MIRACLE AT ARG
God loves everyone, despite the local saying that God is a Trini. On Tuesday night, Trinidad and Tobago's senior national football team joint head coach Hutson Charles looked to God, expecting a miracle.
"We need ah miracle. We hoping that Haiti win the thing outright, so that it will not go down to goal-difference. We hoping that Haiti come out and play the football that they can play and win this group."
Just under two hours later, Charles and his footballers were celebrating Haiti's 1-0 triumph over the hosts Antigua-Barbuda, as if T&T had won the Caribbean Cup themselves.
T&T's 2-1 win over the Dominican Republic coupled with the Haiti result, qualified Trinidad and Tobago (four points) for the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and also put them through to the semi-finals of this tournament as Group A runners-up to Haiti (seven points)
"We got the miracle!" Charles shouted.
There was a great roar of unbridled joy among the Soca Warriors at the final whistle after Haiti won. Carnival-type celebrations broke out. Joint head coach Jamaal Shabazz hugged Charles. Joevin Jones embraced Shabazz and Charles, like long-lost friends.
One wouldn't normally see a bunch of Trini men hugging up each other as much as the T&T team did. But such was the joy. At least one player, maybe Keyon Edwards, began wining in the stands.
Shabazz, Charles and assistant coach Derek King had done what both accomplished Colombian coach Franciso Maturana and local great ex-player Russell Latapy had failed to do before them — qualify for the Gold Cup with a locally-based squad.
Theodore "Tappa" Whitmore and his Brazilian technical staff were last night struggling to do the same with Jamaica. All of Tuesday's starters for T&T - except former Joe Public central defender Carlyle Mitchell, who plays in the second tier of USA MLS football – ply their trade in the local Digicel Pro League.
Trinidad and Tobago have not qualified for the region's top football competition-the Gold Cup— since 2007 when they did so under Dutchman Wim Rijsbergen. Since then, T&T have missed out on the 2009 and 2011 tournaments, eliminated both times by Grenada.
Throughout Caribbean qualifying, coach Charles preached the importance of Gold Cup qualification to the development of T&T's football, since it would allow players to rub shoulders with the great Mexican teams, and see how far they have to go to reach the higher level of Costa Rica and the United States.
It is hoped that having now qualified for a Gold Cup after five years, local football will lift itself to another level. Further, management hopes that by reaching the last four here, the Soca warriors will lift themselves further and go on to win the Caribbean Cup.
But Charles admitted that there is work to be done.
"We have to instill a little more discipline in our football. We have to get them fellas to focus a little more on the play," Charles said. "At times it was erratic. We just need to get them fellas to focus and concentrate a little more."
Charles believes in building step by step. The Strike Squad of 1989, on which he played, was not as good at the start as it was in its prime and his former teammate Kerry Jamerson was not initially the good player he was by the end of the campaign. Charles wants the same for the current bunch.
"We need to get more funding, we need to work, we need to play more games, " the T&T head coach declared.
"Trinidad and Tobago need to play catch-up now. The other teams seem to be a step ahead of us. We need to get back to what we know we can do."
Once considered a "sweat side," in the past couple of months, the Dominican Republic have beaten Suriname, Barbados, Antigua-Barbuda and several other Caribbean countries handsomely.
Fuelled by the exposure of their players overseas, the DR won two rounds of Caribbean Cup qualifying and have shot up the FIFA rankings. They also reached the second round of World Cup qualifying where they lost 3-2 away in El Salvador and 2-1 to the same team when playing at home.
Guyana and Antigua-Barbuda, also reached further in World Cup qualifying than T&T, 2006 FIFA World Cup finalists.
Charles said all the Caribbean teams are improving, as seen by the closeness of Group A, where Antigua-Barbuda beat T&T 2-0 and Haiti only came back to edge the DR 2-1.
"I want to congratulate the Dominican Republic team because right throughout the tournament they played at a very high standard and it could be seen in the game against us. We could have taken it, they could have taken it. All congratulations to the Caribbean teams, they have been improving," Charles said.