Tue, Jun

WHEN Marvin Andrews says he is gearing up for the two biggest games of his life, he isn’t talking about the double-header with Celtic.

Twice in the space of four days, the Rangers centre-half will risk his patched up left knee, not to mention deep-vein thrombosis, for the Trinidad and Tobago cause as they meet Bahrain over two legs for the privilege of unearthing one of the few remaining invites to the World Cup finals for the first time.

He will be cruising out to the Caribbean tomorrow to prepare for Saturday’s first leg in Port-of-Spain while his club team-mates preoccupy themselves with the small matter of Parkhead in midweek.

For most mortal footballers, the spoils of a place in Germany are little more than the ultimate vehicle for personal and professional pride, a chance to make them feel good about themselves and their nation before the eyes of the world.

For Andrews, it is something altogether more primordial. Namely, an epic duel with the Devil himself to reach into the souls of each and every one of the drugged-up teenage criminals creating havoc across Trinidad and Tobago. You try telling the big man he is being overly melodramatic.

Andrews was but a 12-year-old boy in 1989, the only other occasion on which the island community has come re-motely close to qualifying, sending the home crowd hysterical when they lost at home to the USA when only a draw was required to make it to Italy. He pinpoints that day, and the gut-wrenching setback to national morale as a year zero in the decline in social standards which now sees one murder a day in a country with a population of barely 1.2 million. This particular “Soca Warrior” is on a one-man crusade.

“Right now all I’m concentrating on is trying to help my country get to the 2006 World Cup finals,” Andrews said. “Words really cannot express what it would mean for Trinidad to qualify. The closest we have come was in 1989 when we needed one point to qualify and we lost 1-0 to the USA.

“After that everything went downhill – the football, everything. Now this is the closest we have come to actually taking the country to the World Cup . It’s going to be a historic day for Trinidad once we get to that Promised Land.

“To take the country to a World Cup would change a lot of things in the country,” he added. “The crime rate is really high – we are talking drugs, killing, murdering, kidnapping – the lot. That’s how bad it is getting. So we will try to help by taking the country to the World Cup.

“If we do, I don’t think it will change the crime rate completely but it can hopefully inspire a lot of younger boys who are actually committing the crimes at the moment,” Andrews’ sermon continued. “Hopefully we will inspire them to change their lives and change the lives of other people. I try to be a role model to the young kids because they are the future. But they are the people the Devil is targeting at this moment.”

The heavens were certainly not smiling quite so favourably on the Trinidadians 18 months ago, when they proved vulnerable even to Berti Vogts’ Scotland in a 4-1 victory at Easter Road. Few present that day would have predicted Andrews – and Scottish-based team-mates Russell Latapy, Collin Samuel, Jason Scotland and Kelvin Jack – would still be in with an earthly of gracing Germany this summer.

After finishing fourth in the Concacaf section, no wonder the locals are getting excitable. “It will be a complete sell-out,” Andrews said.

“Our last game was a sell-out against Mexico and its going to be even worse this time . People are going to be flooding the place looking for tickets. The stadium only holds 30,000, so people will be watching on every telly – the whole of Trinidad will be dressed in red come November 12. But I wouldn’t say I am feeling the pressure. I feel more excited than under pressure.”

The turnaround began with a conjuring trick by wily Concacaf supremo – and Trinidadian version of Lennart Johansson – Jack Warner, in convincing Dwight Yorke, now playing his club football in Australia, and Latapy, revelling in his Indian summer at Falkirk, to end their international exile.

“At this moment Dwight Yorke is captain,” Andrews said. “Having him back has given the country a massive lift. The fact he and Russell Latapy have come back has definitely increased the crowds.

“Russell is a legend in Trinidad and everybody wants to come out and see him play. I think they had personal reasons for retiring. I don’t know what happened between them and the Trinidad FA but they just came out one day and announced they were going to call it a day. But they have sorted everything out, and they are back playing which I am so happy about.”

As well as plunging the country into 15 years of torpor, that last- day setback in 1989 also planted a seed in the 12-year-old Andrews’ brain, as he sat in the small town of San Juan pressed in front of the family TV with his red T-shirt on. He finally cast aside dreams of being a cricketer like Michael Holding, but held on to his aspiration of becoming a professional footballer.

“I always believed we could go to the World Cup,” Andrews said. “That has been my dream from the day in 1989 when I sat and watched the telly and saw my country lose 1-0. I vowed then, that one day I want to be there. I have held on to that dream, and that dream could become a reality in a couple of weeks’ time. I believe in God and it has taken me, and the country, to where we are now.”

For the record, Andrews is not counting himself out of the month’s second Old Firm game, on the 19th, despite a seven-hour-flight back from Bahrain which even he says “on a normal human basis” is “pretty much impossible”.

Where God places him, Trinidad and veteran Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker come June next year is equally uncertain.