Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Ataullah Guerra transformed the Dwight Yorke Stadium into a love nest tonight with the decisive goal as the “Soca Warriors” advanced to next month’s 2012 Caribbean Cup finals in style with a 1-0 victory over Cuba in Bacolet, Tobago.
Guerra hopped along the running track, blowing kisses to the crowd. And the patrons screamed back at him with adulation. It was Trinidad and Tobago football’s best moment this year so far.
The Warriors had qualified before the opening whistle thanks to a surprise 1-0 win for Suriname over St Vincent and the Grenadines at the same venue. St Vincent coach Cornelius Huggins did the hard work with his team, which managed successive 1-1 draws with Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba, and then left Tobago to attend a coaching symposium on his own island.
Only Huggins can say whether his decision was based on misplaced optimism or forced by his employers. Either way, the result was dire for “Vincey Heat” and there might be some awkward conversations when Huggins next meets his players.
In contrast, Trinidad and Tobago interim head coach Hutson “Barber” Charles was beaming with pride as he addressed the media after the final whistle.
“We are very pleased to top the group,” said Charles. “We grew from strength to strength after every game.”
Trinidad and Tobago has now gone six games without a defeat while the win also means that the Warriors will avoid Jamaica in the group phase next month. Instead, captain Jan-Michael Williams and his men will play hosts Antigua and Barbuda, Martinique and the runner-up from another qualifying group that includes Haiti, Grenada and French Guiana.
Williams insisted that his team’s ambition is to regain the Caribbean title for the first time since 2001.
“The most important thing for us is to make the country proud,” said Williams, who was placed during the second half with an ankle sprain. “We want to put Trinidad and Tobago back in its rightful place at the top.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s last two Caribbean Cup excursions ended in group stage elimination under veteran coach Francisco Maturana in 2008 and novice Russell Latapy in 2010. It would be a stretch to say that the current squad has distinguished itself from either of the previous teams on the field yet.
But, mentally, the current crop seems primed for achievement. Arguably, they should not even be here.
Previous national teams complained, correctly, about meager match fees. This squad could barely find money for meals and laundry during an earlier qualifying round in St Kitts.
Abandoned financially by the Sport Ministry at one point and marooned by Tropical Storm Rafael, the Warriors decided to fight back rather than down tools. And it was the collective spirit that was evident again today against Cuba.
In a tight match, Cuba had the better scoring chances early on.
Beefy striker Roberto Linares hit the post with a header in the 19th minute and then was denied by a sharp Williams reflex save in the 23rd minute as the Trinidad and Tobago defence reacted sluggish to rapid Cuban attacks.
The Warriors held their own in possession though as the two teams traded blows in what, at times, was an attractive exhibition of football. Trinidad and Tobago’s best scoring chances came from long distance as midfielder Joevin Jones forced a flying save from Cuban custodian Julio Pichardo while winger Hughton Hector and forward Richard Roy both went close too.
Twenty minutes into the second half, Charles introduced Guerra and the response was immediate in more than one respect.
Tobagonians apparently fall in love quickly. It didn’t take more than few glimpses of Guerra’s long stride and grace in possession to win over the supporters when the Warriors kicked off their campaign with a 1-1 draw against St Vincent on Wednesday. It was Guerra’s 24th birthday.
Charles demoted Guerra to the bench for the remaining two games. But Bacolet did not forget.
The sign of the “number ten” entering the field of play brought spectators to their feet tonight as Guerra received a rousing ovation in good faith before he had even contributed. Boy, did he repay them.
Within seconds, he was in control and charging at the centre of the Cuban defence. Roy sprinted around his shoulder and into the penalty box and Guerra passed neatly into his stride with a flick of the right boot.
Harassed by an attending Cuba defender, Roy could not take cleanly and the ball rolled obligingly back to Guerra who reacted quickly. The Caledonia player smashed it with such conviction that Pichardo probably didn’t see it until it was past him.
It was Guerra’s second international goal and his first on home soil and in a competitive game to boot. After a few seconds when he looked on the verge of spontaneous combustion, the John John resident rushed to share his moment with the Tobago crowd.
“I love them,” Guerra told Wired868, after the match. “They treated me so well here.”
Charles and Williams were united in their praise of the audience on the sister-isle.
“I think the fans in Tobago were tremendous,” said Charles. “They were real fans.”
Antigua and Barbuda is the next destination for the Warriors and Williams and Guerra insisted that today was just the beginning.
“As a player, you never settle for what you have already,” said Guerra. “There are plenty more special things to come.”
The belief is coming back. Just ask Tobago.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 1.Jan-Michael Williams (capt) (21.Marvin Phillip 53); 4.Kern Cupid, 6.Kareem Moses, 20.Seon Power, 8.Aubrey David; 18.Densill Theobald (vice-captain), 3.Joevin Jones; 14.Hashim Arcia (10.Ataullah Guerra 66), 16.Keyon Edwards, 7.Hughtun Hector; 13.Richard Roy (12.Curtis Gonzales 75).
Unused subs: 2.Clyde Leon, 9.Devorn Jorsling, 11.Kevon Carter.
Coach: Hutson Charles
Cuba: 12.Julio Pichardo; 14.Alianni Urgelles, 5.Jorge Clavelo (capt), 15.Renay Malblanche, 3.Jorge Corrales; 20.Alberto Gomez, 2.Carlos Francisco, 18.Ruslan Batista (13.Adonis Ramos 43), 11.Ariel Martinez; 7.Marcel Hernandez; 10.Roberto Linares (17.Alexy Zuazanabal 76).
Unused subs: 1.Odelin Molina, 6.Yoel Colome, 8.Jaine Colome, 9.Yaudel Lahera, 22.Jose Cardenas.
Coach: Walter Benitez
2012 Caribbean Cup semifinal phase
Sunday November 18
Suriname 1 (Ronny Aloema 42 pen), St Vincent and the Grenadines 0 in Bacolet
Trinidad and Tobago 1 (Ataullah Guerra 67), Cuba 0 in Bacolet[standings league_id=6 template=extend logo=true]
Editor’s Note: Wired868’s 2012 Caribbean Cup semi-final coverage is sponsored by DirecTV