August 30, 1974 had such an impact Alvin Corneal that he devoted an entire chapter to it in his autobiography.
The Trinidad and Tobago Under-20 soccer team were competing in the semifinal round of the CONCACAF Youth Tournament. It was the first time T&T participated in the competition. Defending champs Mexico had already advanced to the final and the T&T team were confident of getting there as well. It would be the first time a team from the English-speaking Caribbean made it that far. Jamaica managed third place in 1970.
To beat that, T&T only had to get past two weaker teams—Cuba and the USA.
But on that day, Cuba surprised them by keeping things goalless until halftime then scoring later in the game. Caught off guard, the team weren’t able to equalise and, after beating the USA, had to settle for the bronze medal. (T&T would wait 16 more years before getting the silver in 1990, the first team from the English-speaking Caribbean to do so.)
Kendall Walkes, who Corneal described in the autobiography as an outstanding player and who went on to become a senior national player then a coach in the US, missed the chance to score with a free kick in the second half. But Corneal blamed himself for the debacle.
“While I felt confident of the way the lads played, I suppose my ego might have taken precedence over the reality of players getting over-confident,” he wrote.
“The atmosphere created by their behaviour led to complacency, and seeing Cuba was in the easier group with Canada and the USA, I was caught in the false world of premature success,” he added.
Asked via e-mail recently whether the experience was the biggest let-down of his coaching career, Corneal responded: “IT WAS. BECAUSE WE WOULD HAVE WON THE SILVER MEDAL RATHER THAN THE BRONZE IN THE FIRST EVER CONCACAF U20 COMPETITION.”
His use of all caps suggested strong feelings even now.
It was the only game the team lost during his time as head coach from 1973 to 1976.
Corneal, a former star player himself, went on to coach the senior team from 1979- 1982, when the team won its first Caribbean Nations Cup, then again for less than a year in 1990.
He coached the national teams of Barbados, Guyana, St Vincent and St Kitts and Nevis. Between 1983 and 1986 he coached the Pro-League team ASL. They topped the league for two years under his guidance. From 1993 to 1998, he spent time in North Carolina coaching the North Carolina State University women’s soccer team and a club team called the Raleigh Flyers.
KEY TO A TEAM’S SUCCESS
In a face-to-face interview, Corneal responded affirmatively when asked if coaching was the key to a team’s success.
“It’s the key. I tell you why,” he said. “Because when players on the field they’re not within their normal faculties. They’re tired. They’re disagreeable with one player or another. They’ve lost the ball, they’re disappointed. There are too many negatives inside of their mind for them to correct it at the moment. That’s why the coach needs to recognize these things and correct them as he goes along.”
“It’s like the importance of anybody who must be an example to the people with whom they are working or bringing up,” he said at another point in the interview. “It’s just like a mom or a dad bringing up kids. In this business, you’ve got to understand what you want out of those people.”
Corneal, in beige button-up T-shirt and knee-length pants, was standing at the periphery of the sports grounds in St Joseph. About 30 or so players with the Alcons Soccer Academy, which Corneal founded in 1969, were training behind him. The thud of the ball bouncing off feet and chests and shouted instructions and the occasional whistle from the assistant coach provided arrhythmic accompaniment as Corneal spoke.
Some of T&T’s best players have passed through Alcons, including Earl Carter and Russell Latapy, alumni of the Strike Squad, who in 1989 came heartbreakingly close to getting T&T to the World Cup for the first time, and Shaka Hislop, Stern John and Clayton Ince, who were part of the 2006 team that finally qualified. T&T still remains the smallest country to ever qualify.
The academy fields a team, the Malta Carib Alcons, which won the Caribbean Professional Football League in 1993 and have won the Eastern Football Association Premier Division title four times.
Players travel all over the world for matches. And through the connections Corneal has developed in the US some of them get sports scholarships to universities in that country.
Talent alone doesn’t make a good player, Corneal explained. Discipline and education are important too.
“These kids came in here when they were six and seven years old. So they’ve been here a long time,” said Corneal. “We want them to be good players but we want to get them scholarships. We also try to use this for the development of the kids, to understand what life is about. Good behaviour. Good social standing—you don’t want to see them cursing or in the bar or anything like this. A good education as well. We call their teachers all the time to find out how they’re going.”
As he spoke, one latecomer approached then stopped a short distance away, his young face earnest, his eyes trained on Corneal. “Permission to join the team, sir.” Corneal waved him on.
Corneal, 79, said former national senior team coach Stephen Hart, a Trinidadian who spent most of his life in Canada and who was fired last November, had been “doing a good job”, but criticised one aspect of his stewardship.
“Stephen Hart did not have in my opinion the conviction of saying to the good players, ‘Hey listen, is either you do it or I find somebody else to do it’,” said Corneal, who’s also a well-known sports broadcaster and newspaper columnist. He’s clearly unafraid to speak his mind.
“So long as you lose the respect of the players, it’s time to change,” Corneal continued. “He was doing a good job in my books. But he failed in the process of trying to maintain the kind of discipline and [decorum] which players need. These guys that went on a boat trip two days before a game and he still selected them and they still lost. Those are the things that make coaches make mistakes.”
Belgian Tom Saintfiet, the coach who followed Hart, resigned after one month and three lost games, including a humiliating first-time defeat to Nicaragua.
“They brought a guy who didn’t know the country. He didn’t have a clue,” said Corneal. “How do you know his weakness? [Trinidad and Tobago Football Association president David John-Williams] says, ‘If you don’t win these two matches you’re fired.’ No coach leaves their country to come here to get that.”
