It seems like only yesterday that I got a call from the team manager of my former football club in Queens, New York asking me if I would like to go on trial with a team in Finland. It was actually 1999.
Now what made this request especially strange is my dream of playing professionally was basically extinct at the time and I was just grateful that football had paid for my just completed Bachelor’s degree at St John’s University. My life was as a counselor in a school for autistic kids and, as far as I was concerned, the playing-football-professionally train had swooshed past me.
I hesitated at first but eventually said “yes” and the rest, as they say, is history.
I boarded a plane, destined to meet my potentially new team mates at top flight Finnish club MyPa at their pre-season camp in Germany. The thing about flying is that it gives you time to think and all I remember going through my mind was: “What the hell am I doing going to a country where I don’t know one single person, much less the language?”
On arrival, I was greeted by a smile and a sign that said “Sancho de Trini”; I felt at home already. Little did I know then that Suomi (the Finnish word for Finland) would have such a remarkable and profound effect on my future international career.
The memories returned as I sat in the commentary booth before Sunday’s friendly international between Trinidad and Tobago and Finland at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.
I had been there before as a player; well almost.
It was the Saturday before our game against Finland in January 2003 and national coach Hannibal Najjar pulled me aside to have a chat. He said: “Son, you have been tremendous both on and off the pitch and I want you to lead the boys out against Finland.”
Me as captain of my country’s national team? Words couldn’t express the joy that filled me and, later that day, my family as well. Reality soon hit home however.
At Monday’s practice, I had a very disgruntled bunch of comrades. It had been two months of extremely demanding physical training in scorching hot temperatures with no available Gatorade/chilled water, bandages, ice, training gear, food or any of the basic necessities that anyone would expect at a major or even minor football team.
We, as a group, decided to write to the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) and ask for these basic requirements as well as a match fee for the friendly against Finland. We thought it was was only fair as many of the boys spent a lot of money travelling to training sessions and buying the necessary stuff that the TTFF refused to supply.
What took place next felt unreal and probably started the snowball that is the irreparably damaged relationship between local players and administrators. We were called into a meeting with the then team manager and told we had to sign a document, which basically said you get nothing and you don’t have the right to ask for nothing.
And there I was, as captain, looking at the piece of paper with everyone else looking at me.
To my mind, being captain of any team or organization means your main job is to lead by example and make decisions that will not only benefit your charges but also look after their best interest. A captain’s role is not an easy one and, as I look back in my career, there are some tremendous examples of both good and bad ones.
Dwight Yorke—and I only use him because he was my last captain—was magnificent on the pitch but off of it he always put I before team. Back for that brief period when I was captain, my decision was not to sign the document and, although it was unanimously agreed by my team mates at the time, I still ponder if it was the right choice.
The implications for everyone involved were massive.
We were immediately told to go home and, by 3 pm that same day, an entirely new team was assembled. We were also vilified in the press and the entire team was banned from international football and told we had to face a TTFF enquiry to save our international careers.
Some of the players who stood up with me never got another chance to don the “red, white and black” again.
As I watched us play to a narrow 3-2 loss against our friends from Scandinavia on Sunday, I wondered how much has changed over the last nine years. Has the relationship improved between players and administration? Do players have the basic necessities?
I pondered a long, list of questions and I know the answer to all of them is “NO!”
But the most important one is: “Are we going to wait another nine years to fix this?”
“Mennaan Suomi”, which means “Let’s go Finland”, was the cry of the Finnish supporters. For the Warriors’ supporters, the cry is a lot different and much more desperate.
I truly hope the latter question is answered before the Finns return again.
The majority of players selected to face Finland on 29 January 2012 were recalled to the national team at some point later in their playing careers.
Sadly, goalkeeper Brian James, versatile defender Uz Taylor, then teenaged utility player Jeremy Delpino and striker Sean Julien never got that chance to represent their country again.