Russell Latapy and I planned to meet at TGI Friday's to chat about his life, and his return to T&T. He was early, and I was on time. As I walked in, there he was sipping on some coconut water with a ‘got yah' smile on his face.
I say, "You are early!"
He responds, "I am always early." And he is ready to give of himself and co-operate with our crew, under the watchful eyes of all his admirers.
Russell has represented Trinidad and Tobago football for over three decades. That means he has been around for as long as I have been following football. Though I have not been an avid fan of the sport all my life, you can't help but know who Latas (as he is affectionately called by his fans in T&T) is. He is the "Little Magician", notorious for his abilities with the ball. One might argue that he is a veteran in the business, however, when you see him you doubt yourself as he has not aged a day! Like his physical appearance, his abilities on the football field remain ageless. It is no wonder the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) made the decision to confirm him as a player/assistant manager, because on any given day he can pass for both.
His accomplishments in the sport of football are so many, that they cannot all be detailed in this interview. But I know that I speak on behalf of many when I say how much Trinidad and Tobago owes to guys like Russell Latapy. Russell, like fellow teammate Dwight Yorke, cut the path for many T&T and Caribbean nationals to pursue their dreams of playing professional football abroad.
Russel has made his mark on the world stage, particularly in Europe, having played and lived in countries like Portugal and most recently Scotland, where they refer to him as "Latapy" and his son Russell Junior as "Tapy". He made T&T proud and represented us well at every level. In 2000, he was voted #31 in FIFA's "Best Player in the world" ranking. He was most recently inducted into his Scottish Club, Falkirk's, Hall Of Fame. During our interview he confesses that he was told very early that, "The game owes you nothing, you have to work for what you want." It is no wonder that he succeeded as he held this bit of advice pretty close to his heart.
Russell hopes to continue to inspire the young footballers of this region and plans to contribute to their development with the Russell Latapy Sports Foundation and with his new role with the TTFF. With good health and good luck we are wishing him another three decades of being a part of the sport he loves most, as a Manager/Coach.
AP: Russell you probably have people passing you straight these days. I almost did not recognize you without the locks. What made you cut it? Is this the new you?
RL: No, same me just different visual. It's got its positive side, with people not recognizing me. I am able to maintain my privacy. It was really hard to maintain that hairstyle living in Scotland. It started affecting my son when he was sleeping with me. So it had to go.
AP: How did the name "Little Magician" come about?
RL: I really don't have a clue. Just one of those things that stuck with me. Not sure how it came about.
AP: Who discovered Russell Latapy?
RL: When I was growing up I was a part of a lot of youth programmes. One of the few people was a guy called Jean Lilywhite. I remember one Carnival; it was he and I alone in the Savannah. He was teaching me to use both feet with the ball.
AP: Were you the first Trini or Caribbean footballer to sign an English football contract?
RL: No it was Dwight Yorke. He was the first from Trinidad. Not sure about the rest of the Caribbean. He signed first. I was the first to play in the UEFA champions league.
AP: How old were you when you did it?
RL: Around twenty four or twenty five years. I am not really good at keeping records of myself. I just play football. I love football.
AP: Any regrets about your choice of profession?
RL: No. I had the opportunity to go to Florida International University (FIU) on full scholarship at the same time I got the contract to play in Jamaica.
AP: Yuh love Jamaica?
RL: (He shakes his head and smiles) I love Jamaica. I lived there for about two and a half to three years.
AP: Russell, I was so impressed when I read that you were inducted into the Falkirk's Hall of Fame. I was really touched by that. I can only imagine how you felt. I am so proud of you. Do you feel as though you are appreciated more by the Scottish than by your homeland?
RL: No, not really. I have always tried to do my best for whomever. I feel a lot of love on both sides.
AP: How old are your kids now?
RL: Joao, the eldest, is fifteen years old, Mikkel is seven, and Russell Jr. is three.
(I did not realize that he had three sons, so I teased him that he can only make men and we laughed.)
AP: Any of your boys want to follow in your footsteps?
RL: The last two maybe. Anything they want to do I'll support them as long as they are happy.
AP: I heard that your son, Russell Jr. was signed for a twenty (20) year contract. Tell me some more about that and how it came about?
RL: My Club in Scotland introduced a new program called the "Mini Barns" to nurture young players into our own academy. They observed the way Russell Jr. handles the ball. I agreed to let him be a part of the youth program to teach him the basic concepts. But I can't let my son sign a twenty-year contract just yet. I am impressed with the fact that the club is forward thinking.
AP: You seem happy with your partner. Any plans for marriage?
RL: Life is going well… (We burst out laughing.)
AP: How long have you been together and how did you meet?
RL: For over seven years. We met through a mutual friend.
AP: Are you a playboy, Russell?
RL: I have lived a certain life, in my younger days… (And he smiles.)
AP: Are you, Brian (Lara – internationally famous and now retired West Indies cricketer) and Dwight (Yorke – internationally famous, T&T's World Cup captain) still best friends?
RL: (He nods) Yes.
AP: How did you meet?
RL: The Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation had a zonal youth programme at the time and that is where we all met. It was an under twelve team. Brian later went on to cricket and fortunately for us we all made it in our respective careers. I am very certain that if Brian had stayed in football, he would have made it to the top. He had a couple of tricks.
AP: Speaking of your younger days; your two best friends, Dwight and Brian, are avid party lovers and well known for their "feting". Are you the same way inclined?
RL: Which West Indian don't know how to have a good time?
AP: You missed a lot of Trinidad Carnivals living abroad for all those years, (Portugal and Scotland) Did you ever experience withdrawal symptoms?
RL: Of course, but those guys always kept me updated. It was hard.
AP: You have always been a very private person. What made you agree to be interviewed by Basia? What's your message?
RL: I know I have a social responsibility. We need to bring our society together again. Too much violence. We need to develop programmes for the kids in the area of sports, culture, and entertainment to change the focus of the kids today.
AP: Do you, Brian and Dwight plan to do anything together regarding this?
RL: We have a lot of conversations, but things are still in the embryo stage.
AP: You guys are like a dynamic trio. Brothers who enjoy life together…
RL: Now I am not a very sentimental guy, but I just want to have it on record that I am proud of both of them, for their professional achievements and as individuals. I don't want to use the word love but I mean that.
Break- We pause as his significant other calls on the mobile and he launches into a discussion in Portuguese. I am totally lost, not to mention clueless!
AP: How many languages do you speak, fluently?
RL: I speak two fluently. Portuguese and English, of course. But I can understand Spanish and Italian.
AP: Did you go to school to learn the language?
RL: I learnt it when I went to Academica. It was a university city and a lot of people there spoke English. I learnt it on the streets and in the pubs.
AP: Is your son Russell Jr. bilingual?
RL: He understands English and responds to it but does not speak it as yet.
AP: The manager of your club Falkirk, Hughes, who played alongside you at Hibernian, described you as a gem of a human being. How did that make you feel?
RL: Delighted. I have worked alongside him for the last fifteen (15) years. I think that is very kind of him. It says a lot for my mom, because she is the one that has shaped my personality.
AP: You always speak of your mother as having had such a major impact on your life! How would you describe her?
RL: There are so many ways I would like to describe her. It might take about two days. She is very loving but she is tough. She is a good listener. If I had to choose my mother that would be the mother I would choose.
Congrats to Latas!
Russel Latapy was recently appointed Head Coach of the Trinidad and Tobago national team. We KNOW he can do the job and we wish him all the best at this latest development is his sterling career.