Sport is filled with overblown jargon that tries to oversell its importance like “group of death”, “do or die” and “dressing room feud.”
But what you are about to read is no cliché.
If Hutson “Barber” Charles and Jamaal Shabazz ran into each other between 27 July and 1 August 1990, one of the two might not be alive today.
Shabazz was 26-years-old when he stormed the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament with 113 colleagues from the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen religious group on 27 July and took the Prime Minister and most of his Cabinet hostage.
Charles, then 24-years-old, was one of hundreds of soldiers who swarmed into the capital of Port of Spain; determined to restore order by any means necessary.
The Muslimeen surrendered on 1 August and, after a two-year imprisonment, Shabazz and his gang were freed after a controversial amnesty was upheld by the Privy Council in London.
Today, the two men are working as joint head coaches of the national football team in an effort to lift the Caribbean’s one-time premier nation that has lost its moorings over the last six years.
Shabazz, 49, is still a Jamaat member while Charles, 47, is a Warrant Officer in the Defence Force. But their six-day war is now just an anecdote that both men are teased about from the rest of the camp.
“The players say: coach, a Muslim/ army combination could never fail,” Shabazz told Wired868, with a chuckle.
Charles dismissed any notion of lingering resentment between the pair.
“It wasn’t right but you cannot change what happened in the past,” he said. “They went through their thought processes since then and I think you just have to let bygones be bygones.”
Trinidad and Tobago prides itself on being a diverse, multi-cultural society where Africans, Indians, Syrians, Chinese and European immigrants can live in harmony on the most southern islands of the Caribbean, just off the Venezuelan coast.
But racial tension is always bubbling beneath the surface of local politics, arguably provoked by politicians themselves. While, in the private sector, the feeling persists that the Asian powerbrokers—be they Syrian, Lebanese or Chinese—guard their turf jealously from the more populous races.
The ruling People’s Partnership government initially declared itself as a caring, rainbow coalition but a series of self-indulgent gaffes has led to uproar from a sizeable segment of the electorate who feel they are being deceived.
It is in this climate of mistrust that Charles and Shabazz were thrown together like a contrived sitcom couple or bizarre reality television show. Two men who could have once killed each other put in charge of a neglected, underperforming football team on a tiny Caribbean island.
And, as a bonus, neither man has veto over decision making. Just let them thrash it out.
Two weeks later, Charles and Shabazz might not be finishing each other’s sentences but they are definitely singing from the same hymn sheet. And the “Soca Warriors” are in their first Caribbean Cup final in five years and already assured of a spot in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Soldier and former insurrectionist united by patriotism.
“My goal in accepting this was to bring stability into Trinidad and Tobago’s football,” said Shabazz, who took Guyana to unprecedented heights in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers but quit for an interim post in his homeland. “Football is so important for the country and one just has to check back to 1989, 2006 and 1973 to see that.”
Charles was a classy midfielder in the 1989 “Strike Squad” team that came within a point of the Italy 1990 World Cup. He sees this Caribbean Cup as the first step in making the “red, white and black” relevant in CONCACAF once more.
“What we achieved here is so important in giving the public a reason to come back and support our football,” said Charles. “We are trying to rebuild the image of Trinidad and Tobago’s football and give the fans something they can hold on to.”
In truth, Charles and Shabazz have more in common than football. They grew up in the same poor Morvant/Laventille neighbourhood and played together at youth level for Caledonia AIA.
Shabazz, always an avid thinker, was a player/coach while Charles was the team’s starlet.
“We were friends before the coup,” said Charles, “and we remain friends.”
And what if their paths had crossed in that hot July of 1990?
“That period was like something I could never have dreamed of,” said Charles, who had to abandon a Caribbean Cup game to rush to the army base in Teteron. “But I was a soldier with a responsibility to my country. I didn’t study about who was on the other side; it was just country first.
“If it came to it, I would have done my job.”
Thankfully, both men have a different assignment now.
Shabazz, an engaging person with notable motivational prowess, has a UEFA ‘B’ and FIFA coaching instructor’s license and solid coaching experience at club and international level.
This year, he steered Caledonia to the Caribbean Club title. Last year, he led a modest Guyana team into the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal round for the first time and defeated the Warriors along the way.
Charles, unlike Shabazz, carries the authority of a player who shone at the highest level for Trinidad and Tobago at a time when the country was laden with extraordinary talents like Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy, David Nakhid and Jerren Nixon.
The 32-year-old Derek King, a former Coach of the Year with Joe Public and a once promising national defender whose career was curtailed by injury, completes the think tank as assistant coach.
In the semifinal game against Martinique, Charles announced the team and gave general remarks about the game ahead. Shabazz then discussed their tactical approach while King closed with instructions on set pieces.
At halftime, Shabazz spoke first and Charles got the last word.
Earlier, in what they jokingly refer to as the “Football Partnership”, the players would giggle and nudge each other as the coaches tried to all have a meaningful input without stepping on the other’s toes. But the success of the approach has converted the dressing room; and themselves.
Each accustomed to having his own way as former head coaches, ideas must now be tested by their three-man panel first.
“There is little room for spontaneity but I think that is making us better,” said Shabazz. “Sometimes, the three of us get off the bench during the game. And the fourth official is having a time with us: ‘One person, please’.”
Charles, who conceded sole leadership with Shabazz’s inclusion, pleaded for the public to give it a chance.
“So far, it has been working and it can only get better,” he said. “There is a real nice chemistry within the team.”
Not that everyone is won over by a team that almost forfeited the Caribbean Cup due to a lack of funding but now has the chance to win it outright.
“If the team is being successful and getting this kind of criticism,” said Charles, “I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if we had bowed out early.”
The Warriors, at present, could easily have a sign on its bench that reads “Under Construction.” From four outings, Trinidad and Tobago managed just three goals while conceding four and neither of the team’s two leading strikers, Devorn Jorsling and Jamal Gay, has scored yet. While talented players like Ataullah Guerra, Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino are still waiting for eureka moments.
But the resilience and tactical discipline of the squad has defied better prepared opponents while the likes of Seon Power, Guerra and Daneil Cyrus have run themselves ragged for the shirt.
Densill Theobald’s endless supply of clever short passes gives the team a focal point in midfield while goalkeeper and captain Jan-Michael Williams has a case for being the tournament’s outstanding player so far.
Last month, the Warriors defeated Cuba 1-0 in Bacolet, Tobago in the Caribbean Cup semifinal phase but Charles insists that they are not automatically favourites.
“Cuba is playing much better than the team we saw in Tobago,” said Charles. “And they played really well in Tobago. We have a game cut out for us.”
The three wise men will spend tonight around a roundtable seeking consensus for tomorrow’s final.
“I think the staff has to demonstrate the maturity and teamwork we want to see from the first team,” said Shabazz. “We know the players watch us closely to see our interaction. But they are now starting to see the benefits of this.
“Why must we be limited by tradition? Why can we not be as innovative as we are being now?”
If a soldier and insurrectionist can put aside their differences and work together as equal partners for their country, then why can Trinidad and Tobago’s leaders in other more meaningful industries not do likewise?
The Football Partnership hopes to give further evidence of the worth of their collective approach in the Caribbean Cup finals against Cuba. The beleaguered People’s Partnership can follow their lead.
For once, the comparison between sport and society is not empty rhetoric.
Editor’s Note: Is Trinidad and Tobago football on the right path? What do you think about co-leadership as a concept?