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The trials of Jan, Matthew and Aaron: How racism affected future of three T&T players

The following story—written by Wired868 managing director Lasana Liburd—was first published by the Trinidad Express on 2 December 2008 and chronicles the ambitions and racial barriers faced by Trinidad and Tobago players, Jan-Michael Williams, Matthew Bartholomew and Aaron Downing, as they tried to break into the European professional leagues:

“Williams, go back to Africa!”

The speaker was a seven-year-old boy in Ferencvaros’ colours—the Hungarian Second Division employers of Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams. It has been a regular taunt this season for Ferencvaros’ dark skinned players from their own supporters, let alone the opposition fans.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams during his stint with Ferencvaros. (Copyright Ferencvaros)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams during his stint with Ferencvaros.
(Copyright Ferencvaros)

The 24-year-old Williams is, of course, not from Africa but racists apparently like to keep things very simple.

“From the first time I arrived here in the summer to now,” Williams told the Trinidad Express, “fans, both ours and the opposing teams, have been abusing us racially. Whether it be verbally with monkeys noises or the ever so famous ‘go back to Africa’ chants and even with posters and signs but they can’t deter me from playing at my best.”

Williams must be grateful to be back on Trinidad soil at the moment although his challenge here, though less repulsive, is also demanding.

In 2006, Williams became the first goalkeeper to be adjudged the Pro League’s Most Valuable Player and was the country’s undisputed number one in the subsequent two year period, which included a Caribbean Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament.

But Williams has featured in just three of 25 matches under Trinidad and Tobago’s Colombia-born coach Francisco Maturana and managed only one outing, thus far, in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign—he kept a clean sheet in Trinidad and Tobago’s crucial 2-0 away win over Bermuda in June. He is desperate to win his place back.

Photo: Former and Trinidad and Tobago football coach Francisco Maturana. (Courtesy www.libero.pe)
Photo: Former and Trinidad and Tobago football coach Francisco Maturana.
(Courtesy www.libero.pe)

On November 19, 2008, Williams looked on from the stands as the “Soca Warriors” whipped Cuba 3-0 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium to advance to the final CONCACAF qualifying round. He hopes to be much closer to the action when World Cup qualifying action restarts and aims to make a significant step in the right direction at next month’s Caribbean Cup finals in Jamaica.

“I want to play in the (Caribbean) Cup and help get our regional supremacy going again,” said Williams, who picked up a silver medal at the 2007 Caribbean Cup edition. “I think I could have done better in the (2007) final and I want a chance to redeem myself.”

In the way of his international aspirations, at least in the short term, is a long standing rival, Marvin Phillip. Familiarity does not always breed contempt.

“When Marvin and (Clico San Juan Jabloteh’s) Daurance Williams are on or around the national team, I know I have to be at my best at all times,” he said. “It is a fierce competitive rivally but we have always remained good friends.”

The pair competed for the number one shirt in 2001 when Trinidad and Tobago staged the Under-17 World Cup and Phillips won the nod for the three group matches.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Marvin Phillip during his spell with W Connection.
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Marvin Phillip during his spell with W Connection.

At senior level, though, Williams benefitted from the stability of life southern giants, W. Connection, where he was understudy to Colombian Alejandro Figueroa while Phillip started for Starworld Strikers and then North East Stars but was punished for indiscipline at both clubs.

Ironically, as Williams packed his bags for Europe in 2007, Connection owner David J Williams—no relation—acquired Phillip, who had been released by North  East Stars, as his replacement.

This year, Phillip made his own press to be numero uno with successive clean sheets in his first six matches under Maturana while he is one away from tying Clayton Ince’s record of eight shut outs in a calendar year. It is a fillip of sorts for the Pro League that, while players previously became irreplaceable once they joined European clubs, the opposite has been true for Williams.

But then little has gone to play for Williams in Europe so far.

After impressing on trials at Sheffield United, he failed to land a work permit at the England Championship League club because of a lack of international appearances and was loaned to Belgian Third Division’s White Star Woluwe—a club partly owned by the English outfit. There he rejoined former Connection teammates and national youth players Aaron Downing and Matthew Bartholomew.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team winger Aaron Downing during his stint with Hungarian club, Ferencvaros.
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team winger Aaron Downing during his stint with Hungarian club, Ferencvaros.

White Star were on a hot run and preferred not to tinker with their first team so Williams spent much of his time at the sidelines. He got more than he bargained for off the field, though.

