Trinidad and Tobago national football team head coach Stephen Hart and team manager David Muhammad have broken their silence on the team’s decision to fly to Argentina on June 1 without goalkeeper coach Michael Maurice and therapist Dave Isaac.
Hart and Muhammad said they initially refused to board the flight to Buenos Aires but eventually agreed after alleged misinformation by Tourism Ministry representative Gina Welch. The “Soca Warriors” coach described chaotic scenes at the Piarco International Airport as the team arrived that Sunday morning to board the chartered Caribbean Airlines flight.
“It was absolute bedlam at the airport,” Hart told Wired868. “It was such a disaster you couldn’t even fathom.”
Muhammad, who felt the technical staff was deceived and disrespected, said the Warriors’ needs came a distant second to persons who were meant to be supporting the team and benefiting from the opportunity offered by the high profile friendly international match.
“It was a very disgusting, distasteful experience,” said Muhammad. “I have nothing against local celebrities or their friends or anyone; but the way everything happened was very classist in my opinion and very disrespectful.
“We are grateful that the Ministry of Tourism arranged the flight in the first place; but it seems that the coordination ended in the hands of the wrong person and they made a mess of it.”
The travel party, including Maurice and Isaac, had already been ticketed and Muhammad was collecting boarding passes when the problem started.
Welch, according to Muhammad, walked over the Caribbean Airlines official and identified herself as the deputised authority from the Ministry of Tourism. And she said that only people on her list were authorised to board the plane.
“My first assumption was that list she had would include everyone on my list plus anybody else,” said Muhammad. “So I didn’t panic and the three of us started going through my list one by one. But when we got to Dave Isaac, she said ‘no, he is not on this list’.
“I said yes and she said no. I said to the clerk that he is on the list no matter what this person is saying and that I was there to get his boarding pass.”
Welch is the managing director of FV Holdings, which describes itself as a brand communication agency that creates, revitalizes and promotes strong distinctive brands.
She was twice acquitted of fraud charges in 2004 and 2009, which dated back to her role with the now defunct Trinidad and Tobago Pageant Company that helped stage the 1999 Miss Universe pageant at the Chaguaramas Convention Centre in Chaguaramas, Trinidad.
Muhammed placed the blame for the airport fiasco in Welch’s handbag.
“There was toing and froing because neither Miss Welch nor I were backing down,” said Muhammad. “I said this entire event cannot occur unless these people get on. Then Miss Welsh said we have commercial flights for the people whose names were taken off the list.
“We were informed that the commercial flight would arrive in Argentina an hour before the charter because (our flight) had to refuel in French Guiana for an hour. Stephen did not want to board without the entire staff but we said okay they will wait for us in Buenos Aires and we will leave as a group.”
Hart was not at the ticketing counter. But he explained that Muhammad’s recollection of his conversation with Welch was instrumental in the Warriors’ decision to board the flight.
“The only reason we got on the flight was that we were told (Maurice and Isaac) were getting there before us,” he said. “I talked to them about it and they said that was fine and they had no problem with that. So we got on the flight.”
Muhammad said he boarded last as he tried to sort out Maurice and Isaac. He claimed to have asked Welch for an itinerary for the suggested commercial flight and she responded that she would get it for him.
“She said wait and she will get it,” he said. “I said give me the airline and I will get it myself. She said she will get that for me and left. And I didn’t see her again until after the flight.”
Welch told Wired868 that she had no recollection of any such conversation with Muhammad, though, and said she only followed orders at Piarco.
“I don’t know about that,” said Welch. “I don’t recall having that conversation. You need to talk to the Ministry of Tourism.
“Everybody was following instructions from the PS (permanent secretary) as guided by the TTFA.”
As passengers boarded, Muhammad said he saw Ministry of Tourism permanent secretary Juliana Johan-Boodram and asked about the commercial flight that Welch said was leaving at the same time. He claimed that the Johan-Boodram told him there was no such flight.
“The Permanent Secretary said we will have to go through travel agents,” said Muhammad. “At first they gave no assurance that they would pay for the flight but the PS eventually agreed to pay for it. She was actually very helpful.
“So I went through a travel agent and booked a flight for 5.41 pm. We left at 10.30 am.”
Hart could not remember precisely when Muhammad gave him the bad news but said it was too late to do anything about it at that point.
Once they landed in Buenos Aires, Muhammad and Hart discovered that Maurice and Isaac did not get on the evening flight either and it was not until the following day that they got on a plane. They arrived in Buenos Aires early on June 3.
“It was bizarre,” said Hart. “You are going there as a team and the whole reason for the flight is to get you all there… I explained the situation to the entire team upon landing…
“I don’t think anyone was too surprised after the fiasco that happened at the airport.”
But Muhammad said he got even angrier with the farcical situation after what he observed on the flight.
“The most disturbing thing to me was there were free seats on the plane,” said Muhammad. “Not only were (Isaac and Maurice) bumped off in exchange for some people’s friends and family members; they were bumped off for the security that everyone’s friends and family would get on, which was very sick. It was a typical example of classist Trinidad.
“Everyone (in the squad) was fuming and some of the passengers who realised what was happening were upset too. I have nothing against anyone who was a passenger on that flight but it is the way it was done.”
Muhammad said the squad did not abandon its colleagues and insisted that Welch deceived them.
“It wasn’t a mistake; it was a lie to get me to cool down because I was defiant,” he said. “There was absolute solidarity among the team to travel as a unit and we were deceived. That person misled us into believing there was a commercial flight leaving at the same time.”
Thus far, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) has not lodged an official complaint about the affair with the Ministry of Tourism.