Russell Latapy, the long-serving 'little magician' in Trinidad and Tobago's midfield, has announced that he will retire from international football following the Caribbean nation's first FIFA World Cup™ finals appearance this June in Germany.
It is no surprise really. Thirty-eight in April, Latapy - still considered by some in Trinidad and Tobago to be their best ever footballer - does not exactly have that same old spring in his step. But what he has lost in speed, he more than makes up for with his deft reading of the game.
"Of course, I'm no young pup," said Latapy – known as 'Stompy' or 'Latas' to his legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. "It is a bit unrealistic in my lifetime to come back for a fourth and fifth World Cup qualification."
Though he will most likely be the oldest outfield player at the finals in Germany, Latapy, who is now player-coach with Scottish club Falkirk, is still a highly effective presence in the middle of the park. He even picked up the 2005 Scottish First Division Player of the Year award for the role he played in his club's promotion to the top flight.
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Less of the foraging runner he was in his younger days, his vision in the middle of the park has him ranking among the most important members of both his club and national teams. Some even claim the Trinidadian to be the most gifted playmaker in the Scottish game.
John Hughes, Latapy's manager at Falkirk, has nothing but praise for his number ten. "Some of the things he does are just amazing," said Hughes, whose side look like surviving the drop in their first season back in the Premier League. "I take great delight in watching it.
"When Russell has got the right head on and he has got the desire he is a fantastic player. It's just the way he controls it and passes the ball, he doesn't need to break his stride." Gordon Strachan, manager of champions-elect Celtic, echoed this view of Latapy, saying: "He's an excellent player."
As Falkirk's player-coach, Latapy has been splitting his duties on both sides of the touchline of late. And although he expects T&T's finals debut to be his Trinidadian swansong, he has made it clear that the Soca Warriors are not going along merely to make up the numbers.
"We are not going as tourists to the finals, we've told ourselves that," said the dreadlocked Latapy, who has been named T&T's footballer of the year on four occasions, the first time when he was only 16. And though Germany 2006 will be his first and last appearance on the world's biggest stage, the team’s Cinderella qualification hinged - quite profoundly - on the player's decision to come out of retirement.
When T&T were struggling early on in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, it was clear something was not quite clicking. But a fateful August phone call from old pal and former Manchester United hero Dwight Yorke brought the old boy home for one last try.
"I was in the side that lost to the USA (in 1989) that put us out of the race for Italia 90. Now that we're so close again, I want to do my bit to see if we can qualify. Playing at a World Cup would be crowning glory in my career," Latapy remarked on his return.
In addition to his wonderful dribbling ability, the diminutive Latapy has tremendous creative powers as well. It showed in the run-up to Germany as he sprayed passes all over the park, releasing the strikers and putting the team constantly on the attack. He scored the winner in his first match back against Guatemala – the Central American side the Soca Warriors eventually edged past to set up a play-off with Bahrain.
"If you have two or three players on the pitch of the calibre of Latapy, you will win games," head coach Leo Beenhakker said of the playmaker when he came back to the fold. "We were struggling to create chances before he came into the team," T&T's all-time top scorer Stern John told FIFAworldcup.com. "Russell can not only create chances, but he can score too."
After stints in Portugal with first Porto - where he became the first Trinidadian to play in a UEFA Champions League match - and then Boavista, Latapy moved on to Scotland for spells with Hibernian, Rangers and Dundee United before settling in as player, and eventually player-coach, with Falkirk.
With 64 caps and 28 goals for his country, he will not be the only old head in the line-up for new boys Trinidad come kick-off time in Germany. The core of the team comprises players over 30 years of age. Yorke, Stern John, Marvin Andrews, Avery John, Dennis Lawrence and Shaka Hislop are all in their 30s - and hoping to be able to keep up with the young ones on the big stage.
At 37, one wonders whether the little magician can conjure up a few new tricks for T&T this June when they square off against Sweden, England and Paraguay in a tricky Group B.