playing locally, and didn’t have much experience of the continental game, or of travelling distance. This time, most of the players are in Europe and it’s a big help to us with the players playing at a high level week in week out. The big contingent from the UK also helps because we see each other more often and know each other’s game.”
So the draw was made last night and hosted by that footballing legend, Heidi Klum… Unfortunately, print deadlines meant this piece was produced prior to Ms Klum picking out the balls, but did Russell fancy anyone – in footballing terms – in particular? “I haven’t really given that much thought to be honest, it’s just fantastic to be there. As we’ve mentioned as a team we don’t want to be there purely to make up the numbers, we want to do the best we can and showcase our talents. Obviously if we had a choice, we would prefer to get some less fancied teams as it gives us a better chance of progression. Unfortunately, because we’re not a seeded team that is not going to happen. I think though, because a few of the boys play in England, we’re more familiar with the English game, so that might not be too bad. Having said that they’re a fantastic team with great talent so it would be hugely difficult.”
There will be a pretty decent contingent of Scottish fans following the Socawarriors to the World Cup, with no fewer than five Scottish based players likely to be involved in the squad. How they’d like to see England pop out of the hat next to T & T, but Russell and his team mates are just grateful for the support, “It would be absolutely fantastic if some Scottish fans, and particularly Falkirk fans made that journey. It would mean so much to me and the other Scottish based boys. The thing about the World Cup is that it’s a showcase and it brings different cultures together. I think the culture of the West Indies and Scotland are not too dissimilar, happy go lucky people, and that would be a fantastic thing if we could get the fans to join up and unify people of different cultures. I really enjoyed the fact that a couple of Falkirk representatives joined us in Trinidad and Bahrain, and I think they enjoyed it, as would any Scot.”
Finally, of course, THE question. Is this the swansong? Hopefully not, “At 37, I know realistically that I cannot continue forever. I love playing the game and as long as I’m having fun I’ll carry on. I’ve said before though, that my body will determine when I have to stop. I’d like to play on next year if I’m fit enough, but I don’t want to cheat the Club, the fans and especially the manager because he gave me an opportunity, and no doubt that has helped me actually get to the World Cup because I’d considered packing it in before John came in for me. I am eternally grateful to Yogi and Falkirk for that, but I can’t ruin it by playing on if I’m not fit. However, all being well, I have the desire and if my body allows me to continue I will, if not, that’ll be it and I go out on a high. Watch this space though, I’ll see how I am after the World Cup.”
Watching we will be; in Germany and afterwards. I’m sure everyone hopes to see Russell in the navy blue again next season, and it goes without saying that when he pops up on the big screen in Germany with “Russell Latapy – Falkirk (SCO)” as the caption, the chests will swell with pride!
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