Recapturing the euphoric mood of the moment, Ashford Jackman previews the final game of the 1990 World Cup qualifiers in which, to take T&T to the Finals in Italy, Everald “Gally” Cummings’ confident Strike Squad needed simply not to lose.
Controversy. Adversity. Achievement. The clear signposts along the road travelled by the national football squad to reach today’s moment of truth tell a moving story. But today, the “Strike Squad,” pitted against underdogs the United States, face a challenging duel from which they need only a draw to claim the big prize, a place at the FIFA World Cup XIV, Italia 1990.
Both national coach Everald “Gally” Cummings and TTFA general secretary Austin Jack Warner are confident the team will today add a fourth, telling signpost, Triumph, and so earn footballing immortality.
Three years ago, few fans would have taken predictions of a “Red Day” seriously; today, however, just 90 gruelling minutes stand between this country and football rapture. The arena is the National Stadium in Mucurapo which, in its eight-year history, has never been the stage of any event of the magnitude of Game 18 of the CONCACAF playoffs. Red will be the dominant colour as a 25,000-strong capacity crowd, confident of victory, cram themselves into it right after the gates are opened at 11am.
For the benefit of the “unfortunate thousands of fans” who were unable to obtain tickets for the Stadium, Warner boasts, Woodford Square and several other venues around the country have been equipped with large TV screens. Here too celebrating fans are expected to paint the town red.
Everywhere, emotions, running steadily higher and higher in recent weeks, have reached overflow point as Gally and his Kaisoca Soccer players prepare to put a final exclamation mark on a two-year roller-coaster ride from near obscurity to fame and, perhaps, fortune.
Gally told Wired868 that many who yesterday were the team’s most bitter critics are now a part of the nationwide celebrations, begun early in advance of tomorrow’s public holiday.
For a team that had sunk to its nadir just three years ago, success today would mean the completion of a storybook turnaround. Ironically, it is the team they must contain today that provided the spark to ignite that reversal of fortunes. After T&T were beaten and embarrassed by the US at the Pan Am Games, the local authorities, in the person of general secretary Warner, installed Cummings as the new coach. Within months, Gally’s team would win the 1987 Caribbean Football Union Finals in Martinique; they have not looked back since then.
In a face-off laced with ironies, that fact is hardly the only coincidence. Sixteen years ago, T&T were cheated out of a place at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany; coach Gally was voted MVP of that tournament. Today, his team stands just one point away from exorcising the ghosts of Haiti 1973. Another twist lies in the fact that, having launched Italia 1990 qualifying worldwide with a four-nil win in Guyana in April 1988, the T&T side will also play today’s final 1990 qualifier.
According to Gally, it has been a journey during which the “Strike Squad” has had to overcome many challenges, none more crippling than the lack of funding. Against Honduras at the Queen’s Park Oval in 1988, a clash of colours forced the team, equipped with just one all-white strip, to play the second half in the light-blue shirts of the host Queen’s Park Cricket Club. A year later in Guatemala City, the players sat in the lobby of a run-down “hotel” for more than half a day until additional funds could arrive from Trinidad to pay for better accommodation.
At this stage, however, money is no problem. There has been a belated rush by corporate T&T to climb aboard the bandwagon and invest in a team that has survived massive early scepticism. The skyrocketing sales of “Strike Squad” jerseys and memorabilia, the revenue from TV rights for matches telecast to other CONCACAF nations and the ample signage around the National Stadium field suggest swelling if not overflowing coffers. But never known for great accountability, the TTFA may well find that its image takes another beating after today as thousands of ordinary supporters, who have more or less carried the team on their shoulders throughout, have been left out of today’s gran zaffaire as large blocks of tickets, particularly for the covered stand, have been offered to and bought by big firms.
And with secretary Warner himself raising fears of large numbers of bogus tickets having been sold, some are saying that the crowd in the Stadium could exceed the official 25,000 capacity, a potential post-match problem.
An excited, expectant crowd may well increase the mounting pressure on the players, coach Cummings and his dedicated technical staff. Throughout his tenure, Gally has been hounded by critics – ranging from old playing rivals to local administrators and coaches to some elements of the local media. Many of his strategic and selectoral decisions have been disparaged. One former national coach went so far as to state publicly that Cummings should not be allowed to train and travel with the squad because he still draws a salary as a coach attached to the Ministry of Sport.
But, Gally says, none of these non-footballing concerns will be on the minds of the Strike Squad players today when the whistle eventually goes to signal the kick-off, scheduled for 3pm.
Ever since El Salvador held the US to a goalless draw a fortnight ago, T&T has known that the final berth in Italia ’90 will be decided in Port of Spain today.
And, buoyed by the many high points of the campaign so far, the coach guarantees, they are ready.
