Few in the know, if any, would dispute that in team sport, no one faces greater pressure and do so more consistently than the coach; and in the scheme of things, perhaps no team coach faces as much pressure as a football coach. Football managers are surrounded by dissenters: players that have been overlooked or out of favour; aspiring rivals who want the job for themselves, a critical media and a fan base that demands victory and nothing else. In the course of fending off all these challenges, the coach cannot lose sight of his original intended occupation- planning for and defeating the rival teams in competition.
Here in T&T, the population is miniscule in comparison and our history of performance is modest at best; but expectation is no less a cross to bear. That was the cup from which Russell Latapy chose to sup and the crown of thorns the little man accepted when he was recently re-appointed to lead Trinidad and Tobago out of football’s doldrums and into the promised land of the 2014 World Cup. He holds the reigns of a runaway wagon- a broken team in transition, needing to part ways sooner rather than later with ageing but reluctant heroes of the past who pulled off a back-door qualification act into the FIFA Finals in Germany, just over four years ago. It is a team which has failed to qualify for its Confederation’s championship finals, the Gold Cup; one whose performance in the recent 2010 World Cup qualifiers was depressingly poor; a team struggling for respect inside its own confederation- unable to draw friendly matches against anyone but stragglers like El Salvador, Haiti, The Bahamas, Jamaica and Grenada.
Latapy had already tasted of the cup’s bitter contents, and the diversity of opinions expressed in all arms of the local media, in the weeks leading to the announcement, would have left him in no doubt as to the precariousness of his position, and the consequences of failure to produce positive results almost immediately. At the moment, few, if any T&T supporters will dispute the argument that our senior team is going nowhere. As in all other football-crazed nations, support for his selection will not see the light of many days unless the team begins to win, and win consistently. That is his challenge, and the challenge anyone else who might have won the nod would have had to face. It is in the execution of that responsibility that Latapy will be judged, and on nothing less.
In the build-up to the TTFF’s decision, it was ironically Russell Latapy’s outstanding career as a player that stood greatest in his way; critics raised the argument, justifiably, that great players do not great coaches make. The list is almost endless: before the struggling Maradona, another World Cup-winning Argentina captain, Daniel Passarella endured the same horrors with the South American giants. Zico had to quit at Udinese; Ruud Gullitt tried and failed at Chelsea , and his partner Marco Van Basten flopped with the Dutch national team. Johan Cruyff endured a series of hot and cold results with Ajax and Barcelona, and Bernd Schuster, the brilliant West German midfielder of the 1980s, had to depart Real Madrid under the weight of a series of unfavourable results. Thankfully, Pele and Platini never tried. There have been exceptions, of course: Franz Beckenbauer lost and won successive World Cup finals at the helm of Germany, in 1986 and 1990; but his teams were always brutally efficient, never attractive, and the facts are that that is the kind of football that wins tournaments in the modern game.
Arguably, that is also why the combative Carlos Dunga, the most un-Samba-esque of player in eight glorious decades of Brasilian World Cup magic has managed such consistency with his national team. Experts and analysts have tagged the move away from all-out attacking football from as far back as 1954, following the extravagances and follies of the World Cup that year in Switzerland. The game, to use an oxymoron, has grown progressively defensive; some of the landmark changes were Brasil’s four-two-four in 1958, England’s four-four-two in ‘66 and West Germany’s five-four-one in ‘74. And we cannot forget the disappointment of 1990, when Argentina had the dubious honour of becoming the first team in a World Cup final that failed to score (and had two players sent off in the bargain); and what about the 1994 final in which the football world endured the unprecedented disaster of a championship match without a single goal in 120 minutes? Not by coincidence, Dunga was Brasil’s defensive midfielder in that final when a penalty-spot shootout decided who would wear the crown as the best football team in the world.
The gulf between Dunga and Latapy could not be greater. If the world outside of the Concacaf, Portugal and Scotland knew little or nothing about the “Wee Magician,” it was given a brief but exhilarating cameo in Germany 2006 when Latas set the field afire in the 24 minutes or so that Leo Beenhakker grudgingly allowed the veteran genius against Paraguay, and only when all hope of advancing to the second round had been lost. Admittedly, Beenhakker’s reservations were somewhat justified- Latapy’s entrance would only ignite an attacking fervour into a unit Don Leo had worked so hard to weld into a hard core defensive shell- a risk that, once it did not produce results (a goal) could end only one way- Paraguay scoring a decisive second on the counter-attack.
It is that open-mindedness of spirit, that belief that winning requires a positive approach that has been the bane of Maradona, Cruyff and many other geniuses whose forays into management have met ill fates; it is the risk that Jack Warner and the TTFF have taken in renewing Latapy’s contract. Perhaps they took into consideration that another T&T legend almost managed to beat the odds; in 1988-’89, it was Everald Cummings who took a struggling T&T from almost nothing to within one point of World Cup 1990. “Gally” was no ordinary player, having held his own in the Mexican and North American Soccer Leagues- a man who was named tournament MVP when Trinidad and Tobago were so infamously cheated out of a World Cup berth at the Concacaf playoffs in Haiti 1973.
What weighs in Russell’s favour is the timeliness of his re-appointment; whereas his initial instalment came in the midst of the final stage of 2010 qualifying, this time around he has ample opportunity to cut and change, to source and assess newcomers and to adopt a style and approach to playing. In this respect, the football authorities must be applauded; whatever the merits of their choices, they have at least been made, and there is no threat of repeat of the most recent fiasco- when the national team was left in limbo following the unofficial blacklisting of players caught up in a dispute over bonuses, when a total stranger (Colombian Francisco Maturana) was brought in at the eleventh hour in hopes that he could weave some magic and take T&T to the finals in South Africa later this year.
In this respect, the pressures Russell endured in 2009 should now work in his favour; he has already given exposure to a couple of young players who have responded with encouraging performances- defender Radanfah Abu Bakr and winger Hayden Tinto. Both young men acquitted themselves well in the midst of chaos and confusion, after Maturana was belatedly given the sack, and with all hope of qualification hanging onto a mathematical thread.
One expects the country will support Latas, but only for so long. He has been quoted as stating that he will be relying on the home-based players only at this time; a natural decision, given that those based in Europe and even the United States have developed a habit of showing interest only for the big tournaments. The situation is an opportunity for those nationals who will be campaigning in the TT Pro League when it opens later this month; a chance to prove that commitment and availability are more valuable than being a registered playing member of a club in some nether division of the English or Scottish leagues. The order of challenges is pre-ordained; there must be friendly matches to test the squad, and these could begin against regional opposition, but of necessity must step up to the level of Concacaf powerhouses like Costa Rica and the United States. After good preparation, nothing less than winning the Caribbean Championship and going on to a creditable performance at the Gold Cup would suffice. If he succeeds, Latapy would then have the support of the country to take us into qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals in 2014. If he can do that, we would be rid of the depressing and exasperating practice of importing strangers at the last moment in the hope of pulling off a miraculous qualification act. Clearly, it is far more than just his personal reputation at stake.