Shabazz talks women’s football and Pro League/Super League debate.

“Swords are drawn and the venom is clear!”

“For me, it is always about finding a way for our people to work together and not be so divisive. Football has become like the streets: swords are drawn and the only thing that has not happened is bloodshed because the venom is so clear and you can see people drawing lines of division between the Pro League and Super League.

“[…] So who is a Lasana Liburd to decide we should just pack it up?”

Wired868 talks to Jamaal Shabazz—a Women’s National Senior Team, Under-20 Team and Under-17 coach as well as co-founder and technical director of Pro League club Morvant Caledonia United—in the second and final part of our wide-ranging interview on local football in general and the women’s game in particular:

Wired868: What do you see as the positives and negatives for Trinidad and Tobago from the recent CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship?

Jamaal Shabazz:
I think the negative is that, had we been exposed to [practice] matches, especially at home, it would have prepared the team better—had we had the resources to have these matches.

I think the positive is that, out of this, the players recognise more as individuals what they bring to the table. I think the awareness of the [women’s] game is heightened throughout the country. Some of the rhetoric I used before the tournament about the squad made up of Sat Maharaj children, Sabga children, that type of rhetoric was a marketing strategy and I think it helped heighten the interest.

I think being able to keep touch with where the game is… I think we showed that we can compete. Now we have got to put more special emphasis on getting the intellect into the squad with regards to fitness training in the modern way, where a football trainer uses football training and not just exercise science.

We talked to the TTFA about bringing in somebody and I spoke to [former USA women’s coach] April Hendricks and she is willing to expose us to that. All the teams are using this method and not the old method of getting in twos and running. This is where we want to go.

While we are disappointed that we didn’t do better, I think you can see some water in the glass.

Wired868: We led in every match. What do you attribute our fast starts to?

I think we surprised our opponents with our speed off the mark and with balls played over the top. It is something we deliberately worked on—and the dead ball situations.

We saw success in the amount of times that [Dennecia] Prince and them were able to get behind the [opposing] defence but the support [from their teammates] was not there. We scored two goals from corners, which was what [assistant coach] Marlon Charles worked on.

Wired868: Did we make adjustments tactically once ahead or did we try to stay on the front foot?

Recognising that we wouldn’t be able to hold them out, we tried to get [our team] to be more compact and that was a big problem after 30 minutes to get our defence to come out and [push] up. So what started to happen was a big gap between the people up top and the back four, with the midfield having to cover that [space] and being put under more pressure.

[Ranae] Ward and Shenieka Paul and Kedie Johnson were reasonably fit—not all of our players were unfit. We had some players who took the training more seriously so to speak but a lot of pressure was placed on them [in the tournament]. When your forwards are not coming back in time and your defence is not coming to join, your midfield will be really, really overworked.

There was another factor we have got to consider when we are hosting tournaments and that is becoming accustomed to playing at home. Because the burden is psychological—the players all felt stressed. They all felt like they had people to please and, talking to them before the Costa Rica game, it came out that stress also took energy from them.

I watched every game in the tournament and I felt that, had we been a fitter team, we could have made the final four.

Wired868: We must have had some sort of plan to get them fit. What went wrong?

Well, we used football training as the fitness training. But I think what went wrong was [only] some girls produced the [necessary] level of intensity in training—because when you use small-sided games, there is this ability for some people to hide. [But] we continued with it because of the time.

I take responsibility for that because I wanted to use football training as the basis to develop the fitness. In doing so, the conventional running and other methods were bypassed and clearly you can see we came up short in that regard.

Wired868: Up next is the Cyprus Cup. Has your coaching of all three women’s teams impacted on their preparations?

(Editor’s Note: Citing financial reasons, a week after the interview, Trinidad and Tobago pulled out of the Cyprus Cup).

Shabazz: [TTFA technical director] Anton Corneal is more taking the lead role with the senior team from a coaching standing point. He has been with the seniors more than myself [due to my working with the youth teams and] I more or less take an assistant role to him in this team given how it has evolved.

I think that it is a matter still of using tournaments like those to help build the thing and help expose players. We have brought about seven of the U-20 players to join the senior squad. Really and truly, we only have about 10 senior players in the country [and] the rest of them are foreign-based. But Anton will take the lead role for that tournament and I will assist him.

