NATIONAL coach Leo Beenhakker has hinted that former national captain Russell Latapy will have to prove himself, and will not automatically walk back into the Trinidad and Tobago national football team for Saturday's 4.30 p.m. World Cup qualifier against Guatemala at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.
Latapy, a 37-year-old Scotland-based midfielder, has agreed to come out of international retirement for two matches, the Guatemala encounter and next Wednesday's away qualifier in San Jose against Costa Rica. The "Little Magician's" return has come following the efforts of captain Dwight Yorke and FIFA vice president Jack Austin Warner.
But following an intense national team training session yesterday morning at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Beenhakker said that Latapy is somewhat of an unknown quantity and hinted that he has to see what the former national captain has to offer.
Asked if he thought Latapy could make a contribution to the Warriors, Beenhakker said: "I don't know, I don't know. When last you see him?
"I know he was a great player, but he didn't play international football for the last few years, and we all know that international football is a different world from national football, national leagues and so on. There's a difference in the matches we see every week in the Pro League and when we have to play the USA or Mexico."
Beenhakker said that many things will determine if Latapy still has what it takes to make a contribution. The Dutchman explained that football has changed and that every year the pace of the game is becoming faster and much more physical. Latapy's age and fitness are factors Beenhakker has to consider. But even so, the Dutchman will make no conclusions until he sees what the "Little Magician" can do on the field.
"I am very happy he's coming over. I have a totally white paper without any conclusions. There are no words, no letters on it. Well, we will see if he can help us. We will see in the next few days," Beenhakker said.
Yesterday's session had only half of the 22 players Beenhakker had called for training, but already among them were overseas-based Silvio Spann (Yokohama FC), Scott Sealy (Kansas City Wizards), Avery John (New England Revolution), as well as T&T-based Anton Pierre, Cyd Gray, Aurtis Whittley, Densil Theobald, Atiba Charles and Glenton Wolffe. Also lending his experience to the younger players was former captain David Nakhid, who is now a scout.
Beenhakker said that Saturday's qualifier is a game Trinidad and Tobago must win. He anticipates that the United States and Mexico will qualify, and that Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Guatemala have equal chances of earning the other two qualifying places to the 2006 World Cup.
"It's clear that it's a tournament of four. That way, I think we are still in the race. But, we have no other choice than to win this Saturday of course."
Beenhakker also admitted that there is some pressure to get a good result, but feels his vast experience has prepared him.
"It is only a healthy kind of pressure. If you ask me if it makes me nervous? No, it doesn't, 'cause I have 40 years in this and I play a lot of important matches. Of course, it is always on your mind, but as I say, in a good way."
He said the Warriors still have problems in the midfield and up front and that it's a continuous process to build a good team.
"Football is a passing game and we are still struggling with having much more ball possession and taking much more care of the ball. Of course, one of the problems we have now is that we have played six matches for qualification, and we only scored four goals. So we have to say that up in front we still have a problem."
Despite the lack of goals, Beenhakker defended the continued inclusion of Stern John in his starting line-up. The Dutchman said John's loss of form was typical of many footballers.
"Versus Panama he (Stern John) played a good match, Mexico also. Sometimes you have a rest period in your football. You have guys who have been on good shape for several weeks and then you don't see them for several weeks. But Stern is a good player. If he is in good shape? I don't know, because I have not seen him in the last few weeks."
Beenhakker also defended his decision to drop speedy United States-based striker Cornell Glen from the team. Beenhakker pointed out that even under Bertille St Clair, Glen was not found to be the solution up front. He said he cannot find a spot for Glen among his four strikers.
"In the Gold Cup I was not satisfied with him during the stay-in at the camp and so on. But once again, when you play a match you have a group of 18 players. And within these 18 players, you need enough defence players, enough midfield players and enough strikers. For the moment, I prefer Kenwyne (Jones), I prefer Stern, I prefer Scott (Sealy), and (Dwight) Yorke is a guy who can play more up front, and that is it."