Make way for numero uno.
“On his back he wears number one. The first to get paid? The first to pay! The goalkeeper’s always to blame…
“The rest of the players can commit a terrible blunder here or there, but they erase it again with some spectacular dribbling or a masterful pass but the goalkeeper can’t do that.
Goalkeepers are often considered to be a different breed. The stereotypical custodian must be eccentric, moody, violent or unreasonably flashy. It is his way of dealing with a quirk of fate that forever denies him the true thrill of the “beautiful game”.
Football is about goals. But, on every team, one person is handed gloves and told to prevent 10 opposing players from scoring. If the goal scorer is inevitably the hero, then the goalkeeper is destined to be the anti-hero. Retired Trinidad and Tobago international Shaka Hislop, somehow, was different. The goalkeepers who stand out in the memory of most supporters are the rebels; those who, to the frustration of their coaches and bemusement of their colleagues, refuse to accept their lot in the scheme of things.
Bmobile Joe Public coach Michael McComie would often defiantly stroll into his defenders’ territory during his playing days. Defence Force shotblocker Selwyn George usually follows each save with a verbal volley at his teammates that ensures the crowd’s lingering attention. Former Superstar Rangers goalkeeper Shurland Oliver would sprint into the opposing 18-yard box whenever the chance to take a penalty kick presented itself. Hislop was never a natural showman nor did he seem particularly bothered by the loneliness of his vocation.
His six-foot-five frame rarely extended itself in any direction unless necessity dictated. His face never contorted in anger at a teammate or opponent. And he never gambled with the emotions of his employers or supporters by attempting a dangerous trick outside his penalty area. Hislop is the guy who turned up to work and joked with the staff without losing the confidence of his boss. He is the guy who does not forget his colleagues when promoted and will not let the office know that he helped on your last project.
On July 10, the cliché that “nice guys finish last” was finally put to rest as the 39-year-old Hislop, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most unassuming celebrity athletes, walked on to the podium at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Port of Spain and into Trinidad and Tobago’s Sport Hall of Fame. He is the first—although he certainly will not be the last—member of the 2006 “Soca Warriors” World Cup team to be so recognized by the First Citizens Bank Sport Foundation for his achievements.
World Cup captain Dwight Yorke, enigmatic veteran playmaker Russell Latapy and record scorer Stern John should surely join Hislop at some point. All three are still active professional players. Yet, Hislop can hold his own in such glittering attacking company and that is some compliment for a goalkeeper.
“It is a real honour to feel that my contribution to the sport has been recognised by my country,” said Hislop. “We, athletes, see ourselves as people who are somewhat talented in our particular arena and are doing that we love to do.
“To know that we did our jobs with enough integrity to be recognised like this is a fantastic honour.”
Hislop, a former St Mary’s College student, was once derided for his perceived lack of patriotism after refusing to leave club duty for Reading in 1994 to play in an international friendly on the invitation of FIFA vice-president and Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF) special advisor Jack Warner.
After the T&TFF tried to ban him, the London-born Hislop—once Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper when he joined Newcastle in the English Premiership—did train with the England national squad but eventually decided to play for the country that raised him rather than his birthplace.
He may be a nice guy but he is a talented athlete first. Far from past his prime when he made his international debut, Hislop had just led West Ham into UEFA Cup competition—for the first time in their Premier League history—and was selected as the MVP at a club that boasted of talents like Rio Ferdinand, Paolo Di Canio, Ian Wright, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard in their starting line-up at the time.
Blessed with good reflexes, sound judgment, height and an ability to unnerve opposing strikers with his composure in the firing line, Hislop was an asset to some of Britain’s top clubs and doubly so for tiny Trinidad and Tobago. Hislop performed creditably as T&T got to the final qualifying round of the 2002 World Cup campaign while he was selected on the All Star team at the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup before he announced his retirement just short of his 33rd birthday.
Hislop wanted to give the younger players a chance. But the managerial duo of coach Bertille St Clair and manager Richard Braithwaite begged him to bring his leadership and experience to the national set up when they begun plans to win a historic spot at the Germany 2006 tournament. He obliged.
Hislop was a reserve to the younger Kelvin Jack for the business end of the qualifying series but an unfortunate injury to Jack, roughly half hour before kick off in the country’s World Cup debut against Sweden, offered an unlikely chance to shine on the biggest stage. It was the most memorable game of his career.
Hislop’s reflex saves were pivotal as the Warriors produced one of the shocks of the tournament although he prefers to remember the minutes before the opening whistle.
“I shed tears in 89 when we didn’t qualify (for the 1990 World Cup),” he said. “So it is a real sense of achievement that I was part of the team that took our country to the World Cup in 2006.
“It was an unbelievable feeling for me to hear our national anthem being played that day.” As Hislop’s career drew to a close, accolades flooded in for the star who seemed oblivious to his own aurora.
“Show Racism The Red Card”, an anti-racism group he co-founded in Britain, named Hislop to their inaugural Hall of Fame in 2004 while, in 2006, the England Players’ Football Association (PFA) made him the first foreign recipient of their “Special Merit Award” since Brazilian legend, Pele. In 2007, the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) also gave Hislop the Alexander B Chapman for upholding sport’s ideals while the Pro League had a tribute match in his honour.
“It is tremendously fulfilling,” he said, of his gongs, “and comes with great honour to feel that you have made your contribution to the sport, which is about much more than playing in the top flight and the trappings of success. It holds pride and place more than any specific result or performance…
“Although I won’t say it was an achievement because there are so many people who played a part in my success from my parents who dropped me to every training session to all my coaches. It is more a group achievement than anything else.”
Hislop, who is the current president of the Football Players Association of Trinidad and Tobago (FPATT) and an ESPN commentator, is humble in his self-assessment.
“I would like to think that I gave my all for every single team I played for,” he said. “I was not the greatest goalkeeper this country produced but I was lucky and I took my chances and made my opportunities count.” Hislop hesitated when asked how he felt he would be remembered by his compatriots.
“I am a little bit unsure about that,” he said. “I was having this conversation with (fellow Hall of Famer and former track star) Ato Boldon the other night and I told him that while strikers are judged by their goals and sprinters are judged by how fast they get to the finish line, goalkeepers tend to be remembered for their mistakes.
“I think goalkeepers’ contributions are taken a bit for granted because of the nature of the position.”
Not anymore. On July 10, number one meant just that. It was a good day for goalkeepers and a triumph for substance over style.