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The secret behind Trinidad and Tobago’s football revival

Question: What is the most successful component of Trinidad and Tobago’s football at present?

Allow me to make it easier for you. The Trinidad and Tobago national men’s football team last won a Caribbean title eleven years ago in 2001 and has only played in one regional final since then.

In contrast, Trinidad and Tobago’s professional clubs have managed six Caribbean titles in that same period while, on four occasions inclusive of the 2012 edition, there were two local teams competing in the final.

So, again, exactly who is waving the flag for the local sport?

Photo: Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA, the Caribbean champion club, celebrates during a Digicel Pro League assignment against Police.
(Courtesy Photos868)

Next week, having helped his Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA club to the equivalent provincial title just months ago, Jamaal Shabazz will lead the “Soca Warriors” into battle at the 2012 Caribbean Cup finals in Antigua and Barbuda. He has just been appointed joint head coach of the team alongside interim appointment Hutson “Barber” Charles.

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Some do not regard this as a sensible choice.

In 13 years of professional football on these shores, Shabazz is only the second coach to be promoted from the domestic club game after DIRECTV W Connection’s Stuart Charles-Fevrier.

Fevrier, a St Lucian by birth who has lived in Trinidad since he was a teenager, coached the Warriors for eight full internationals in 2003 and lost three.

Trinidad and Tobago were defeated 2-0 away to a full strength Moroccan team that, four months later, lost 2-o in the Africa Cup of Nations final. In a friendly away to South Africa, it took a late penalty to defeat the Warriors 2-1 although they played the last 20 minutes with 10 men.

For an encounter with Haiti which was so hastily arranged that the team had less than 48 hours notice, a conflicting local Cup game made Fevrier’s squad options so thin that his travelling goalkeepers were Michael McComie and Trevor Nottingham, both in the twilight of their careers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Haiti emerged 2-0 victors.

On the credit side, Fevrier’s squad drew 2-2 against Venezuela and recorded a 2-0 win over a Cuban team that had just participated in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup where it advanced from a group which included Costa Rica and Canada. In all, he tallied two wins, three draws and three defeats despite playing six matches abroad.

Photo: DIRECTV W Connection coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier points the way for his troops.

Arguably, Fevrier should never have been fired in the first place—forgetting the fact that his work provided the platform on which Bertille St Clair built before the Tobagonian also made way for Leo Beenhakker. It was the Dutchman, everyone remembers, who famously finished the job by taking Trinidad and Tobago to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Five of the 13 players used when the Warriors held Sweden to a historic draw in Dortmund, including the San Juan Jabloteh pair of Aurtis Whitley and Cyd Gray, were either still Pro League players or had been when the World Cup qualifiers started.

Trinidad and Tobago’s most memorable football success to date began and ended with notable contributions from the Pro League. But the local stakeholders, of course, know better than to hold their collective breaths and wait for applause.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her cabinet heaped tangible rewards on javelin thrower Keshorn Walcott when he returned from the 2012 London Olympics; there’s no rocket science involved in spotting a winner when has a gold medal around his neck. But if Persad-Bissessar and her boys are prepared to work at creating sporting success, then she should hit the road that leads to the Mannie Ramjohn Stadium on a Friday night.

She would not need to worry about being crowded out. Or mobbed. And she can forget about the thrilling frills like starting a Mexican wave.

There is little for PR people to love about the local Pro League. The atmosphere is often as disappointing as the attendance. The quality of the football can sometimes be poor too; poorer still if your measuring stick is La Liga or the EPL.

Photo: Defence Force striker Devorn Jorsling (right) takes aim against St Ann’s Rangers.
(Courtesy Photos868)

But it is here in the Pro League that young men like Defence Force winger Jemel Sebro, St Ann’s Rangers defender Elijah Belgrave and Connection midfielder Joevin Jones diligently go about the job of sharpening the skills of their trade; they cannot afford to be distracted by the fact that hardly anyone cares.

There are well over 100 young men who are employed by the Pro League exclusive of coaches, physios, managers, trainers, support staff and youth team players. The spin-off industry includes taxi drivers, medical practitioners and sporting goods stores, not to mention the food people, large and small, who manage to make a few bucks whenever and wherever football is played. .

