'Little Magician' faces long odds
Trinidad and Tobago national coach Russell Latapy received stark warning of his fallen stock when he took the "Soca Warriors" to Jamaica last weekend for a friendly fixture.
The 42-year-old Latapy, one of the most gifted players ever produced by the Caribbean, is so revered in Jamaica that, 11 years ago, Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) president Horace Burrell cancelled a game between the regional rivals and refunded fans after learning that "the Little Magician" would not be on the plane from Port of Spain.
Burrell is not as awestruck regarding Latapy's new role.
"Already, we have heard pronouncements by Anil Roberts, Minister of Sport in Trinidad and Tobago," said Burrell, at a pre-game press conference in Jamaica last week Friday, "that if his boys fail to perform creditably against Jamaica heads will roll… I have already told Roberts that he should start rolling heads from today because come Sunday it is a done deal."
Burrell, an affable fellow, may not have meant personal offence. Yet, Latapy cannot be accustomed to being the butt of anyone's joke.
Three weeks ago, Latapy was given a public ultimatum regarding his employment by Roberts–the former radio talk show host who also served as occasional stadium announcer during the player's heyday.
Latapy's salary was leaked to the press, too, in a move arguably designed by either the Sport Ministry or the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) to alienate him from local fans.
In response, Latapy's charges mustered a workmanlike but hardly inspiring 1-0 loss at the National Stadium in Kingston.
There is an inescapable feeling that Latapy is being ushered towards the door.
Sir Elton John, chairman of English club Watford, famously bid farewell to his coaches over a bottle of wine at his home.
The TTFF, steered by the ageless and all-powerful special adviser Jack Warner, tend to prefer public humiliation and are nothing if not creative in such matters.
Yet, their methods of dismissal do not necessarily mean they are wrong to seek a change–if that is indeed the reason behind the humiliation of their most influential employee.
Eighteen months into the job, Latapy has not shored up his position and is short of allies on and off the pitch.
A reluctance to communicate with the public was highlighted by one farcical scenario when Latapy refused to provide the media with names of the 29 players chosen for his first training squad this year.
Latapy claimed, at the start of his term, that the Warriors perform better on foreign turf but showed little inclination to address this incongruity. His first competitive outing was switched from Port of Spain to Bacolet and 15 months elapsed before he led out his team in the twin island republic when not mandated by FIFA to do so.
The national team played just two from ten friendlies at home since Latapy took up the mantle—a 4-1 win over Antigua and 3-1 loss to Jamaica.
In competitive games, Latapy has one win and a draw from seven outings with seven goals scored and 17 conceded and the Warriors slid from a world ranking of 75th to 97th under his watch.
Latapy's relationship with the TTFF was strained throughout his playing career as he either quit or was blacklisted on five occasions, and did not play an entire World Cup campaign since the 1994 qualifiers.
And although Latapy steered clear of the 2006 World Cup bonus dispute, Warner did not offer a ringing endorsement on his appointment.
"You can never have total confidence," said Warner, in April 2009. "(…) We shall take it from match to match and see what happens."
Latapy first requested Trinidad and Tobago's most prestigious coaching position in 2005 with the hope of replacing Bertille St Clair–the TTFF chose Leo Beenhakker instead. But when he did get the job, four years later, he had not completed a coaching course of any kind since 1999.
Latapy completed the UEFA 'A' Diploma in June 2009 but it is well short of the prestigious year-long UEFA Pro Licence course, which is a pre-requisite in Europe's top leagues and requires 240 hours of study.
In contrast, he picked up four coaching certificates in Scotland between March and June in 1999—a Basic Licence; Practical Component; Early Touches; and Goalkeeping certificates—and took ten years to further his education, while his role as assistant coach at Scottish club Falkirk is understood to have included little hands-on work with any of their competitive teams.
Latapy's resume suggests a coach at the start of his learning curve and his knowledge of the local squad yielded little fruit thus far.
In seven 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Latapy could not coax a goal from either Jason Scotland or Kenwyne Jones and eventually dropped the former and benched the latter, while solitary items from Cornell Glen, Carlos Edwards and Collin Samuel was the sum total of his foreign talent.
Samuel, incidentally, came off the bench to score in Latapy's first outing, which was a 3-2 loss to Costa Rica, but has not been recalled since.
There was no place either for gifted 21-year-old Belgium-based midfielder Khaleem Hyland. Hyland's brother, Kwasi, was murdered in the build-up to the Costa Rica qualifier, but Latapy claimed that the tragedy was not the reason he did not play.
Hyland was never selected again.
At the start of the year, Latapy declared that he would utilise local talent and asked T&T Pro League clubs to release their best players for twice weekly sessions–a regular strategy by local national coaches, although one not known to be deployed by any other country with a professional league.
However, crushing defeats to Jamaica (3-1) and Panama (3-0) in August and September, respectively, followed by threats from Warner and Roberts prompted a rethink.
"I think it's a question of having more time to work with them to get them up to a certain standard," Latapy told the Express before he flew to Jamaica. "We weren't getting results… That is what prompted the return to invite some of the foreign players."
Was it an admission that his weekly sessions failed? Or does Trinidad and Tobago lack the talent to compete at present? The truth probably lies in between.
It is not all Latapy's fault. But he has done little thus far to suggest that he has the answer.
After the home defeat to Jamaica, Latapy conceded in the post-game press conference that he was outfoxed.
"Jamaica (are) very organised and gave us a different proposition because they played a 3-5-2 system," said Latapy. "Normally the teams we play use a 4-4-2 and this fits right into the way we play. We have to be able to adjust defensively to any system and we were not able to do that tonight."
Better coaches than Latapy have found it impossible to motivate their players once their own tenures were in question—Sir Alex Ferguson's prior proposed retirement from Manchester United and Sven Goran Eriksson's declared departure date from Lazio led to barren seasons.
It would take an extraordinary improvement to keep Latapy at the helm beyond next month's Digicel Caribbean Cup in Martinique. Warner is not known for sympathy in such affairs.