The Trinidad and Tobago National Under-23 Team breathed a sigh of relief today as their Suriname counterparts withdrew from the Caribbean preliminary round of the 2016 Olympic qualifying campaign, which kicks off on Wednesday June 24 in Puerto Rico.
The Caribbean Football Union (CFU) announced that Suriname, who were due to face the “Soca Warriors” at 5.30 pm on Wednesday, are out due to visa issues.
The Warriors will now play their opening competitive match at 8 pm on Friday June 26 against St Vincent and the Grenadines, which spares them from the embarrassment with barely half of their squad available.
Twelve Trinidad and Tobago footballers left for Puerto Rico yesterday to represent their country in the Olympic qualifying series. But only eleven got there.
Muhammad confirmed that Central FC attacker Nathaniel Garcia got as far as Panama before being turned back due to an improper visa. Garcia allegedly has a student visa that is no longer valid since he quit university last year and joined local Pro League club, Central FC.
“There was a possibility that he would have gotten in,” Muhammad told Wired868.
The versatile attacker’s failure to get to Puerto Rico means that national coach Zoran Vranes would have had just 11 players to choose from for Trinidad and Tobago’s opener against Suriname on Wednesday.
The farcical situation is the result of late visa applications from the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) coupled with a technical glitch that handicapped the United States Embassy’s visa section.
Muhammad explained that the “Soca Warriors” applied for visas just before they entered a live-in camp on June 16.
“We had applied within the regular timeframes,” said Muhammad.
However, a consular message on the Embassy’s website stated that they experienced “technical problems” since May 26, which are not restricted to Trinidad and Tobago.
“The Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our overseas passport and visa systems,” stated the US Embassy’s website. “This issue is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category…
“Passport applications accepted overseas or after May 26, 2015 are affected by this delay. If you applied for a U.S. passport overseas during this time frame and have travel plans within the next 10 business days, please consider requesting an emergency passport…”
The problem proved disastrous to the National Under-23 Team.
There were only four visa holders within Vranes’ final squad, who were midfielders Neveal Hackshaw and Jelani Felix, goalkeeper Montell Joseph and United States-based forward Rundell Winchester had visas.
Garcia, of course, tried to travel with an invalid student visa.
United States-based university players Adrian Welch, Xavier Rajpaul, Ricardo John and Leland Archer as well as the W Connection and Naparima College duo of Martieon Watson and Jabari Mitchell, who were all dropped from the squad at various points, were recalled by the Warriors solely because they already held visas.
And former National Under-20 midfielder Duane Muckette, who is on trial with New York Cosmos and was initially due to miss the preliminary round, was persuaded to return and help the squad.
Muhammad suggested that the Warriors were ready to play with a bare 11, even though there were just two defenders in the squad.
“Any defensive midfielder can also play in defence,” said Muhammad. “We have Neveal Hackshaw and Jelani Felix who can play left back. So that is not too much of an issue.”
Thankfully, that is now unnecessary.
Another eight players will know tomorrow whether they have been granted visas. And, if so, they will leave for Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
They are: goalkeeper Aaron Enill, defender Jesus Perez, utility players Josiah Trimmingham, Aikim Andrews and Alvin Jones, midfielders Jomal Williams and Kadeem Corbin and forward Dwight Quintero.
Subject to availability, their flights will touch down in Puerto Rico at either 3.15 pm or 4.17 pm.
Muhammad said Trinidad and Tobago were clearly not the only participants affected by visa issues. And, despite having an 11-man squad on the eve of a qualifying tournament, the manager congratulated his staff and players for their efforts in making the competition.
“I am very proud of the staff,” Muhammad told Wired868, “that, in light of the circumstances, we were able to put together a strong team to compete by Wednesday.
“That goes to show the depth of our squad. I am proud of the players too for making themselves available, especially Muckette.”
National Under-23 right back Shannon Gomez told Wired868 that he went to the US Embassy this morning only to realise he did not have an appointment.
However, Muhammad said Gomez must have misunderstood the precise details of his dilemma, since the W Connection player was allegedly issued a green card that never reached him due to a family issue. As such, he required a temporary travel document called a “boarding foil” rather than a visa.
“We told him to speak with someone for a boarding foil,” said Muhammad. “I gave him a letter saying he was part of the national team and so on and asking for them to assist him. That’s what he went there for and they told him they cannot give it to him just like that.
“We had told him to sort this situation out for quite some time…”
The eight players were accompanied to the Embassy by Under-23 goalkeeper coach Nigel Neverson, who also needed a visa.
They should all arrive in time to face St Vincent and the Grenadines on June 26 and then Puerto Rico on June 28. Only the group winner will advance to the next Caribbean qualifying round for the Olympic Games in August.
The Warriors are not out of the woods yet.
Tournament rules mandate that each team must select three goalkeepers. However, the Under-23s are only expected to have Joseph and Enill in Puerto Rico this week as Central FC custodian Javon Sample was denied a visa today.
“We will discuss that with (CFU officials) tomorrow morning at 11 am,” said Muhammad. “We will ask if that (rule about goalkeepers) can be amended or what their position is on that at this stage.”
It would be controversial if the CFU imposed sanctions on the Warriors for not selecting three goalkeepers in light of the visa complications.
It was the CFU, after all, that decided to stage a Caribbean competition on the one island in the region which requires travel visas.
(Trinidad and Tobago Under-23 Team in Puerto Rico)
Goalkeepers: Montell Joseph (Unattached);
Defenders: Leland Archer (College of Charleston—USA), Martieon Watson (W Connection);
Midfielders: Neveal Hackshaw (North East Stars), Jelani Felix (Defence Force), Duane Muckette (North East Stars), Jabari Mitchell (W Connection), Xavier Rajpaul (College of Charleston—USA);
Forwards: Rundell Winchester (Portland Timbers 2—USA), Ricardo John (Virginia Tech—USA), Adrian Welch (St John’s University—USA).
Staff: Zoran Vranes (coach), David Muhammad (manager), Gilbert Bateau (assistant coach/trainer), Michael Taylor (physio), Esmond O’ Brien (equipment manager).
(Remaining squad members still in Trinidad)
Goalkeeper: Aaron Enill (San Juan Jabloteh);
Defenders: Alvin Jones (W Connection), Jesus Perez (North East Stars), Josiah Trimmingham (San Juan Jabloteh);
Midfielders: Jomal Williams, Aikim Andrews (both W Connection), Nathaniel Garcia (Central FC), Kadeem Corbin (St Ann’s Rangers);
Forward: Dwight Quintero.
Staff: Nigel Neverson (goalkeeper coach).