Last Tuesday, Russell Latapy of Trinidad & Tobago played his one and only World Cup game. He logged 23 minutes plus stoppage time against Paraguay, and I suspect not many people noticed. Although the Soca Warriors had made a lot of fans around the world, by the time Latapy got on the pitch it was clear they were going home. Might as well turn the channel to England and Sweden, or get some yardwork done before the next set of games.
But it was something special nevertheless. Latapy is 37 years old, and those 23 minutes were the fulfillment of a promise a whole career in the making. All the way back in 1989, a much younger Latapy was a key member of the Strike Squad, the T&T side that fell agonizingly short of a World Cup berth for Italia '90. Needing only a draw at home in their final qualifying game, they lost 0:1 to the USA, and drifted into the international wilderness.
That Latapy was a remarkable talent was clear from the first. He was a classic attacker, of a kind rarely seen at any level for club or country. There was no more exciting player in the region. His nickname was the Little Magician, and no one could spin and twist, dribble and pass like him. He could score, too, and usually in elegant fashion. Objectively, perhaps, there were greater overall talents around--his defense could be limited, and he was prone to overelaborate--but who cared? He was The Beautiful Game personified.
Coming into the qualifiers for Germany 2006, Latapy's international career had been both sweet and bitter. With 27 goals in 59 appearances, he had certainly made his mark on Soca Warriors history. He had scored the winner in one of their most famous victories, the 1:0 over Mexico in the qualifiers for 2002. But later that cycle, as it became clear the Warriors were fading, he, along with fellow star Dwight Yorke, quit the team. The two had failed to turn up for training before a game against Jamaica, were omitted by new coach Rene Simoes, and chose to retire from international football. Like Yorke, Latapy was an individualist and a hard liver (at one point he was sacked by Hibernian for missing training and curfew), and the decision came as no surprise.
It certainly appeared Latapy's T&T career was over. Even when Yorke agreed to come back and lead the team during the qualifiers for Germany, Latapy resisted the call. But when Leo Beehakker took over, and it became clear the Warriors really had a chance this time, he decided to give it one last try. There were four games left, and T&T were locked in a tight struggle with Guatemala for the fourth spot and a playoff with Asia. When Latapy joined the squad, Beenhakker pointedly announced he didn't have a spot assured--but one look in training and that was that. T&T desperately needed some spark in midfield, and Latapy was just the man to provide it.
At his age, it was unreasonable to expect Latapy to be as lively as before. And perhaps he didn't have the stamina of his youth. But he still had all the skills, and from the moment he took the field it was clear the Warriors had found the key ingredient. It was his first game, the crucial meeting at home to Guatemala, that more than any turned the tide and sent the team on their way to Germany. With T&T down 0:1 early in the second half, Latapy went into magic mode. First he scored a stunning solo goal, twisting six different ways before putting the ball on his left foot and driving it low into the far corner. Then he took complete charge of the attack, setting up chance after chance that somehow went begging. Guatemala fought back, taking the lead again on a counterattack, and for all Latapy's wizardry, T&T looked done. But in the 85th minute Latapy's gorgeous sidestep and pass found Stern John in the penalty area for the shock equalizer. A minute later, with the crowd in delirium, Yorke found John for the winner.
From then on T&T were on a straight line for Germany. They lost at Costa Rica, but won at Panama (Latapy helping make the winner) and came from behind spectacularly to beat Mexico at home to grab the playoff spot. Everyone agreed that it was the Little Magician who had made the difference. Then came a draw and a win against Bahrain, and 16 years after the Strike Squad disappointment, T&T and Latapy were at last in the World Cup.
But it was already clear the old man might not play a major role in Germany. At 37, his slow, indirect style was still effective against Central American teams, but Bahrain's pace and pressing had been too much for him. He was ineffective in the opening leg draw, and Beenhakker sat him down for the return leg in Bahrain. The Warriors got the winning goal, the qualifying goal, without him; he only came on for the last 15 minutes to help preserve the lead. With high-energy teams like England and Sweden on the schedule, Latapy couldn't be expected to contribute much at the World Cup.
And indeed he didn't. The famous draw against Sweden, the 82 marvelous minutes of scoreless football against England, took place with him on the bench. Yorke, three years younger and a different style of player, could still make the pace, but at the finest moments in Soca Warriors history, Latapy could only watch.
Then came the final game against Paraguay. T&T still had a chance to qualify, and Beenhakker needed the fittest men possible. Again Latapy rode the bench. When the Warriors fell behind, the first substitution was Kenwyne Jones, a striker. When Cornell Glen was injured late in the first half, in came Evans Wise. With only one substitution left, Latapy was still waiting his turn.
But soon we were well into the second half. Paraguay were holding on at 1:0, and had fallen back on defense, letting T&T control the ball. Beenhakker motioned to the bench--and finally, in came the Little Magician, to a standing ovation from the T&T fans. It was a sentimental choice, but it was also the right one: with Paraguay giving the Warriors space, Latapy would finally have scope to do his thing.
And so for 23 minutes we had Russell Latapy at the World Cup. And he was beautiful. With his first touch he slipped a defender and found an open Densil Theobald on the left wing. With his second he spun around in the penalty area and fed Yorke near the arc for a shot. With his third it was a neat circle and pass to a charging Stern John. He wasn't running much--really just strolling around the field--but every time he got the ball you said "ah!" You really didn't care what else was happening; you just wanted to see Russell Latapy with the ball at his feet. A lovely through ball to Kenwyne Jones, a blast from the top of the area, a solo spin-dribble-shot from the arc, excitement upon excitement, inspiration upon inspiration. You pleaded for a goal, prayed that such beauty be rewarded one last time.
It didn't happen. The shots went high or to the keeper. The passes weren't converted. It was Paraguay that scored, putting the game out of reach. Shortly afterward it was over. And yet--when the final whistle blew, Latapy was exactly in the center circle. It was fitting. The center of the T&T attack for so many years, he was the center of attention in his final appearance. He didn't need to take a bow. His play had said it all.
There are books with complete statistics for every player ever to appear in the World Cup finals. All the books published after 2006 will have a simple line, looking something like this:
Russell Latapy TNT 1 23 0
In the end we are all data. But those 23 minutes are now in the archives, accessible to the many billions of World Cup fans in the years to come. Those who actually see them will be few. But perhaps they will be moved to ask "Just who was that number 10?" and seek out the full story of Russell Latapy. And so, appropriately, it will be those final few marvelous minutes that define his career. Exit, center stage.