Corneal faulted the TTFA for how they choose coaches for the national teams.
“They pick a coach from out of England. They’ve never seen him. He does not know how the people of this country live,” he said. “He doesn’t know how the grounds are. He doesn’t know where to go and find a youth player. You go into the little villages and you see the little guys doing things. You say, ‘Okay, come with me and let’s get it better.’
“For a coach to be able to coach a country he’s got to be part of the country.” As happens regularly while speaking about a topic he’s clearly passionate about, Corneal’s tone thickened with conviction on the last few words.
He isn’t saying a foreign coach is always unacceptable. “There are great coaches who’ll come and the first thing they’ll do is they’ll take one or two people who are coaches from the country and say, ‘Tell me a little bit about this. Let me work together with you.’
“We don’t even ask the coach to show us a session like this”—he gestured to the players on the field—“to see if that coach can communicate.”
There’s no love lost between the TTFA and Corneal. In 1982 TTFA general secretary Jack Warner, in a unilateral and controversial move, suddenly replaced him as senior national coach with Dutchman Jan Zwarthuis. Corneal learned of the action when he was contacted by the media in Spain, where he was attending the World Cup with the TTFA president and vice-president. He was offered the post of technical director but turned it down.
Corneal and four other members of the football fraternity who engineered an unsuccessful vote of no confidence in the TTFA executive were subsequently ostracised. Corneal claims in his memoir that there were attempts to get radio stations to stop giving him commentator gigs.
In 1990 Corneal was fired as national coach for a second time under contentious circumstances. In a letter to the media at the time, Corneal suggested he was axed in part because of unfavourable testimony he gave to the commission of enquiry into the overselling of tickets to the World Cup-qualifying game with the USA the year before.
The relationship between man and organisation seems to have improved little since then.
“The administrative structure in football is in total disarray. And if up there is broken down, don’t expect down here to work,” he said. “Somebody has got to reorganise it. Somebody has got to rethink it. They personalise everything so long as you criticise it.
“I don’t hate David John-Williams,” he continued. “But I know he doesn’t know anything about the game. I’m sorry for him. I told him so. I said, ‘David, you love the game but you don’t know the game.’ I told him, ‘If you want to be a good president get people who will sit down and study this game and make it better for you.’”
Since before John-Williams’ tenure and now during it, there has been a stream of news reports about problems in the TTFA, one of them being a seeming inability to regularly pay staff, including Corneal’s son, Anton, who resigned as technical director of the TTFA in 2014.
Corneal believes there needs to be more emphasis on coaching education and training in T&T.
In 1981, FIFA held a coaching instructors course for CONCACAF coaches in Trinidad. Corneal took part and graduated on top of the class. Years later he became an official FIFA coaching instructor, the first person from the Caribbean to do so. He’s since trained coaches all over the world.
“I did 47 coaches in the Caribbean in 20 years. T&T never requested one,” he said.
In his memoir, Corneal said the idea of coaching “gripped (his) imagination as early as age 20”. He was a multidisciplined athlete and at the time took stints on both the national football and cricket teams. He was a player on the first attempted West Indies football team in 1959 when the English coach, Harold Hobbis, made an observation.
“He said, ‘You play the way I believe that you can do coaching in ten years’ time’,” said Corneal.
He retired from international football in 1969 to focus on cricket in the hope of making the West Indies cricket team. When he wasn’t chosen, he joined an English team, International Cavaliers, and got his first coaching certification—a preliminary badge from the University of Exeter—while there. He built on his qualifications over the years.
Corneal’s son, Anton—an alumnus of the Alcons academy who in 1979 became the youngest player on the senior national team at 16—followed in his father’s footsteps. He’s coached the youth national teams and was assistant coach for the senior team. He was a technical development officer with FIFA and has organised coach-training programmes in T&T.
“He’s a legend,” he said of his father. “He’s formed the pathway for so many of us as coaches. These coaches are now all over the world. I worked the Caribbean in the last two-and-a-half years. I can’t say how many times I heard coaches say they started to coach and continued to coach because of the influence of my father. He’s done so much for the Caribbean when it comes to influencing the game.”
COACHING THE FUTURE
Corneal plans to do do what he can to make a difference in T&T football through coaching. The Alcons Academy, which he runs with Anton, is going to train coaches who are interested in using their skill in small communities. In a recent interview with sports show host and former T&T national soccer player Steve David, he described the programme as a “satellite expansion” of the academy
“I’m offering it to all the communities,” he said. “If they have one or two coaches, they can come in, and I will do the programmes with them. I’ll do it as long as they’re working in their communities. We’re going to send some of our coaches into the communities to help them to build those teams.”
Alcons doesn’t charge for its training.
“Simply because of the fact that half of them cannot afford anything,” he said of participants. “All the other academies are trying to make money out of it. They’re going to get the middle income and upper income class. [At Alcons] so long as your behaviour is good and you can obey the rules that’s fine.”
Corneal remembers when there was only one World Cup qualifying spot for the entire CONCACAF. Now there are four spots and therefore more opportunities to qualify.
“We should be doing better,” he said of T&T.
“This is a country that beat Argentina before, we beat Colombia before, we beat Mexico before,” he said. “The Republic of Ireland came here just before the ‘86 World Cup—we beat them out at Arima. So nothing is wrong with our people and our football. It is wrong with the way it is led.”