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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?