Wired868: And do we have any practice games before that tournament?

The seniors have a year-round programme because they have contracted players.

Wired868: So that did not stop when [former head coach] Carolina Morace left?

It stopped for a few weeks but it continued under us. They train four days a week [and] they are doing strength training in the gym now. Again, more football-specific methods are being used in their preparation but, because of the smaller numbers, it is easier to monitor who is doing what.

I think it is also an important time to integrate younger players into the squad and build a squad for the future.

Going forward with the seniors, nothing is cast in stone. Maybe Anton will stay with them or maybe we will bring in a coach from among the names you discussed [like Richard Hood and Angus Eve]. But for now, both himself and myself are here holding it and trying to plot a pathway forward.

For me, it is never about exclusion. (He gives examples of his support for outspoken coaches like Terry Fenwick and Angus Eve when, according to Shabazz, they supposedly were not in favour at Pro League or TTFA level).

For me, it is always about finding a way for our people to work together and not be so divisive. Football has become like the streets: swords are drawn and the only thing that has not happened is bloodshed because the venom is so clear and you can see people drawing lines of division between the Pro League and Super League.

How does that affect sponsorship and fans looking on and even the players when you have to defend why there is a Pro League? You don’t get that kind of public spat in other professions. I think we need to create an avenue to deal with our difference of opinion in a more productive manner.

Wired868: With Pro League salaries as low as TT$3,000 a month and players not even receiving that at times, how can we justify continuing to operate in this manner when the clubs cannot keep their promises to the players?

Well I think what happened last year has happened for the first time. All the other years, the clubs kept their commitment to the players. What happened last season is, after three or four months into the year, the TT$50,000 that we’re depending on in a budget of TT$120,00 or TT$150,000 was out and you’re forced to improvise. So it is the first year [that happened] and I’ve heard from players who played [abroad] and were not paid too. Aubrey David was playing in Kazakhstan and was not paid for some months.

People have financial troubles. The challenge is for Pro League clubs to find a pathway forward to meet their bills and we are up for it. Some of us have said we are going to take on the challenge.

So who is a Lasana Liburd to decide we should just pack it up? We have made our investment and we are entitled to try and to dialogue with our players and our stakeholders and find a way forward instead of just throwing in the towel and saying the thing dead.

There is a social implication to the thing too. People only like to talk social thing when a gun is to their head. When Nikki Crosby was accosted, none of my players from the Beetham was there pelting bricks. None of the players from Beetham who play for Rangers or Jabloteh or any of those teams were there.

So that is a positive from a social side. There are people like Angus Eve and Derek King and so on who made their living from playing in the local leagues.

Wired868: But in the Super League, coaches like Ron La Forest are paid and some players get stipends. So if the Pro League folds, it doesn’t mean nobody will be able to earn a living from football. Won’t it just mean clubs will be able to be more honest with players about what they can and can’t do?

Yeah but who give you guys that right…?

Wired868: (Interrupts) To voice an opinion?

No, no, no, no, no, [the right] to suggest that we should just pack it up without a fight. I think we have earned the right—based on what we have put in collectively over the years—to try to find a way to make this work. And anybody who wants to deny me that right, I have to look at them and say ‘Wow!’

I can understand if people say ‘Why don’t you try this or try that?’ But I find a lot of the comments are just spurious remarks… It is a whole bunch of sour grapes. On two occasions, [T&T Super League president and FC Santa Rosa owner] Keith Look Loy tried to get into the Pro League. I think people want to play at the highest level but they don’t want to put out the cost.

I have always advocated that they find a way to bring in teams with less [resources] by letting them pay in instalments, right, but we all paid. Caledonia found TT$100,000 [to join the Pro League]. You know what is TT$100,000 in the hood?! (Laughs) And we paid that to join the League and we survived.

(Editor’s Note: The franchise fee to join the Pro League is now TT$450,000).

Wired868: So you believe the Pro League is still financially viable and makes commercial sense?

I think until the owners decide—when we look at every angle—that it is not possible. Look, we spoke in the last [Pro League] meeting about rebranding the name [of the League], about playing [all our games] in two venues. We are talking to television. Those are three big steps that we intend to talk about more. So we are looking for a way.

