“Natty” is getting peppered with shots, and the goalkeeper is not happy with his back line defenders’ lack of interest in playing defense.
“A wha’ kin’a foolishness business this, man?” the slow-moving Jamaican with long dreads shouts to no one in particular. “Everybody waaan’t score goal and be the star,” he continued, before restarting the attack again, hissing his teeth.
Never mind that Natty’s team is winning the Sunday morning kick-around on a bumpy soccer pitch in South Charlotte, North Carolina, a session composed of men from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana, Haiti, Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and St. Vincent.
This group is no different from other weekend warriors who play pickup soccer or basketball around the country. Everyone has a nickname, and every nickname a backstory. Trinidadians “St. Mary” and “St. Ann” are both named for their hometowns; “Tall Man” (a 6-foot-6 forward who is never without his trusted knee brace); “Short Man” (stands generously at 5-foot-6 but plays much bigger); “Michelin” (named for his ample waistline); and “Buttahs,” whose name likely has something to do with his style of play — he’s smooth.
The Trinidad and Tobago contingent — or “massive,” in island-speak — is having a ball as the game unfolds. They are, without a doubt, the ringleaders of this pack.
The talk of the Sunday kick-around was ESPN FC soccer analyst Shaka Hislop and his comments after his native Trinidad and Tobago beat the U.S. men’s national team 2-1 on Oct. 10, killing the Yanks’ quest to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Hislop spent his 15-year professional career as a goalkeeper in the top division in England, manning net for Newcastle United, Reading, West Ham United and Portsmouth. “Trinidadians are happy people, man. We love the game, and we love to have a good time,” said Hislop, a self-described “proud Trinbagonian.”
The internet saw a glimpse of that pride after the “Soca Warriors” stunned the U.S. team.
Hislop, who led Howard University to the 1988 NCAA Final as a freshman starter, took umbrage to the Americans’ attitude heading into the game, from which they needed only a win or tie to qualify for the world’s biggest sports tournament.
“Not only is this the worst U.S. team I’ve seen, this is the most arrogant U.S. national team I’ve seen for the last 20 years, and that’s not just down to the players — that is down to everybody from U.S. Soccer through the media that comes through the coach and onto the players,” Hislop ranted as his fellow ESPN FC analysts looked on, awed by his passion. “The message it sent to me is that, ‘Here we are, U.S. Soccer, in this little backwater nation, having to play to qualify.’ ”
Hislop had been seething long before the start of the World Cup qualifier. Two days before the match, Hislop watched other World Cup qualifiers with ESPN colleagues just as social media chatter had started to build for the Trinidad and Tobago-U.S. matchup.
In September, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association moved the game from Hasely Crawford Stadium in the capital of Port of Spain to Ato Boldon Stadium in the small town of Couva. Heavy rain before the Oct. 10 game left the field soaked, and water had to be pumped off the surrounding running track.
“I was sitting there complaining from then, and then when I saw the official Twitter feed of the U.S. national team posting pictures of players carrying players across ankle-high water to make matters seem worse than they actually were, it really set me off,” said Hislop, his Trinidadian accent coming through and voice rising. “It added to how offended I felt. … I’m not saying that that was anybody’s intention, but I was already there.”
To be fair, nobody referred to the playing surface at Ato Boldon Stadium as a “little backwater nation,” but Hislop had seen and heard enough from the media leading up to the game that more than suggested that the Americans were looking past Trinidad and Tobago. The air of disrespect was pungent, Hislop said.
“I know that field,” Hislop told The Undefeated. “It’s slightly raised, with a running track around it. The water had settled onto the running track. I was, like, wait a minute, the same hurricanes that smashed Houston and Puerto Rico came right up through the Caribbean. I played in Europe on pitches just as bad. This is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago or the Caribbean. This is part of the game. I just felt the rhetoric was demeaning.”
There’s also well-documented history that should be part of the narrative on both sides. The U.S., in 1989, had ended Trinidad and Tobago’s hopes of reaching the 1990 World Cup. That wound still burns, particularly for the likes of Jack Warner, the Trinidadian former FIFA vice president and Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football (CONCACAF) president who was arrested by U.S. federal prosecutors on charges of bribery and fraud as part of the FIFA scandal that rocked the soccer world in 2015. Warner called the U.S. loss the “happiest day of my life.”
“It was totally avoidable, this loss for the Americans,” said Brian Anderson of the Charlotte Caribbean Football Club, a proud Trini who said Hislop’s analysis spoke for his country of 1.3 million. “They had an arrogance, an arrogance that said, ‘This game is a foregone conclusion.’ ”
Since that epic loss, U.S. Soccer has had an all-you-can-eat helping of humble pie. Team manager Bruce Arena has resigned, walking away in infamy as the man who failed to propel America past last-place Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the World Cup, marking the first time since 1986 the Americans will not participate in futbol’s biggest party. Hislop admits to taking no personal comfort in Team USA’s loss. He also doesn’t believe U.S. Soccer should panic and start over from scratch.
“I don’t think it’s time to scrap everything and rebuild,” Hislop said. “What is needed are calm heads and a holistic look at what’s working and what isn’t. Look at the infrastructure for kids to play the game. Give kids every single opportunity to play and grow, from a young age.
“Figure out how we get kids from the inner cities to be part of the system; kids from the inner cities are being priced out of the game,” said Hislop, a father of five. “It’s not cheap. Figure out how U.S. Soccer and clubs can better partner with local high schools. Not every family can pick up and move their family to Germany as [U.S. national star] Christian Pulisic’s family did. That might be a realistic option [to groom the best talent] for some, but not for the vast majority.”
Hislop, a week after his rant broke Twitter, sounds more like himself now: calm, reserved, jovial.
“Yeah, man … that situation got to me. I got a lot of messages from people in Trinidad. I know [my points] resonated with people up and down the island.”
Added Anderson: “Shaka said his piece, man. He spoke for all of us.”