AFTER weeks of campaigning, aided by a host of sterling personal endorsements, long-time football administrator, referee instructor and retired teacher, Merere Gonzales, has been elected president of the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL).
Gonzales, who also remains SSFL East Zone chairman, secured 56 votes and a comprehensive victory during a virtual count at the SSFL's annual general meeting, on Thursday morning.
He received twice the number of votes as his two challengers, Derek West and the incumbent Phillip Fraser (28 apiece); both of whom Gonzales applauded for their contributions to schools' football in a subsequent interview with Newsday.
The post of first vice-president, the only other contested, was won by Essiel Seecharan with 64 votes to Tevon La Rose's 38 votes.
The other "national officers" to serve the 2021-2023 term are Syandene Blackman-Walsh (second vice-president), Laurence Seepersad (assistant secretary–operations), Gerald Elliot (assistant secretary/treasurer–administration) and Azaad Mohammed-Khan (general secretary/treasurer).
A number of coaches and teachers gave Gonzales solid backing throughout the campaign, describing him as "accountable" and "dependable," with many having known him for much of his 30-plus years with the SSFL, working as secretary, assistant secretary, vice-chairman and chairman.
The 60-year-old told Newsday while his extensive experience at the administrative, education, committee and officiating levels of football may have worked in his favour, it was his decision to take the campaign seriously and the support he received that sealed the win. He said, "I'm a person who says, 'if I can't do it very good or excellent, I will not do it.' So if I get into something, I will give it my very best and God will bless the rest."
Gonzales said previous SSFL presidents, like Fraser, William Wallace, Anthony Creed and others, produced "quality work," and he wanted to be ready to add value.
"These are guys I've worked with for a number of years, and it's reached the point where I said, 'listen, I feel I have what it takes,' not that I couldn't have done it before because I was being encouraged to go before but I told myself I didn't think I was ready.
"Now I feel that I am in a prime position, an advantageous position, to take take this baton with the executive, with the membership, run another leg, run a brighter leg, so that the SSFL will – the image and status of it – will be shining brightly."
Gonzales retired from teaching at Mt Hope Secondary in 2017, where he was a physical education teacher since 1988.
During his time there, he became involved in other sports, like swimming, netball, rugby, hockey, cricket and basketball. He serves basketball in the East Zone as secretary.
"The core of my involvement in sport and more specifically football," Gonzales said, "is to assist the younger ones and more so the student-athlete because as a teacher, all I would have done in my teaching profession has been for the benefit of the students."
He is undoubtedly one of the most traveled football officials in T&T, having first been nominated by the local governing body's refereeing committee in 1994 as a FIFA international referee. Now he is a member of the FIFA Referee Committee for Concacaf and works both as an instructor and referee inspector.
"I got into refereeing in 1988 and two years after, I was considered for the first role as a FIFA linesman as it was then known but (that didn't materialise) because I needed to at least reach grade A, and at the point in time I was a grade B."
Gonzales said he was happy in the end because, his close friend, Douglas James, a former teacher at Malick Secondary, was appointed instead.
James, now 71, is the first official from the Caribbean to be appointed to serve at a men's World Cup, representing T&T and the region at 1994 World Cup in the US, officiating as first assistant twice and second assistant referee twice in four matches.
Gonzales went on to officiate at a number of international and club football tournaments, most notably at the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia and the 1998 World Cup in France. Later on, he became a Concacaf and FIFA fitness instructor from 2002 and a FIFA referee's technical instructor a year later, before serving in various capacities for World Cup tournaments at all various levels.
The new SSFL's president said regardless of the status of football and sports in general by September, he will do all he can to ensure that young footballers do not become demotivated and walk away from the sport. "We are planning for a (schools') league in September but we have to be realistic." He suggested the hosting a scaled-down version of the game, like Futsal, for example.