Germany 2006 will be a whirl of firsts for midfielder Chris Birchall. The first white player to line up for Trinidad and Tobago in the tiny Caribbean country's first finals, English-born 'Chrissy' will also be the first-ever Port Vale player to kick a ball at a FIFA World Cup™.
Named in Leo Beenhakker's provisional finals squad on 13 April, Birchall is virtually assured a spot in Germany this June. Having long since given up on dreams of playing for the country of his birth, England, the 21-year-old midfielder has somehow found his way on to the world's biggest stage with Trinidad and Tobago. And in a dramatic twist, he will get the chance to play against his beloved England this summer when the two sides meet in Group B.
Birchall's story is not the most straightforward or conventional but, as they say in his native land, it is a funny old game. In the warm-up before a Port Vale match against Wrexham in April last year, Birchall, who plays in the third tier of the English league pyramid, was approached by towering opposition centre-back Dennis Lawrence. Upon being asked to confirm his mother's birthplace, the winger's hesitant response to the unusual query was "Port of Spain, Trinidad". Big Dennis flashed a smile, walked away, and the rest is history.
After the match, the T&T centre-back put Birchall in touch with his country's football authorities and before long he found himself on a plane for Central America and FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Mexico – a long way from home in all senses for this softly-spoken Staffordshire native.
Stories of a local lad flying the flag for Port Vale in the international arena immediately saturated the newspaper columns back home. Only once had the club – who enjoy the support of pop star Robbie Williams – been able to claim a FIFA World Cup player as one of their own. And when Robbie Earle lined up for Jamaica at France 98, he had already long made the move from Vale Park to Wimbledon.
Happily Birchall's arrival in the T&T squad coincided with the hiring of Leo Beenhakker as head coach, in place of the struggling Bertille St Clair. The former Real Madrid, Ajax and Netherlands coach saw a spark in the young Englishman and immediately made him a first-team regular in a move that helped turn around the team's poor start to the final qualifying round in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone.
Though a number of the Soca Warriors are British-born – including goalkeeper Shaka Hislop – Birchall stands out for his fair hair and pale complexion. But with eight straight starts and two goals, notably a 30-yard stunner in the decisive play-off against Bahrain, Birchall has settled quickly into the fold.
Just one of the Warriors
Despite some initial worries, Birchall was accepted with open arms. "That was one of the main things I was worried about, but everything has been fine," said Birchall, whose Trinidad-born mother Jenny was flown out as a guest of honour by the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) for a qualifier against Mexico. "Not only was I a white guy playing for Trinidad and Tobago but I was also from England – so that is why it has been so great the way I have been accepted. I have been to the local nightclubs and met a lot of the local people."
And when prodded about the prospect of playing in front of mammoth crowds against some of the planet's finest players – including England – at the finals, Birchall is simply moved by the enormity of it all. "I still can't believe it," said the winger, who plays in a more central role for Trinidad. "Me playing on the biggest stage against the best players in the world.
"In particular, I can't wait for the England game. I still want England to do well – if they don't knock us out. I think they have one of the best squads they have ever had and with the players they've got they could go far."
With the help of veteran coach Beenhakker, Birchall is keen on his adoptive country's chances of getting out of a tough Group B, alongside the English, Sweden and Paraguay. "I don't think anyone expected us to qualify in the first place," Birchall said.
"I think even the lads were a bit surprised but Beenhakker is not the kind of guy who is going to go anywhere just to make up the numbers. He has brought a lot of confidence to the team, so who knows? Nine times out of ten you would expect England and Sweden to get through but if we can get a point from England or Sweden then who knows what will happen?"
The energetic youngster will be expected to do the ball-winning work behind the experienced trio of Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy and Stern John when the finals kick off on 9 June. But whatever his role, the giant arenas of Germany and the unrivalled atmosphere of a FIFA World Cup promise an experience to savour for Staffordshire's favourite Soca Warrior.