“You know how this is going to turn out, don’t ya?” The question seemed to hang in the air. It is a scene from the critically-acclaimed motion picture “No country for old men”. Anton Chigurh, an intense contract killer, posed the query to his target, Llewelyn Moss, and, for added effect, one of Chigurh’s bloody victims is in the room. “No,” Moss replied, after a long pause.
“I think you do,” Chigurh retorted. There is that feeling of redundancy too when Trinidad and Tobago kick start each World Cup qualifying campaign. We seem to be doomed even before the opening whistle. The skepticism is not totally without merit either. A tiny nation with an undeveloped domestic set-up and more pannists than registered footballers. It would be foolhardy to take the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States for granted or, for that matter, even the supposedly-lesser lights of Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and Jamaica.
The odds are stacked against us from the time the fixtures are drawn up. But that is what makes our successes—moderate or otherwise—so special. If we all pool resources, if the players find the right chemistry, and if we share a common dream, then maybe, just maybe, fate would smile on us. Trinidad and Tobago cannot barge through the door to a World Cup finals as Brazil or Germany are expected to. We can only do the right things and hope for that slice of fortune to make the difference.
It happened in 2005 when Stern John scored that decisive double against Mexico to take us to the Playoffs. Dennis Lawrence, all six-foot seven of him, had never scored a header in the red, black and white strip. Not until the magical evening in Bahrain. Hutson Charles had two such moments in the 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign, while Kerry Jamerson’s thunderbolt against Guatemala took the “Strike Squad” to the brink of a spot in Italy.
Leo Beenhakker’s “Soca Warriors” and Everald “Gally” Cummings’ “Strike Squad” earned that luck. There was less to choose between Cummings and Dutchman Leo Beenhakker than one might think.
Both coaches poured healthy portions of self-belief, discipline, harmony and desire in their squads. They were stubborn, charismatic men who were able to get their dressing rooms and then a nation to believe in the success of their philosophy. But what do we make of their Colombian successor, Francisco Maturana? It would be foolhardy to mock his coaching know-how. Maturana, a qualified dentist, created two Colombian World Cup teams that caught global attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s and introduced the wider public to exotic figures like silky playmaker Carlos Valderrama, enigmatic striker Faustino Asprilla and an outrageously flashy goalkeeper, Rene Higuita. But it takes more than ability in a tracksuit to survive the political minefield that is Trinidad and Tobago’s football. And so, on June 25 at the Centre of Excellence in Macoya, Maturana was shown the yellow card.
The Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF) suggested that the meeting between the national technical staff, the Pro League coaches and their own officials was “to ensure the release of players (from local clubs) for training and international matches without complication”. Their release was not worth the time it took to read it. It is ludicrous to suggest that the Warriors’ sluggish performance against a team of mostly part-time players had anything to do with whether local professional clubs exercised the right, as mandated by FIFA, to excuse their employees for duty within three days of an international fixture.
The notion was stupider still as the T&T Pro League went on break a full two weeks before the first qualifier, while the club supposedly least likely to cooperate, CLICO San Juan Jabloteh, did not have a single pick for either leg (It should be noted that Jabloteh have always stressed their willingness to release players for as many as two sessions a week throughout the year). T&TFF special adviser Jack Warner did not turn up at the Centre of Excellence’s Nelson Mandela Room to discuss training schedules for the year. Rather, Maturana’s competence was the topic of discussion and the two-time World Cup coach was subjected to a dressing down by men who have never coached off this island. Not that Maturana’s experience means he is always right or that the relative inexperience of the local coaches makes them habitually wrong. But, surely, the entire exercise could have been handled better.
Most offices have a suggestion box. Perhaps Warner should consider a similar way of gathering opinions without so humiliating a valuable employee. There is a precedent. Bertille St Clair was hauled before the same audience after Trinidad and Tobago scraped into the final 2006 CONCACAF qualifying group. He lasted three more qualifiers before the axe fell. Maturana has little room for error now. His vague, unconvincing responses sounded more like a bather grasping at straws than executing the breast stroke. His statement that the Pro League coaches were obliged to incorporate the local and US-based school boys he “spotted” into their programme rather than he being compelled to select the best professionals available was particularly laughable—granted, his words were delivered third hand via a translator and then the T&TFF media officer. In the same breath, Maturana asked the Pro League coaches to respect his choices despite his disdain for theirs.
For the record, his hazy picks included choosing then Jabloteh youth team goalkeeper Glenroy Samuel ahead of the club’s starting goalkeeper and 2007 MVP Cleon John, while W. Connection under-19 left back Akeem Adams won a national cap before he had even trained with his club’s reserve team. Several senior players have moaned publicly that the best squad was not being selected while his tinkering has allegedly unsettled the dressing room. The perceived influence of his assistant coach, Anton Corneal, is another source of disquiet. Maturana arrived as an insightful revolutionary. Now, he appears emasculated. Trinidad and Tobago’s football headquarters is no easy place for bold men. The chances for success were always slim. But with the various factions so divided—players, administrators, coaches and the government—it seems nigh impossible. Maturana must regain confidence quickly so as to get the most from his ideas. But time is against him and, more likely than not, he would be fired first. Unlike the 2006 campaign when Beenhakker inherited a settled pool of players from St Clair, the next boss must start from scratch with Guatemala, Cuba and the US waiting anxiously to test the newly-laid foundations.
And we all know how that is going to end, but we will pray for a miracle. Life can be unpredictable sometimes. So, too, sports. Right? In case you are wondering, Moss died in “No country for old men”, although not by the hand expected. Touché.