Wed, Jul

Enigmatic Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Russell "The Little Magician" Latapy talks to Express Sports about his shock return to international duty; November 19, 1989; and how he plans to get T&T to the World Cup.

"Football is a game in which imagination and, many times, stupidity have no limits"-Carlos Queiroz, Manchester United assistant manager and ex-Real Madrid coach.

Russell Latapy had just one request for Express Sports before he began his interview. He would like a smoke, which is funny because he has been on fire for employers, Falkirk Football Club, and the Trinidad and Tobago national team for much of the past month.

Falkirk manager John Hughes told the Scottish media recently that Latapy smokes 40 cigarettes a day. Was there truth to that story then?

"No, he was just winding me up," said Latapy. "I smoke only eight to ten a day."

Ahmmm Nothing to alarm anti-smoking watchdogs then, right "Puff Daddy"?

Yet, perversely, there was a touch of the surreal as Latapy-the sole occupant of the Falkirk dressing room-lit up, leaned back on a bench and stretched his legs before embarking on a journey through his footballing life.

The zenith of his career, fingers crossed, will be Trinidad and Tobago's World Cup qualifier at home to Mexico on Wednesday October 12. The dreadlocked midfielder has it figured out.

Smoke swirling around his head, Latapy gave a monologue befitting of Russell Crowe's brilliant but eccentric character in A Beautiful Mind.

"Everyone wants to be the seeded team in the group," he said, in a soft, raspy tone, "so Mexico wants to win (their final games) as well. So we are hoping that they will be at full strength and they can beat Guatemala in Mexico.

"That would leave Guatemala on eight points. What will happen therefore is if we beat Panama in Panama, that will take us to ten points. So it comes down to the last game as far as who is going to get the play-off spot.

"Obviously, we have got a difficult game, which is Mexico in Trinidad, and they have got Costa Rica at home. Hopefully, there is going to be fair play and Costa Rica is going to go there and try to win the game.

"But I am thinking that if Mexico beats Guatemala in Mexico and we beat Mexico at home and Panama away then it doesn't matter what else happens."

Phew. It probably cost a small fortune for him to explain that over the telephone to his close pal and national team captain Dwight Yorke, who now plies his trade for Sydney FC in Australia.

Should Trinidad and Tobago qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the pact between the two friends will surely be one of the tournament's most intriguing stories.

On his last chat with the Express, Latapy insisted that he would not end his premature retirement from international duty.

Barely two months later, he was back in red, white and black gear and his quality might just tip the scale in T&T's favour.

He laughed when asked about his change of heart.

"There is a good quote from Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz that I really loved," said Latapy, "which goes that, in football, there is no limit to stupidity or imagination. I think that sums up football-just expect the unexpected.

"That is what is happening here. At 37, for some reason, I am having the opportunity to go back (and possibly qualify for the World Cup) as a player and I never thought that would happen."

Sure, Latapy gave the Express a glimpse of the ball but he certainly did not pass it.

Why did you change your mind? Why now?

Latapy confirmed that Yorke played a major role. He went as far as to joke that he was "Dwight's guest player on the national team".

What we do know is that the pair had a very interesting conversation after Trinidad and Tobago's 1-0 away defeat to the United States on August 17 and before qualifiers against Guatemala and Costa Rica in early September.

A chat that could create sporting history for the tiny Caribbean country.

When they spoke, Guatemala were three points clear in the race for the fourth qualifying spot and could have virtually assured themselves of a play-off place by beating fifth-placed T&T in the subsequent fixture.

Latapy returned for that match and scored as well as created another goal for teammate Stern John in a 3-2 win, which breathed life into faltering local hopes.

"(Dwight) said to me basically, 'do me a favour and come and play two games'," Latapy explained. "The reality is that Dwight was the only person who could get me to change my mind for various reasons. Not just the friendship but he understands the football the way I see the football as well...

"He asked me for some time to come back and I stood my ground, but I realised that the team really needed me and were in a position where I was struggling. And I just decided 'okay, two games'."

Was it another step over? Did the team not need him after an opening defeat at home to the United States or a crushing 5-1 loss away to Guatemala?

Perhaps there was a sweetener as well. Latapy made no secret of his desire to take the reins as national head coach in the past.

Did the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF) special advisor Jack Warner promise him the position, once it becomes available again?

"(Jack and I) never really got into that," he said. "I quite like my job right now (as player/coach at Falkirk). I am really involved in the coaching side here and I think I am making a contribution. I've got the reserve team and I see some of the young kids I have worked with coming along and I am happy. I am learning my trade here as a coach.

"I am definitely interested in the (national) post and I do think I can make a difference in Trinidad and Tobago football. But it would have to suit everybody."

Latapy was gliding past tackles in the near-deserted dressing room. Perhaps it is best to just enjoy your ice cream before it melts. Latapy has committed himself to two more outings for the national team and it means an additional 180 minutes of one of the most charismatic footballers to wear national colours.

For what it is worth, the Little Magician will happily accept half a dozen more caps, but only if Trinidad and Tobago progress to the play-off spot with Asia and then to the prestigious 2006 tournament.

He might be the last entrant into coach Leo Beenhakker's dressing room but he understands the magnitude of the task ahead better than anyone.

At the mention of the date 'November 19', Latapy stumbles in possession for the first time during the course of the interview.

He represented the likes of Portugal champions, Porto FC, and Scottish giants, Glasgow Rangers, but, Latapy insisted, he never played in a bigger match than the one that plunged the nation into mourning.

The fateful day when, one point away from the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Trinidad and Tobago lost 1-0 at home to the United States in their final qualifying match.

Latapy was 21 years old at the time and consoled himself with the belief that T&T would surely get there in four years' time. It took him 16 years to get close again.

At 37, he is humbled by the opportunity ahead of him. It is the chance to atone that every veteran prays for but rarely receives.

Latapy won titles with Porto, Hibernian, Glasgow Rangers and Falkirk but it is the defeats that haunt him.

In the 1994/95 season, ex-Italy star goalkeeper Walter Zenga blocked his penalty as Porto bowed out of the UEFA Cup, beaten 4-3 by Sampdoria in a penalty shoot-out at the quarterfinal stage.

"Unfortunately, that is the way my career has gone," he said. "November 19 and the UEFA Cup quarter-finals. Those were my big games the ones that could take me a step closer to what I wanted to achieve."

Latapy flirted with worldwide acclaim in his prime but grazed the outside of the post.

At 21, he expected to catch the eye at Italia 1990. It did not materialise and he toiled in the Portugal lower divisions before his break came in 1994 at Porto-his self-proclaimed spiritual home.

His first season saw Porto, under the tutelage of coach Bobby Robson and his interpreter Jose Mourinho, sweep the domestic titles but it was Latapy's missed penalty that ended their UEFA Cup advancement.

He stayed for one more year with Porto, before moving to Boavista, and then to Hibernian in the Scottish First Division.

Again, things could have turned out so differently but for that missed opportunity.

Now, at 37, his playing time is almost up and would not be significantly altered by an appearance in the World Cup. It is about fulfilling a childhood dream and taking his place among the world's greatest players.

Or does he have more grandiose ambitions?

Latapy's eyes are dancing through the cigarette smoke again.

In football, imagination and stupidity have no limits.