Although many soca entertainers like Machel Montano are already quite well-off, the Government pumps millions into that industry on an annual basis without batting an eyelid. So it seems contradictory when empty seats are given as a reason for abandoning the Pro League. It should be the opposite when the League’s successes are weighed against such setbacks.

A clash between the likes of North East Stars and Central FC is exactly what a formative industry is supposed to like, with two coaches trying to get a dozen hyperactive young men each to play with one vision. This is development not magic and it is going in the right direction.

Shabazz’s selection does not guarantee success and, to the Pro League’s credit, there were other worthy contenders for the post like Fevrier and former Jabloteh coach Terry Fenwick. But it is disappointing to think that he may not be guaranteed support and respect, at least until he demonstrates that he really is not up to the task.

When German Otto Pfister led the Warriors in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, he enjoyed a generous salary, had the option of drawing on Europe-based players and was occasionally cheered at press conferences. Additionally, Pfister had nine months to prepare for his decisive penultimate qualifying match.

Shabazz took over the reins of a Guyana team stacked with Pro League-based players, three days before its first qualifier. He had three months to get ready to face the more gifted T&T squad.

Photo: Jamaal Shabazz on international duty with Guyana.

Yet, remarkably, some fans still refuse to acknowledge Shabazz’s accomplishment in outdoing Pfister, whose backroom staff included current Technical Director Anton Corneal and “Barber” Charles.

True, the “Golden Jaguars” went on to be trounced by Mexico and Costa Rica in the next round just as, at CONCACAF level, Caledonia AIA were spanked over two legs by US MLS team Seattle Sounders. But context is everything. So it is foolhardy to think that Guyana’s football targets are identical to Mexico’s or that Caledonia should expect nothing less than a victory while playing during its off-season against a US team already into its competitive term which spends Caledonia’s annual budget in less than a month.

But the merits or otherwise of Shabazz’s work with Guyana and Caledonia aren’t exactly our focus here. The point is that while international teams led by people like Hannibal Najjar, Francisco Maturana and Russell Latapy floundered at the regional level, the Pro League ensured that Trinidad and Tobago’s football remained worthy of regional respect.

In 2012, while the TTFF and the Sport Ministry squabbled over accounting statements, the Soca Warriors played just two proper warm-up matches—notwithstanding a January exhibition against Finland used primarily to blood players for the then upcoming Olympic qualifiers.

So, it seems reasonable to conclude that the bulk of Trinidad and Tobago’s Caribbean Cup preparations, in terms of fitness, technical and tactical work, hinged on Friday night and Saturday evening Pro League games.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago and Caledonia AIA playmaker Ataullah Guerra sees reason to smile.
(Courtesy Photos868)

Now, new TTFF president Raymond Tim Kee has decided to build further on the platform provided by the local game and promote a coach from its ranks to help the country attain its immediate football ambitions.

Do we really have a problem with that?

Pro League facts by numbers

(Since 2001)

6: Caribbean club titles won by Pro League teams W Connection (2001, 2002, 2006, 2009), Jabloteh (2003), Caledonia (2012)

6: Mexican and US MLS teams that have lost to T&T clubs including Pachuca, Chicago Fire, Guadalajara, New England Revolution, Atlante and the New York Red Bulls

3: Mexican teams that failed to defeat W Connection in Trinidad including Toluca, Guadalajara (twice) and UNAM. Connection has never lost at home against Mexican opposition.

2: Pro League coaches hired as national coaches are Stuart Charles-Fevrier (2003) and Jamaal Shabazz (2012)


Editor’s Note: What do you think can further help the development of the Pro League? 

About Lasana Liburd

Lasana Liburd
Lasana Liburd is the managing director and chief 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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  1. Gone are the days people come out to support football even when its free… there are too many distractions now… tv, video games, parties… Community talk should stop…referees aint going to do matches unless there is heavy securities…Community is not only geographically located… A person from south can back North East Stars… its the interest behind the club getting the various groups and community council involved in the running of the clubs so individuals can identify and align themselves with a club…if i was a professional player i can guarantee at least 5 persons coming to matches…

