Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA will hope for a timely resumption of eating habits this week as the Trinidad and Tobago Pro League club aims to follow Eid ul-Fitr with a football feast on Wednesday night.
The “Eastern Stallions” host Honduran outfit, CD Marathón, from 8 pm at the Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva in CONCACAF Club Championship action. Caledonia technical director Jamaal Shabazz said his charges cannot wait to step on the field against the Central American that refers to itself as the “Green Monster.”
Marathón whipped San Juan Jabloteh 4-2 in its last trip to Trinidad in 2009 while the Hondurans also defeated Jabloteh 3-1 on the mainland.
“The guys are more excited than fearful,” Shabazz told Wired868.com. “I would say we are dangerously excited. They are a tough opponent and they ran Jabloteh off the park, a few years ago.
“But we can’t wait for the game to come.”
Caledonia is anxious for its first point at this level after losing 3-1 away to United States’ Major League Soccer (MLS) outfit Seattle Sounders in the CONCACAF group opener three weeks ago.
At the time, Caledonia central defenders Radanfah Abu Bakr and Nuru Muhammad and winger Abdallah Phillips were all observing the month of Ramadan while several teammates, including Kareem “Tiny” Joseph and Conrad Smith, occasionally joined in the fasting to show support.
“During Ramadan, the Muslims in the squad cannot eat or drink water from sunrise to sunset,” said Shabazz, who is also a Muslim. “So, at breaks in training, I would say ‘all Christians get some water and all Muslims go wash your face’ and it would be a bit of a joke.
“Some of the new guys like Jamal Gay were amazed that those players could train in the heat without water. And some players decided to try it out to see what it feels like while others did it as a way of showing support to their teammates.”
Shabazz explained that Muslim players would drink water at intervals during the night to hydrate their bodies along with a high carb meal to reinforce their bodies. But he conceded that it is physically taxing and a huge challenge.
Still, he did not stop the non-Muslim players from joining in.
“It gives them some sort of mental and spiritual training,” said Shabazz. “It lets them know how the people who have nothing to eat feel when those hunger pangs kick in.”
Camaraderie, mental strength and resourcefulness are three virtues that Shabazz is at pains to inject into his squad.
Half-coach and half-sociologist, Shabazz was 26-years-old when he stormed Parliament with 114 Jamaat-al-Muslimeen men during the 1990 attempted coup and spent the next two years in prison before an amnesty deal was accepted. He spent the next 22 years trying to give Morvant/Laventille youths a future that does not involve firearms.
And he is proud of the fruits of his labour thus far.
“In the build-up to the (Marathón) game, some players came to me and said they want to play a pressing game,” said Shabazz. “So in training when I see the intensity slacken, I remind them ‘hey, is allyuh say you want to press’. But I know that these players feel a real love for the club.
“At other teams when they are going through financial hardships, the players run somewhere else. At Caledonia, the players talk about how we will ride through this. We have players like Kareem (Joseph) and Abdallah (Phillips) who have been here for their whole careers and there is a sense that they have an ownership in the club.”
Caledonia is living the dream now with its matches beamed live on United States’ sport networks, ESPN and Fox Soccer. But Shabazz could not be present for the club’s first CONCACAF outing due to his inability to get a visa.
Nine years ago, Shabazz was incarcerated for 53-days in Miami and he has not received a visa since. He had been travelling to the US for four years after being granted a visa that he should have not qualified for due to his involvement in the attempted coup.
Ever resourceful, Shabazz was still able to sneak into the Caledonia dressing room for their August 2 outing in Seattle.
“At first I didn’t let players know I wasn’t going (to Seattle) because it was a little traumatic for everyone,” said Shabazz. “A week before the game, I told Radanfah and said I would have to set up some kind of communication. And he suggested Skype.
“I never went on Skype before that but we set up an account for me and I was able to talk to the team before the game and, after (coach Jerry Moe) spoke, I talked to them during the halftime too.”
The Seattle experience was an eye-opener for the Caledonia squad. Most of the players had never travelled to the US before while it was Moe’s first experience trying to communicate from the bench in a noisy stadium—a stark contrast to the quiet and largely empty stands at local Pro League matches.
Shabazz, who also coaches the Guyana national team, considers himself to be well equipped for such challenges due to his international experience as a coach and student of the game.
“When I played, most of the coaches would dictate to us during the game,” he said. “But the science of coaching now is that you talk to the players more during training and create those game situations and help them to solve the situations themselves.
“A lot of (local) coaches haven’t embraced this mindset yet that you have to empower athletes and guide and advise them rather than dictate to them. But it football, the important moments are over in a split second and there is nothing you can do about those as a coach.
“I still get off the bench to try to motivate players and urge them on but that is about it.”
Caledonia AIA might not require much motivating on Wednesday night in the club’s first home fixture at CONCACAF level. The Stallions should have quite an appetite too.