So away with those who feel we should just lie down and dead; my life has never been about lying down to dead.

Wired868: The Pro League made decisions to salvage its future before, like moving to community fields. I was there when Morvant played its first home game with about 2,000 fans. But then suddenly Caledonia were not playing there anymore. Can you understand why people, looking from the outside, would wonder if the Pro League is really serious about change?

Well, there is a reason for that. The League is not in charge of the fields in the communities, it is the politicians who are in charge of those fields. But you see in Morvant, there will be a difference. You will see! (Laughs) We will take the field. We are going to make it happen.

But the Pro League doesn’t own the fields and, whereas the Super League is content to play on fields that are not the best, credit to them. I have no problem with that. I am not going to bad-talk the Super League to advance the cause of the Pro League. That’s what I am talking about.

Why would somebody want to bad-talk the Pro League to help the Super League? The truth doesn’t need nothing to stand on, the truth does stand by itself. You know why they call it the naked truth?

Wired868: Tell me…

Truth was a man used to real dress up and he and Lie went to the sea to bathe; but Lie had old clothes. And Truth went out far and showing off on Lie. And Lie ran out the ocean and thief Truth’s clothes and gone. And when Truth come out and realise that Lie gone with his clothes, he said, as a form of protest, ‘I’m going naked!’ And that is how they come to talk about the naked Truth. (Laughs)

If your product good in the Super League, why you have to bad-talk the Pro League to advance your product? That come like coaches who bad-talk other coaches to advance their career; that’s not making sense.

The Super League has problems of their own and the Pro League coaches don’t get involved in that because we take a position that let we support them fellahs.

(He spoke at length about Pro League clubs loaning their players to Super League teams for them to ‘cut their teeth’).

The two products can survive and right now the owners are saying we will find a way to survive. Look at what we do [so far]. It is not Government funding alone carry this thing, Lasana. Government funding came in about six or seven years ago. We used to carry it and we will carry it.

Wired868: You said you wanted to raise other issues outside of women’s football…

For me, the divisiveness in the football was the main thing I wanted to raise—and not just in the Pro League and Super League. I think in the present economic climate we have got to get creative but there are still companies who are making profit and the business community should not turn their backs on football.

For me and Caledonia, the social side of the thing has always been a key factor. I lose some men to the gang violence but we win some battles too and we were able to see some men become something. For me, outside of the financial and economic side, there is a social responsibility that leagues like the Pro League and the Super League help with and I will encourage the business community to support teams from both leagues. There are things I can say about those brothers and them [in the Super League] but I don’t want to be like them.

Wired868: You think criticism of the Women’s Under-20 team and the national teams in general is unfair considering that Trinidad and Tobago has had a particular level within the Caribbean and even within CONCACAF?

I think fans have to be fans; people are entitled to criticise. [National Senior Team coach] Dennis Lawrence said something some time ago that is instructive. He said if your work has some direction and you strong enough to deal with the criticism, then that is what is important.

What is necessary, though, is the collective effort from the leadership. We have seen in football where one man and his dog took us to somewhere and how it was able to degenerate because of the lack of collective spirit and participation from more stakeholders. I think we need to strive to see more participation, even at the board level in the TTFA. Instead of people being a leak for Wired868 and trying to make a bacchanal, let your presence be felt in the board meeting and fight for your point like how we do in the Pro League.

(Editor’s Note: A detailed list of probing questions from Look Loy to TTFA president David John-Williams, general secretary Justin Latapy-George, referee’s department head Wayne Caesar and Technical Committee members Anton Corneal and Muhammad Isa was published in Wired868 last month. The questions were not answered by any of the recipients).

Wired868: You know, what one person calls transparency, somebody else calls a leak, snitching or bacchanal. [Former US president Richard] Nixon probably thought the same thing…

Well, again, it is what generates interest. But for me, I think the issues in football that divide us publicly a lot of times could be dealt with and addressed—even with your presence—with dialogue. What we want to bring to the public is not an industry that is embattled [but] people working together, facing challenges, having diverse opinions but trying to find a pathway forward. That might be wishful thinking but under the dictatorship it had that!

It had Wired under the dictatorship? How men suddenly get voice? (Laughs).

Wired868: You are not seriously questioning what I was doing while Jack Warner was there?

