New kit, new coach, fresh hopes— new results?
That question will continue to linger until the “Soca Warriors” take the field in Group B of the CONCACAF Gold Cup—which also features El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti—having missed the last two editions.
The last time the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA, previously T&T Football Federation) sent a team to a tournament, expectations surrounding them were low, and yet team spirits were high as Hutson Charles and Jamaal Shabazz guided the team to the final, where they lost 1-0 to Cuba in extra time on a defensive error after a flawed, and yet spirited display.
Prior to that, T&T even getting to the Caribbean Cup seemed unlikely.
They nearly missed out on qualifying for the competition after the TTFF’s requests for funding were initially being blanked by Minister of Sport Anil Roberts over big question marks surrounding their use of Government funds and a lack of accounting.
One public outcry and a plethora of media attention later, T&T were jetting off to St Kitts/Nevis with promises that their travel, accommodation, and other arrangements would be covered financially, with a bunch of low-key practice sessions, a few training matches against local teams and no international matches under the belts.
Reports indicated that the players were without some basic necessities including spending money, and had to make do with whatever resources they had available. The only depth lower would have been for T&T to fail to qualify, or even incur the wrath of FIFA by pulling out of a qualifying tournament to which they could not afford to attend.
Perhaps because of the bond forged by the largely local-based squad that went to St Kitts in difficult circumstances, or maybe even in spite of it, the squad that had trained together played together and returned home with a perfect record, having turned back spunky French Guiana 4-1, before they mugged Anguilla 10-0 and edged the hosts 1-0.
Flash forward seven months, and the team is set to kick off their Gold Cup campaign against El Salvador on July 8. They now have Trinidad and Tobago-born, former Canada coach Stephen Hart at the helm, with Charles and Derek King as assistant coaches.
Shabazz turned down the offer citing his own pedigree as a coach and what he felt was a“disrespect” in demoting him.
So T&T journeyed to the United States for the Gold Cup having not won any of their last six matches—although five of those were international friendlies, and the other, the Caribbean Cup final. In fact, the team, which includes three strikers—Stoke City frontman Kenwyne Jones, his World Cup 2006 teammate Cornell Glen and the talented, but inconsistent Jamal Gay—go into action this weekend having not scored a goal in that period. There is no room for, Devorn Jorsling, though, the Pro League’s most consistent goalscorer in the last three seasons.
The TTFA should be commended for, at the least, trying to shake things up, trying to kick the team into gear for a potential ride back to the top CONCACAF and FIFA rankings, and perhaps a position where they will not find it so hard to book international fixtures because they are not the preferred opponents, one of the reason the Association said they have not played more practice matches.
This despite the fact that TTFA president Raymond Tim Kee, as he himself admitted, even with the best of intentions, had not handled the coaching issue well, leading to a lot of undesired comments and criticism.
The timing for that shakeup, too, is not the best. Hart was left with less than two weeks to take a team he previously hasn’t known close up, and fashion them into a unit that can compete and possibly make the knockout round of the tournament out of “11 excited players” that was “not a team”, comments Tim Kee attributed to Beenhakker.
Anthony Wolfe, a member of the 2006 team that served under Beenhakker, feels the onus is on the players to take charge of their destiny for the sake of team and country.
The outspoken Central FC footballer, known as a tough tackler and shooting force in midfield and in front of goal, feels the team will react better to a foreign coach than to their local-based counterparts.
“I don’t know what have it that way, but that’s how it is,” Wolfe told the Express yesterday. “I think the guys may probably go and showcase (their talents) much more than when they were under Mr Charles and Shabazz, because nobody is guaranteed a starting place in the team until the squad is picked on the day of the game.”
Wolfe acknowledged that there have been negative comments made by fans about the team’s lack of quality, and was also disappointed at not making the cut.
“I believe we can go into the knockout phase,” he added. “But it’s all up to them.(Hart is) not (playing) on the field, he say he’s not a miracle worker. If God have it that way (that they qualify), so be it.”
T&T kick off their campaign against El Salvador, in what is probably the best draw they could have asked for with Cuba, Mexico and the US looming in the other groups. They need an early victory to boost their confidence in what is still a tough group.
Wolfe says T&T will be seen as the group’s “whipping boys”, and urged them to go out play with heart.
“We have to go out there and play for one another, tackle for tackle and try not to make silly mistakes.
Leo Beenhakker always (told) us ‘the great teams, they work on your mistakes. They capitalise and make your mistakes an opportunity for them’. The least amount of mistakes we make, I believe we have a chance to win the game, but we have to be focused for 90 minutes plus.”
True as that may be, Hart and the Soca Warriors have a conundrum on their hands. Win, and local expectations will soar. Lose, and the coach will find his short honeymoon is way shorter than he had realised, while the TTFA will face further criticism for side-lining the local coaches.
The players can do themselves a favour, though, and make national pride their number one priority when they step into the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey opposite El Salvador on Monday.