Behind them is the point of contention that threatened most to derail the campaign. It came in the form of a player, David Nakhid, whose first dalliance with the Strike Squad in 1988 ended without his seeing action against Honduras in Tegucigalpa. The coach’s confidential post-tour report identified Nakhid as “not an asset” but as a disruptive source with the potential to destroy vital team unity.
Rather than the negatives, Cummings says, it will be the many unforgettable moments of the campaign which will be on the minds of the players today. The well- knit unit that carries the hopes and aspirations of the nation is driven by the players’ own ambitions, including the possibility of going to the Finals and putting on a display that will create a market for T&T players in the European professional leagues.
Skipper Clayton Morris told Wired868 that inspiration will come from the memory of Michael Maurice’s sheer brilliance in the closing stages of the game versus El Salvador in Honduras. The big Police goalkeeper made a succession of remarkable saves to preserve a goalless draw and keep his team in the running for qualification. Before that, there was Leonson Lewis’ double against the Salvadoreans in Port-of-Spain. And from the top drawer, there was the equaliser that stunned the Americans in Torrance, California, a brilliant improvisation between Brian Williams, Marlon Morris and Hutson Charles, with the latter producing a superb finish to secure a one-all draw and take a vital point away from their first outing in the final round.
Morris also recalled Kerry Jamerson’s more recent outside-of-the-boot volley that earned full points away to Guatemala. It had been well set up by playmaker Russell Latapy, who sensationally combined with Jamerson once more to win the return leg in Port-of-Spain. Guatemala had taken an early lead from Julio Rodas but that was quickly neutralised when Philbert Jones crashed Lewis’ low cross in on the near post. That left T&T with 80 minutes to find a winner or to face their final game needing, perhaps, a miracle.
Against Honduras at the Oval, with Maurice caught well outside his area, both Dexter Francis and Charles sprinted half the length of the field to pressure a Honduran striker into shooting over the bar. And Charles was at it again in Tegucigalpa when, with his side a goal down, he side-footed a Dexter Skeene right-side cross in on the near post to edge T&T into the final qualifying round on the away goals rule.
Following a one-all draw at home, the Costa Rica game in San Jose produced two moments that almost wrote finis on the Strike Squad’s ambitions. In the first half, the supposedly demoralised hosts exploited left-back Marvin Faustin’s propensity for getting involved in attack to play a long ball over his head and into the path of Claudio Jara, who crossed into the T&T box. Seconds seemed like hours as Francis, Morris, Maurice Alibey and Richard Chinapoo each managed a block or a half-clearance before the home side’s fearsome midfield enforcer, Juan Cayasso, finally booted the ball past Earl Carter to put Costa Rica ahead.
To this day, what happened late in that game remains a point of contention. Dwight Yorke smacked a bullet of a long-range shot against the Costa Rica upright and the rebound was booted away – only as far as Charles. Some 25 metres from his target, the tireless midfielder chested the ball down and fired it back at goal. Deflecting off a defender, the shot beat Luis Conejo in the Costa Rica goal. T&T jubilation turned to disbelief when Colombian referee J.J. Torres ruled that “Barber” had handled the ball in attempting to control it. Charles’ white T&T shirt bore the clear impression of the ball on his chest but repeated replays on the local TV station that night proved inconclusive.
Guatemala survived an incredible sequence of assaults and were mere minutes from victory when Cummings played his last card, bringing on Alibey. Skipper Morris punched a free-kick to the edge of the box where the lanky striker outleapt the defence to knock the ball down to Russell Latapy. Taking the ball outside on the right, the “Little Master” suddenly swerved back to face his own goal and crossed. Jamerson, arriving late, planted the ball low and hard into the bottom corner of the Guatemala goal.
That was an iconic moment, guaranteeing the attention of the football world on T&T today.
But the Americans, who also have much more than pride riding on today’s result, will not be willing bridesmaids. In the early years, United States teams played at the World Cup by invitation; today, with FIFA having already selected them to host the 1994 Finals, coach Bob Gansler, skipper Mike Windischmann and the whole squad know how important it is for them, their country still without a domestic league, to show the football world they can earn a place on football’s biggest stage.
Today, says Cummings, the T&T squad will follow the regimen that has worked for them throughout qualifying; on the trip from their camp at Forest Reserve, they will attend a brief church service. They will then head straight for the stadium dressing-rooms to emerge in mid-afternoon and play, he stressed, as if their very life depends on it.
Many lives can be expected to change forever, a buoyant secretary Warner assured Wired868, “once everything goes according to plan.”
POSSIBLE STARTING TEAMS:
United States: Tony Meola, John Doyle, Steve Trittschuh, Paul Krumpe, Michael Windischmann, John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Paul Caligiuri, Brian Bliss; Peter Vermes, Bruce Murray.
T&T: Michael Maurice, Marvin Faustin, Dexter Francis, Brian Williams, Clayton Morris, Russell Latapy, Kerry Jamerson, Hutson Charles, Leonson Lewis, Philbert Jones, Dwight Yorke .