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16
Sat, Dec

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A few months ago, as Trinidad and Tobago faced the prospect of yet another failed World Cup campaign, team captain Dwight Yorke decided to use the country's last lifeline. He phoned a friend.


The man he called was his old pal Russell Latapy who, after spells at Porto under Sir Bobby Robson as well as Hibernian and Rangers, is now player-coach of Falkirk. It could turn out to be the most important phone call Yorke has made.

The consequence of their conversation is that on Saturday the tiny Caribbean country, better known for producing world-class cricketers than footballers, will host Bahrain in the first match of a two-leg play-off. For both teams, the prize is a place in the World Cup finals for the first time in their history.

Yorke, who now plays his club football for Sydney FC in Australia, had previously approached Latapy a couple of times about coming out of international retirement, but without success. Latapy, a talented playmaker known at home as the 'Little Magician' for his pace and creativity, quit the national team in 2001. He told Yorke he would be interested in a coaching role but, at 37, his international playing days were over.

This time, after a defeat by the United States had all but ended the country's World Cup hopes, Yorke tried again, begging his friend to change his mind and put on the red Warriors shirt for just two games. For old time's sake. Latapy thought about it and finally relented.

"Only Dwight could have persuaded me," he says. "We've been close for a number of years. We grew up together and we played together. I realised it was really a last opportunity, not just for me but for Dwight as well."

In September, Latapy took the field against Guatemala, who were three points ahead of T&T and virtually assured of taking the CONCACAF play-off spot. After Guatemala took the lead, Latapy equalised and then created a second for team-mate Stern John, the Coventry striker, in a 3-2 victory. The magic was still there.

The win was followed by a defeat by Costa Rica but Latapy was persuaded to extend his international career by a further two games. Three points were secured against Panama before T&T faced mighty Mexico in their final match. They came from behind to win 2-1, securing their play-off place and sending the country into a state of delirium. Now Latapy is looking forward to two more games, and perhaps half a dozen more next summer.

"It was fantastic," he recalls. "Mexico are a great team and the only chance we had of getting to the play-off was to beat them. When we did it, the whole place just went mad. It gives us a lot of hope because Mexico were ranked fourth in the world. If we work as hard and play as well as that, there's no reason why we won't beat Bahrain as well."

The pre-match build-up has been soured, however, by the revelation that former T&T captain David Nakhid, who was recently sacked as an assistant coach to the national team, has accepted a job as a coach in Bahrain, which makes him about as popular in his homeland as a sneezing poultry worker. Nakhid claims he is only helping out with the under-20s and that he will not be passing on any secrets - a plausible explanation if you happen to have been born yesterday.

"This is a boy who played in three World Cup campaigns for Trinidad," says Latapy. "He's an ex-captain of the team and he knows the players very well. But, to be honest, I would think that at this level there isn't much that he'll be able to tell them."

For Latapy, there will be an extra motivation on Saturday. In 1989, he and Yorke were in the T&T side who needed just a point against the United States to qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy. They lost 1-0, plunging the country into mourning.

"I don't think we were ready professionally," he says. "I think we just got too excited at the prospect of playing in the World Cup. We felt we were already there."

Qualifying for the World Cup would also answer those critics who claim Latapy wasted his talent with too many late nights, more often than not in the company of Yorke. He admits he still smokes "between six and eight" cigarettes a day but goes to bed earlier these days.

"I've enjoyed my life and had a lot of fun but the fact I'm still playing at 37 shows I've worked hard as well," he says. "I think it is part of the West Indian mentality. We're not the kind of people who go to bed at nine and get up at 7.30."

If Latapy and his colleagues prevail, it could be a very late night in the Caribbean.