He remembered one night out in Belgium with Downing, Bartholomew and some white teammates when a sign in French a quick about-turn from a night club. When he asked his French-speaking colleagues about their abrupt exit, they explained that “blacks” were not allowed there.

The situation was repeated several times in Belgium.

“(Our teammates) were not apologetic about it because they didn’t think they had to be,” said Williams. “It is apparently a normal thing there. It is just understood that some club owners do not want blacks on their premises.”

Things got worse when, after again missing out on a British work permit, Williams was flown out to Hungary’s Ferencvaros where Sheffield again own a considerable stake. The club chairman, Terry Robinson, and coach, Bobby Davison—both English—brought in an influx of dark skinned players to challenge for promotion.

Trinidad and Tobago and Ivory Coast contributed three players each to Ferencvaros’ 32-man roster at the start of the season while there were also two Jamaicans and one Somalian. The foreigners hoped to benefit from the shorter, less complicated route to a European Union passport there as opposed to at countries like Britain.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team captain Matthew Bartholomew during his spell with Hungarian club, Ferencvaros.
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team captain Matthew Bartholomew during his spell with Hungarian club, Ferencvaros.

But many players quickly had second thoughts and, within months, had asked the club to be released from their contracts in disgust at the racist abuse.

Downing and Bartholomew, both 20-years-old and former national youth players, have no intention of returning to Hungary and made their positions clear to the club chairman. They are awaiting word on a possible move elsewhere in Europe.

Bartholomew spoke about his anxiety in escaping skinheads at one subway station as well as his shock at the racist banners and abuse dished out on match day. The former National Under-20 Team captain, who led a team that included Khaleem Hyland, Radanfah Abu Bakr, Lester Peltier and Carlyle Mitchell, always dreamed of playing professionally in Europe but he described his last game, a 1-1 draw away, as the worse experience of his life.

“Coming off the field, we had to pass between two sets of fans,” said Bartholomew, “and people started pelting glass bottles and spitting at us and jumping up and down like monkeys. And those were our fans!

“After that, I called Sheffield (United) and told them I couldn’t stay there. I had to go home.”

Ferencvaros go into the winter break atop their standings and in an excellent position for promotion to the top flight. Williams’ last outing was a 4-0 win away to Vecses and he was partnered in the first team by Jamaican midfielder Jason Morrison and Ivory Coast attacker Kourouma Lamine.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Khaleem Hyland (left) holds off former England striker Dean Ashton during an international friendly on 4 May 2008 in Port of Spain. Hyland has spent his last seven years as a professional player in Belgium.
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Khaleem Hyland (left) holds off former England striker Dean Ashton during an international friendly on 4 May 2008 in Port of Spain.
Hyland has spent his last seven years as a professional player in Belgium.

There were a few positive signs of late. Ferencvaros put up posters at their ground condemning racism while there have even been handshakes and autograph requests from some supporters.

“Some fans have spat at me and the other Caribbean players,” said Williams. “I have been doing well personally but I am afraid of what might happen if I have a bad game. But not all of the people here are racist and my black players and I are making some progress in changing minds.

“So it will be alright, I hope. But there are still those fans who are upset. One guy even shouted at me in English ‘white supremacy’ after a game.

“I honestly think more can and should be done by our team’s management department.”

Williams is safe from the ‘back to Africa’ chants at the moment as he attempts to get back into Maturana’s good books. A trip to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup is at the forefront of his mind these days.

Photo: LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena (centre) congratulates Central FC custodian Jan-Michael Williams, after their 1-1 2015 CONCACAF Champions League tie in August 2015. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena (centre) congratulates Central FC custodian Jan-Michael Williams, after their 1-1 2015 CONCACAF Champions League tie in August 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

Editor’s Note: This story was first published by the Trinidad Express newspaper on 2 December 2008.

Jan-Michael Williams remained with Ferencvaros until the end of the season and won the Hungarian league with the club. Now 31-years-old, he is the current Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team first choice goalkeeper and has represented his country 73 times with 23 clean sheets.

CONCACAF selected him among its top ten goalkeepers in 2013 and 2014. He trialled once since his Ferencvaros stint but never played for an overseas club again.

Photo: Matthew Bartholomew (left) shows off his skills to MC and comedienne Rachel Price during the talent category of the Mr Point Fortin competition in the 2009 Point Fortin Borough Day celebrations. (Copyright Newsday)
Photo: Matthew Bartholomew (left) shows off his skills to MC and comedienne Rachel Price during the talent category of the Mr Point Fortin competition in the 2009 Point Fortin Borough Day celebrations.
(Copyright Newsday)

Bartholomew quit Ferencvaros, just a month after this story. He rejoined W Connection and made two appearances for the Soca Warriors away to Chile and Belize in 2010—alongside the likes of Joevin Jones, Devorn Jorsling and Daneil Cyrus—under then head coach Russell Latapy.