  2. We live in a “band wagonist” society, we only follow winners, we need to change this mentality first.
    Just like the Pro League, the Super League isn’t really community based anymore, why go out and support a “community” based team that is full of outsiders? When the Super League started in 2003 there were some real community based teams involved and clashes between Crab Connection(San Juan/ Santa Cruz) vs Maraval Youth Academy had an attendance of over 500, why? because it was a brother, a cousin, an uncle, the boy next door or a bredrin on the field so we went out to see them play. now even the community minor leagues teams are importing so-called ‘big players’ to boost their chances of winning and not interested in development of its own, why go to paid Pro League and Super League games when the players can be seen in the minor leagues for free?! That has to be stopped first. “Good Luck”. We need to let the Pro League player know the meaning of the word ‘professional’ then he might change his mentality toward the game and where it is played.
    We need to do player profiles so we the GP would know who is out there representing the clubs and in turn TnT, not only when they get an overseas big contract.
    Stop Recycling the people that run the sport (they are all descendants of Jack Warner) give new young energetic people with a different mindset a chance, co operate TnT needs to get involved also but who’s going to put their money into an organization whose accounts not straight.
    There is so much more I can say but people getting paid big money to come up with ways to help TT football so let me leave some work for them to do to justify their salary.

  3. James, i love the game. i dont really watch local tv, i only watch epl football and most people do the same. you are correct. we like hype… maybe the young persons in charge can use this to their advantage and change their aproach to the promoting of the games. clubs have to pull their weight too to get fan bases set up. i barely know a few of our pro players. do some player profiles for the public to see (billboards) promotion is everything… change the stigma

  4. A fully business like approach is needed, home grounds are a must, double headers in those stadiums are a waste of time. Let’s see Central FC in some little ground, nicely fenced, in Woodford Lodge or in Enterprise or Cali renting Republic Bank Sports Club ground in Barataria.
    Solutions are there short term, they just have to open their eyes and think out of the box. Instead of Larry Gomes, North East can play in the Arima Velodrome. Flyers, banners, cars with the speakers on them and somebody singing a team song… All these are ways to advertise. ITS NICE TO LOOK AT THE BIG EUROPEAN CLUBS but we first have to find a formula to suit ourselves.

    • But if that were so why are community games with other clubs eg Super League Clubs also poorly attended? the truth is we are not a sport loving culture but rather follow hype

  5. The Pro League does have ads on Radio Tv and Newspapers… But better effort is needed to increase the following with the teams… But great article.. Time to show them that local is good.

  6. Very clear and concise.

    I am moved beyond words to see such clarity…

    Leh we go T&T!!!

  7. What is being done to market the Pro League to increase attendance? I never see Pro League matches advertised on TV or in the newspapers, or hear them on the radio.

  8. The main problem is the Minister of Sport is doing Jack Warner’s bidding to sabotage football. As long as he can’t control it, he must destroy it

  9. Fix the management, or perception of management of local football. I don’t care to support local football because I see the management and administration as corrupt old men milking whatever talent these players may have for their own selfish interests. (Guess who brought about that perception, almost singlehandedly.)

    There is a lot more to do, but unless that one thing is fixed, nothing else matters to me.

    • I must debate this point as i think it is unfounded if you are referring to the TTFF then i can see your point otherwise you are inaccurate because the Pro League which manages local football is totally independant of the TTFF (Jack Warner) it is managed by Dexter Skeene (young man) and Larry Romany (TTOC President) and is actively run by its stakeholders which are the clubs.
      We have look past our misconceptions and source the core problems some of which Lasana exposed in this article…the truth is we are not true sport fans in this country we are primarily hype seekers because in real sporting country’s that have true sporting cultures the public would already have driven out bad management rather than abandon the game which they claim to love.

      • James, you’re clearly more knowledgeable about the local football industry than me, but that’s exactly why I specifically included the phrase “perception of”.

        If the Pro League is as independent as you say they should be proclaiming it from the rooftops and distancing themselves from the Evil at every opportunity.

  10. Very nice article. Hopefully this will open peoples eyes to the benefits of the Pro League and encourage support. I don’t think there is another country in the world where professional football is ignored, where school football is given more priority and press coverage, where the national team automatically expects to take players for non FIFA approved matches, where the country’s leaders do not attend cup finals, where businesses do not recognise professional football as a promotional vehicle or positive motivator of young people. However, I would say that the Ministry of Sport does provide more direct financial support than in most countries.