“Look at people,” said one surprised off-duty match official, who turned up to witness last weekend’s Toyota Classic semi-final matches at the Ato Boldon Stadium, involving Pro League heavyweights Defence Force and DIRECTV W Connection against the Super League’s top two, Club Sando and Guaya United, which managed to attract close to 3000 fans.
Sando defeated Defence Force 3-2 and will meet W Connection, 3-0 winners over Guaya, in the Final from 8pm on Saturday at the very same Couva venue. But it was the semi-final round crowd that left many pleased.
“It’s a spectacular atmosphere! It could only do well for football,” said retired Trinidad and Tobago football icon, Leonson Lewis, who witnessed both semi-final matches.
“It’s a long-time I haven’t seen a crowd like this at a local game, and it really, really speaks well for the future of football,” he beamed, as the large crowd that has been a trademark of the Toyota-sponsored knock-out tournament roared in the background at the on-field action.
Trinidad and Tobago Senior Team head coach Stephan Hart, himself among the masses witnessing the matches, couldn’t conceal his pleasure with the size of the crowd which, at times, disrupted his view from the VIP box, as patrons searched for seats in the packed main stand.
“I’m delighted to see such tremendous support at a local game and the teams could only grow from that,” said Hart.
“Some of the things we’re seeing here …the energy from the crowd. It pushes the teams and that’s important,” the “Soca Warriors” boss pointed out.
While the recent surge in attendance has surprised many, particularly for the popular Toyota Classic, which matches the best Super League teams against the more established Pro League outfits, one man isn’t dropping his jaw at the tide of spectators flooding the gates.
In fact, TT Pro League CEO Dexter Skeene, while admitting that the competition has exceeded expectations, said that the large crowds are not coincidental.
“It has reinforced in our minds that strategically we are on target, we at the League and Toyota have always been saying that this brand extension the Toyota Classic, which pits the Pro League teams against the Super league teams was a novel idea and would develop into a major tournament. We also took the decision to take the games to the fields in the communities, which has built the following,” said Skeene.
The Pro league administrator, who also believes that the crowds are a key performance indicator, further stated, “The Pro League continues to improve as the best leagues in the world are judged on quality of football, competitiveness, viability and crowd support. So we are making strides with this growth in attendance.”
The chanting, screaming , drum beating spectators, many of whom have followed teams like Guaya United in their hundreds all the way to Point Fortin and Couva, seemed to echo Skeene’s sentiments as they lapped up every bit of action on the field and even challenged rival fans and players.
“If you don’t have spectators, (then what’s) the energy in the game in any sport? If you take that out of the game, it’s like a closed door concert … a waste of time! So I’m really encouraged to see the crowd,” said Kirth Regis, an off-duty fireman who attended the semi-final matches.
Lewis agreed, adding, “The crowd is the motivation on the day of the game, and sometimes you come to the stadium and see such good football with no crowd. It takes away from the game, [because] the crowd makes even the good football seem better.”
“All we have is a local team and we play a boss game. We proud of our team in Guaya,” shouted Clyde Phillips, one of several hundred green clad supporters who remained dancing on the field even after watching his team go down 3-0 against W Connection.
It is the type of support, spirit and sense of community that Pro League and local football administrators would love to see continue long after the final whistle in Saturday’s final when Club Sando faces W Connection.
The day of football’s deliverance may not yet be at hand, but judging from the support the Toyota Classic has been able to drum up, a revival is clearly on the way.
As local football and community teams continue to make disciples in the stands, administrators, fans and players cannot be faulted for believing that football’s second coming may be around the corner.