“Nobody ever asked me what caused the goal to score.”
That was the startling revelation made by former Strike Squad goalkeeper Michael Maurice during an interview with Express Online on the 25th anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago’s (T&T) ill-fated world cup qualifier against the United States of America (USA) on November 19, 1989, at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain.
Requiring just a draw to make what would have been a historic appearance at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, T&T suffered a bitter 1-0 loss after US central defender, Paul Caligiuri, scored with a long-range effort in the 30th minute of the match.
“Nobody ever asked me what happened and no reporter ever interviewed me seeking to find out the facts, at least until now,” he said, adding that a particular reporter wrote an article which stated ‘it appeared that the sun was in Maurice’s eyes’ and everybody just ran with that, but the sun being in my eyes was not the reason why the goal scored.
He said he never made any statement or claimed that the sun was in his eyes and it was only in casual conversations with a few close friends that the question, “Maurice what really happened with that goal boy”, would be raised.
“The reason the goal scored, taking into consideration where the shot was taken from, was because we were trained in a massive zonal structure where whenever our opponents had possession of the ball everyone would filter over to cut off the passing zones, which I see current coach Stephen Hart doing as well.
“As a result, my view was obstructed by my defenders and their movements to structure the zones so I did not see when Caligiuri kicked the ball.”
Maurice said had he seen when the shot was taken, even though it passed through the sun a bit, he would have known if he needed to move a few steps to the left or to the right to effect the save, however, he stood in one spot and as it turned out, only saw the ball when he dived in an attempt to keep it out.
“So the sun is not the reason why the goal scored, it scored because I did not see when the shot was taken as my view was obstructed by my men.”
He said he distinctly remembers the mood in the camp prior to the game being quite positive despite several small issues that cropped up.
“We were confident because remember, a draw would have put us in so we literally started the game in the World Cup although at that time we did not look at it that way.”
One of the issues they had to contend with was the removal of team psychologist Shirley Rudd-Ottley from the technical staff a few days prior to the match.
“Although her name has not been mentioned by a lot of people, for reasons unknown, she played a tremendous role in transforming the Strike Squad and her presence had an impact on the entire team. It was the first time the players were exposed to the psychological aspects of their footballing career as she did individual as well as group sessions with us.”
He added that every evening in the training camp around dinner everyone would line up to have a session with her, so much so that the coach started a feel a bit left out.
“It was something new to us and we realised it was working as she would have us say certain things to help spur us on as a team. And in our away match to the US we were chanting in the tunnel while waiting to go out on the field, which surprise the Americans.
“Little things like that helped the team bond and helped us to stay together. No one on the team was a professional but we lived together a long time and that played a key role in our success as we understood each other very well,” Maurice continues, “Even up to today.”
Their usual stop at a church in Oropouche turned chaotic on match day when they were greeted by a huge crowd both inside and outside the church.
“A couple of us suggested to the manager that it may not be in the team’s interest to go in but he did not want to shift from the routine as he felt we were doing it all the time and reaping success so we should not shift from it now as it was our last game.
“So we pushed our way to enter the church and pushed to get back out.”
Maurice, who said that on their way to the stadium the highway was blocked by people who just wanted to get a glimpse of the team, added that some citizens did not fully comprehend the magnitude of what was happening.
“When we got to the stadium there were many disgruntled tickets holders who couldn’t get and who were saying if they couldn’t get in then we could not.
“Imagine people making such statements while we were on the verge of making history.
“Our bags got in first and then we had to push through a crowd to get into the stadium, which was something the US team did not have to go through as somehow they found security and cleared a path for the Americans, but not us,” Maurice said.
He said another thing that did not sit well with the team was the fact that the 46-seater bus they were using was taken away and given to the US team when they arrived while the Strike Squad was subjected to being transported by two maxi-taxis, one big and one small.
“Some of these incidents did have an impact on the team’s energy level and performance but they did not take away the confidence we had at the time.
“I’ve been around national teams from then to now both as a player and a coach and have witnessed unity among squads, even among the team that played at the 2006 World Cup, but nothing like the Strike Squad. We were really a unit.”
Maurice said the most immediate thought that ran through his mind when the US scored was that they would equalise.
“It was sad when they scored because Rudd had taught us to play out each game in our minds, prior to the start, to identify any mistakes we could possible make and when I had played that game out in my mind I did not see anywhere how the US could have score on me. So when that goal scored I was hurt but not worried.
He said confidence was still high in the dressing room at the halftime interval and no one was quarrelling with anyone.
“Coach Cummings addressed some of the little things we were not executing and told us to take it one stage at a time, play the football we know we could play and we will score, so there was never a mood of doubt or disbelief.
“I only began to worry when the game was nearing its end and we did not equalise and I recall thinking, Michael, we really going to lose the game.”
Maurice said at no point in time did he ever blame himself for the goal being scored but he admitted that a few of his teammates did.
“A few of them asked, but how that man could score on you from so far, however, that was not the general feeling of the entire team.”
He said it was tough dealing with the disappointment of the failed bid at a personal level.
“It was rough because it’s a World Cup you’re speaking about and you want your career to shoot off on a good note. Qualifying for the World Cup would have opened a lot of doors for us professionally and otherwise, so over the first few weeks and months it was a little difficult to deal with.
“You begin asking what’s next, but afterwards the reality that this is the life of a footballer steps in and you accept that you win some, you lose some, so you pick yourself up and persevere again.
‘I did not get to play in a World Cup but the good Lord blessed me with going to a World Cup as a coach,” Maurice said.
Maurice, currently a goalkeeping coach with the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA), said he wanted to play professional football so bad that he made sure his performances abroad were always at the highest level with the hope of catching the eye of a foreign coach or scout.
He said that when the opportunity did arrive for him to play in Costa Rica it was at the late stage in his life at the age of 33 and he wasn’t prepared to leave his career in the police service at that time.
“Had I gotten that offer ten years earlier I would have resigned my job and accepted it, however, it came a bit too late.”
He said he’s of the view that had T&T qualified for the 1990 World Cup local football would have been better off for it.
“The marketing strategy around the Strike Squad was such that all the players became household names. Everyone knew us and we were marketed properly so that we became somewhat of a brand, however, after that I don’t know if T&T dropped the baton because a lot of positive things were discontinued.
“I believe that a lot of things would have progressed had we qualified back then,” he said.
He said that after 25 years he still has the occasional trip down memory lane about the game.
“As a police officer some of your colleagues never allow you to forget but it’s all good. I don’t lose any sleep over it but the memory is always there.”
He said at present members of the Strike Squad travel to different communities to open leagues and people are still impressed with the quality of football they play even though all the players are way past 40.
“We still understand each other because the length of time we spent with each other had a lot to do with how we play and how confident we were with each other,” Maurice said.