However, his career floundered soon after as he took a lengthy break from the game, returned to represent Point Fortin Civic in the 2013/14 Pro League and then quit for good after an unsuccessful trial in Vietnam.

He is a former Mr Point Fortin and does some modelling. He turned 28 last Thursday.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team winger Aaron Downing does a welding job in this undated photograph.
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team winger Aaron Downing does a welding job in this undated photograph.

Aaron Downing, now 28, also quit Ferencvaros a month after this story was published, along with Bartholomew. He did not stay long with Connection, though, and quickly disappeared from the local top flight.

He is now believed to work as a handyman.

AboutLasana Liburd

Lasana Liburd
Lasana Liburd is the CEO and Editor at Wired868.com and a journalist with over 20 years experience at several Trinidad and Tobago and international publications including Play the Game, World Soccer, UK Guardian and the Trinidad Express.

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87 comments

  1. And then they want to tell you to forget over 400 years of slavery and move on. You all ain’t moving on, so why should we. Continue with your shit it only makes us stronger.

  2. unfortunately it still exist..got to feel sorry for them..just sad…and uneducated…

  3. Big up my boy Downing from d WC days. Pro footballer. Idiots will be idiots and they plentiful.

  4. never forgot this for my family yes..

  5. Good stuff, just as no Trinbagonian players currently in the English Premier League is a good indication of the truth of what Lasana Liburd says. But also racism is not a one-pointed activity directed at a continent, education or sophistication, it is about what the aggressor can find about you that makes you different from what he can tolerate. So “go back to Africa” means to remove yourself and your difference. These European names that we Caribbean European residents are saddled with kind of makes us ridiculous in our identification. In my case UK, but 50 miles out of London that internationalist sophistication we hope to have portrayed on the streets easily falls to a racial reality that no amount of European names or part ancestry can obscure.

  6. Sorry for the typos auto correct. I meant the players could educate the young kids about themselves, their background and culture. You know it’s ignorance when they are telling every black player to go back to Africa.

  7. Football teams belong to communities and this can be tackled by the club getting black players to go into schools and community based projects and start educating people about their players. Slot of this prejudice stems from stereotypes that are perpetuated by media and misinformation. The clubs can tackle this on the grassroots level. But as you said it cannot be policed.

    • Most are not into empowering young black youth my friend. .that’s the last thing on my mind

    • The clubs might argue it should not be their role to make the country a better place. And they would have a point too. Very tricky subject. But undoubtedly something has to be done.
      I think Ferencvaros and Hungary got better as we saw with Akeem Adams.

    • It’s a long process. And it definitely needs buy-in from a lot of people within those societies. And, as you can see in US election and Brexit vote, there are many influential people within developed societies who rely on old prejudices for their power base.

  8. Some of these countries in Europe are far behind when it comes to dealing with racial prejudice and they just brush it off as if it no big thing. This is were FIFA has to step in and say that counties would be banned from all European competition or start with a points deduction if this sort of behaviour is not punished by their football association.

    • In a situation like this the relevant FA might ask how they are supposed to police what happens on the streets. And they would have a point unfortunately.
      Punishing teams for what happens in the stands is a must. But how do you legislate for what happens on the streets?

  9. Nigel Myers, do you know what Dwarika is doing now? Ansil Elcock, you would probably know right?

  10. Lasana, you should ask Theobald about his experience in Hungary. He was there for a few months with Ujpest FC, but it was a year earlier than the Ferencvaros crew.

  11. Where is Arnmold Dwarika today ? ? .

  12. it was so strange when I spoke with mathew and he told me about racial abuse cause akeem was a god at ferencvarios they and the whole of hungary loved him

  13. Not everyone is academically inclined, and I assume those that are do go to university..

  14. You see that’s part of the problem with football in TNT, instead of sending some of these guys on football scholarship so they can have something to fall back on, they go pro as teenagers and if and when they don’t make it, they are left holding the bag and back in TNT with nothing.

  15. I for one thought Downing would have played senior football for T&T. Just goes to show you it takes much more than talent.

  16. Well put together article wired 868.
    Sad to see the careers of 2 promising footballers go to waste due to petty and ignorant “people “, kudos to Jan for hanging in there.

  17. Akeem Adams on the other hand seemed to be having a good time before his untimely passing.