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Sat, Dec

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Trinidad and Tobago national football team legend Russell “the Little Magician” Latapy will follow in a line of famous players who started their coaching careers at the international level  after the 40-year-old playmaker was appointed head coach yesterday.
Latapy’s inclusion in the technical staff was met with widespread approval, last December, when the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) named him as assistant coach. “Strike Squad” coach Everald “Gally” Cummings and 2006 World Cup star Shaka Hislop suggested, then, that he should be given the head coach role straightaway.

In the present climate, anything is seen as an improvement to Francisco Maturana who failed to impress the public or his own playing staff with erratic team selections and tactics. But, on the fans’ forums, it seems the enthusiasm regarding Latapy has cooled somewhat.

Latapy’s trickery in tugs helped salvage a point for the “Soca Warriors” in a 1-1 draw at home to Honduras last month. But his merger with the present technical squad was also deemed responsible for the return to prominence of two of his 2006 World Cup teammates, Stern John and Densill Theobald.

John and Theobald certainly did not disgrace themselves with their recent performances. But John has not scored since a crucial second leg goal against Bermuda, ten months ago, while midfielder Khaleem Hyland’s repeated exclusion from the starting line-up merits some explanation.

The Trinidad Express understands that Maturana argued some of the decisions he is taking the fall for were down to Latapy’s insistence. If the squad feels the same way, Latapy might not quite bring the fresh wave of enthusiasm usually associated with a new coach.

(It should also be noted that the absence of technical director Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips from such an important “technical” meeting surely asks questions about his role within the TTFF. The Express understands that CONCACAF employee and former national youth team coach, Keith Look Loy, performed the role of “technical advisor”).

The Warriors are bottom of the CONCACAF table at present and Latapy’s honeymoon period can only be guaranteed up until he completes his first team list. It is an alien position for one of the most gifted players of his generation—although it is a role he relishes.

There is a precedent for famous past players effectively starting their coaching career on the international stage. Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and Juergen Klinsmann, Netherlands’ Frank Rijkaard and Brazil’s Carlos Dunga got their first coaching roles from their respective Football Associations while Diego Maradona did not complete a season with either Mandiyu de Corrientes or Racing Club before he took over the Argentine program.

But there is one difference in Latapy’s promotion.

Maradona had not worn Argentina’s national colours for 14 years when he became the boss. In Dunga’s case, there was an eight year gap while, for Beckenbauer, Klinsmann and Rijskaard, it was seven, six and four years respectively.

Latapy is still an active international player. Zoran Vranes, who just helped Trinidad and Tobago to the 2009 Under-20 World Cup, has his pluses but perhaps Latapy might have better served by an assistant coach with a more forceful personality—particularly if his “friends” step out of line.

It is a gamble from the TTFF but there are many positives too.

Latapy and Vranes both know their way around the local football circuit—in terms of available players and the political scenario—and are also familiar with the CONCACAF region. Vranes demonstrated, with the teenaged squad, that he is able to create a spiky, competitive unit while Latapy would be expected to provide the silk.

The diminutive Little Magician is a deep thinker of the game too and, if the Warriors get off to a good start against Costa Rica on June 6, Latapy surely has the personality to whip local enthusiasm into levels not seen since under Cummings or 2006 World Cup coach Leo Beenhakker.

Not for the first time, Trinidad and Tobago’s World Cup dreams depend on some magic from Latapy. The post of national head coach was always destined to be his at some stage.

Hopefully, the TTFF’s timing is inspired.