“I don’t have to hold their hands,” Trinidad and Tobago skipper Kenwyne Jones told FIFA.com. “I say what I need to say when I need to say it, but when you’re wearing the national team shirt, you better be ready to be a man no matter what your age.”
Jones is the team’s hulking No9. He’s impossible to miss on the pitch, where he throws himself through the air, knocking down long balls from midfield. At 30, he’s the oldest player in a very young Trinidad and Tobago side at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. His voice is soft and calm. He leads by example, and his experience speaks in thick volumes to his eager team-mates.
The year 2006 holds a special place in the hearts of Trinidad and Tobago football fans. It was the year that their beloved Soca Warriors finally reached the FIFA World Cup™ finals. Jones was the youngest member of that side in Germany led by wise old Dutchman Leo Beenhakker. There, he studied at the feet of masters like Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy, who aren’t just icons on the islands but heroes of the CONCACAF canon.
Jones is the only surviving member of that 2006 team, and he recalls the famous goalless draw against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in Dortmund with a twinge, almost of longing, in his voice. But the lean striker is no longer the bright-eyed baby in the team, the chaser of lost causes. He’s not shining anyone’s boots. He’s the old man, cutting a path through the high grass for the faster, younger legs that surround him in red.
“There’s something special about this team,” said Jones, who now plays in England’s second tier with Cardiff City after years in the English Premier League with Stoke City and Sunderland. “It’s desire. These boys have a serious focus and they know they’re the future of the Trinidad and Tobago national team. If they do it right, they can have careers for ten years,” he added, looking back from the other end of his own decade as a Soca Warrior.
Trinidad and Tobago have been the true revelation of this CONCACAF cup of nations. They finished top of their group with a pair of wins over Cuba and Guatemala and then drew against mighty Mexico, six-time champions, in a 4-4 thriller that many pundits are calling the greatest Gold Cup game every played. “We just didn’t want to lose our momentum,” said Jones in his own understated way about the Mexico draw that clinched T&T's first-place in the section.
The dread-locked striker was at the heart of that wild and woolly game, in which his side clawed back from two goals down. He scored a pair of goals (one in each net) and set up another. His presence in attack, especially during the second-half, bent the game toward his island side. The Mexican defenders backed off the big man, unable to contain him. When Jones hit the deck hard, Mexican hands were offered to help him up off the turf. The respect there was clear.
Jones goes a little cool when talk turns to the fans back home on the two islands. It’s no wonder, really. In the decade since 2006, all national teams have been measured, often cruelly, against those immortals. The current side, led by coach Stephen Hart and with so many youngsters, departed Port of Spain with little fanfare and few expected much more than a good fight.
Damn the bandwagon
“Those who thought we were going just to make up the numbers, well they weren’t paying any attention,” Jones said, the cut of dismissal around the edges of his normally welcoming voice. “They are fickle back home and some of them are really just cynics. They wrote us off and now they all want to jump on the bandwagon. We need to ignore it, because we’re the only ones who can win or lose here.”
They haven’t lost yet, and the combination of speed, power and youthful exuberance is winning them fans all over the region. This is the first time the team has ever topped their group at the tournament. And captain Jones, for one, is caught up in the spirit.
“How far can we go?” he repeated the question thoughtfully, letting it hang in the air ahead of the quarter-final date on Sunday with 2013 runners-up Panama. “We wanted to go one better than last time, when we reached the quarters. So, if we can get to the semi-finals, anything can happen. We know we can upset teams here,” he concluded, his voice rising, the old campaigner sounding like a young man all over again.