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EVERY professional footballer dreams of playing in the World Cup finals, but when you are approaching your 38th birthday and entering the twilight zone, chances are it's a forlorn hope.


Roger Milla famously represented Cameroon on the biggest stage well into the final phase of his age-defying career, but such instances are few and far between. Which is exactly why Falkirk's veteran midfielder and assistant coach, Russell Latapy, intends to make the most of Trinidad and Tobago's surprise presence in Germany as perhaps the smallest country to take part in the finals.

Much has been chronicled about how the former Hibernian, Rangers and Dundee United player, known in his homeland as the 'Little Magician', was lured out of international retirement for one last hurrah in an effort to shoot the tiny Caribbean islands on to the footballing map.

His best friend and Trinidad's most famous player, skipper Dwight Yorke - with a little help from FIFA vice-president Jack Warner - persuaded the chain-smoking elder statesman to resume his international career when it looked as if the dream might turn sour after the team experienced a dreadful start to the qualifying campaign.

But 37-year-old Latapy, who had originally retired in 2001, inspired his colleagues to pick up sufficient points in their final four qualifiers, including a crucial win over Mexico, and to edge out Bahrain in the play-offs. "I had to give it a lot of thought," Latapy admitted. "I was no spring chicken, after all. It's all been pretty unreal coming back at my age in what was my fourth or fifth World Cup campaign.

"It's kind of weird to get this opportunity when you're sort of on your way out. I'll definitely retire for good after Germany!" But not necessarily from club football.

Latapy badly needs to stay fit so that he can enjoy the party, and that means playing as many games as possible for Falkirk in the coming weeks as well as fulfilling the role of assistant coach. As for next season, he will listen to the messages from his body, and take it from there. Staying at Falkirk, where he is on a rolling one-year contract, is one option, despite the contrast in culture and the fact that most of his British-based international team-mates are down south, where he was originally on trial with Aston Villa and Ipswich.

"Scottish people and West Indians are not dissimilar, in the fact that they both like to have a good time. The weather is obviously very different, but I've been in Scotland now for eight or nine years, and I love living here.

"Ideally, I'd love to manage and would be tempted to leave if the right opportunity came up. But if not, I may well stay because this is a terrific club. When there are 6,000 in the ground, it can sound like 25,000."

Hardly a week goes by without Latapy being reminded of how desperately Scots would love Trinidad and Tobago to embarrass England in June. Can it be done?

"Well, put it this way: we are not just going as tourists. We have said to ourselves that we don't want to go to Germany just to make up the numbers. It's a challenge we are relishing.

"But it's not just about England. On paper they are the strongest team in the group, but Sweden and Paraguay will be just as tough for us. To hurt them at all, we have to try to stop them playing while playing as a team ourselves, but then those philosophies apply to the eventual winners as well."

Leo Beenhakker, Trinidad and Tobago's down-to-earth, 63-year-old Dutch coach, who led Real Madrid to three successive league titles and was in charge of his national team at the 1990 World Cup, believes that the group outsiders are capable of causing at least one upset with their high-tempo, counter-attacking style, which was very much in evidence in Monday's friendly against Iceland at Queen's Park Rangers' Loftus Road stadium.

An enthusiastic, flag-waving crowd turned west London into a carnival atmosphere as T and T won 2-0 with a pair of Dwight Yorke goals, one the cheekiest of chipped penalties.

"Remember, the nucleus of the squad is over 25 years old, and pretty mature," Latapy noted afterwards. "They may not have been playing at the highest level, but they do have the experience of playing week-in, week-out. And the manager likes us to pass the ball, which suits our culture."

Latapy, who grew up hero-worshipping Pele and the Brazilian style, is very much the playmaker, and like Yorke, he has experienced the pressure of the big occasion. The first Trinidad and Tobago footballer to appear in the Champions League, he played under Bobby Robson at Porto in the mid-1990s.

"Nothing really prepares you for the World Cup, but Bobby's knowledge of the game taught me a lot. Sometimes you'd wonder what he was doing, but nearly always it invariably paid off. Mr Beenhakker is not so different in terms of having been around for decades and getting the players to believe in him - and in themselves."

And if things go awry and Trinidad and Tobago are quickly eliminated, Latapy can always switch his support to Portugal, for whom he still has a soft spot from his playing days there. "My other half is Portuguese and there will doubtless be a fair bit of split loyalty anyway around the house."