No, I don’t have to ask you. I had to call and ask you to temper down many times. For me, I will find a way to work with Pharaoh and I am not Moses. The time will come when you have to come against Pharaoh and I accept that. I know what it is to pick up the thing and fight. And I know when the time comes, you have to do what is necessary. But I also know the importance of dialogue and the collective approach.

When I see Derek and Angus and so on have to come out to defend having a Pro League, I mean, wow! Suppose the three ideas that [we are discussing] like rebranding the league, playing in two venues so your fixtures are credible and the TV thing, suppose that works? What would those people come and say after?

Wired868: Congrats?

Well, some people. Not some of the haters you’re starting to develop.

Wired868: (Laughs) I’m developing haters?

There are some men like Nigel something. Nigel Scott. Sometimes I want to get in a discussion but, when I start, everybody just backs off. To me, if there is a meaningful dialogue you can benefit.

I’ve seen [former stand-out national goalkeeper and San Juan Jabloteh coach] Earl Carter comment and he should come out more. There are times I want to take on Earl. You see, men who went to live in America, they feel they have all the answers. But when Earl come and coach at Jabloteh, what happened? What happened?

You could only catch the ball if you are on the field, you know. The experience I gained from running a club is invaluable.

Wired868: You spoke earlier about the developmental programme you helped put in place before. Are you confident that we are locating the talented players from every nook and cranny?

I can talk about the women and I think we have a nice pool from all over the country. Right now, we have at least nine players from Tobago; Tobago generally have the best athletes but they are not always as technical.

But if I had the last word, I would not enter that team in the CONCACAF Under-15 tournament this year and here’s why. Based on our [ranking], they will put us in a group with the big dogs and I cannot see that Under-14 team being ready to play the big dogs in July.

So if we know that and we know we don’t have a chance, let us continue to develop and let us go to the US and play opponents who are still a little better than them but (who will be) giving them a chance to be able to play. Those are some of the harsh decisions that we have to make in the football. Don’t go and demoralise the girls.
[…] If you lose 5-0, okay. All over the world, sometimes a team has a bad day and they get five or six goals. But when you start to get double figures, I think the administrators need to take stock and say maybe competition is something this group is not ready for.

Wired868: So how long do you think we should wait before we enter these girls in competition? An extra year?

Anton Corneal, may Allah bless his soul, has advocated that in April we should bring some Caribbean teams for us to play. To me, how we do there is the kind of indication [we need]. But right now, I think the staff collectively have enough knowledge about what obtains with the four or five top teams in CONCACAF to say if they use that same ranking system, we’re not ready.

If we are going to play our Caribbean peers, then fine. But if we go and play USA, Canada or Mexico…

Wired868: And what is our approach for the Women’s National Senior Team and their France 2019 World Cup campaign, which starts in May?

Well, as I said, Anton Corneal is the one taking the leading role. But, for me, I say let’s take this opportunity to build for the future.

We have Maylee Attin-Johnson who’s looking to start to coach and is not sure of her knees. We have Tasha St Louis, who is a key player on the squad but is 33 or 34. We have Dernelle Mascall, who is starting to coach and she’s pregnant. Ayanna Russell is starting to coach, Ahkeela Mollon is falling in love now with coaching more than playing.

[…] To me, the pool is not as flattering as we think. We are going on past understanding of those players. But if Karyn Forbes gets an injury and Janine Francois gets an injury, the team will look worrisome.

I think realistically we have to say let’s integrate U-20’s into this team; expose them at CONCACAF level and give our best. The final decision will be Anton Corneal’s but for sure I will fight for that to happen because I didn’t come in the women’s game yesterday.

I know when it is time to bring in players like Dennecia Prince, Kedie Johnson, Laurelle Theodore, Natisha John, K’lil Keshwar, Alexis Fortune and Amaya Ellis and integrate them with the seniors and get caps for them.

Wired868: Anything you want to say in summary?

Again, there are those who feel—and this is talking from a Pro League standpoint—that, to advance their cause, they must see the closure of the Pro League. I am saying as one of the owners of a club in the Pro League that we will try to find a way.

If it means retracing our steps, rebranding, trying new things, then we are open to that. But we are not going to lie down until we are dead.