November 20, 1989 was the morning after the evening before. Having recaptured the pre-match euphoria, Ashford Jackman now reminds us of what it felt like that day when, cock-sure that we were bound for Italy, we all woke up to find that we were all dressed up with nowhere to go.
So close, so close.
Sadness and gloom settled over Port-of-Spain yesterday afternoon as, in the space of just over 90 tension-filled minutes, the million-plus supporters of the Strike Squad who had started “Red Day” in buoyant spirits ended it singing the blues. Whether supporter inside the stadium, watching the game on a giant screen at a “Football Massive” venue or fan viewing the live TV coverage at home, everyone seemed to feel the hurt and the shock of the national football team’s unexpected failure to clear the final hurdle and take the country into Italia ’90.
At the final blast of referee Juan Carlos Loustau’s whistle, disbelief turned to shock and shock to pain and grief as realisation dawned. The train to Rome had run off the rails; the World Cup dream had become a nightmare from which nobody could awake quickly enough.
Just under two hours earlier, the first blast of Loustau’s whistle had started the 90-minute contest for the 24th and final berth at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Needing only one more point to qualify and buoyed by three wins and a draw in their previous four outings, Everald “Gally” Cummings’ Strike Squad believed but did not perform. They simply never produced the quality of football that had nourished the dream of the country’s first ever World Cup Finals qualification.
The Americans had adjusted their team to counter every T&T threat. Brian Bliss, their slowest defender, was moved from right to left back, where he could keep tabs on Dwight Yorke. Centre-back Steve Trittschuh, their quickest defender, had been moved to the T&T left flank where the extremely fast Leonson Lewis represented a major threat.
Even so, the estimated nearly 35,000 fans crammed into the National Stadium all saw red in the 29th minute. Striker Philbert Jones was clearly tripped in the area. But as 35,000 voices yelled in unison for the penalty, Jones sprang quickly back to his feet and neither the Argentinian referee nor his linesman saw fit to call it.
Two minutes later, the US got the break they had been searching for.
Paul Caligiuri, a midfielder with Italian roots, beat Kerry Jamerson well outside the area and fired a speculative shot on goal. Michael Maurice, the T&T goal-keeper, seemed to move to his left somewhat late and a ball that fans were confident he would snaffle went by him and nestled in the back of the goal.
The silence spoke volumes.
The Americans expertly nullified the T&T attack after that and ran out the clock in the remaining time to claim a historic 1-0 victory and, with it, their tickets to Rome.
Confusion, near panic, ensued. The Strike Squad had not lost a single home game in the entire qualifying campaign, dating back as far as April 1988, but today they had succumbed almost without a whimper, certainly without a fight. At the dreaded final whistle, the stunned spectators remained seated, sullenly silent, seeking answers to the question of why the home team, so rampant in recent months, had succumbed so meekly to Uncle Sam’s men.
No answers offered themselves immediately. The team reserves and technical staff followed coach Everald “Gally” Cummings onto the field, their drained comrades having sought the safety of the dressing rooms. But as the small, exuberant group of American players, supporters and journalists began to disperse, a message replaced the match result on the scoreboard: “Strike Squad, we love you still.”
Inside the dressing rooms, Prime Minister ANR Robinson was praising the players “for the valiant effort you made.” Outside in the VIP Box, a poker-faced President Noor Hassanali watched briefly before making a hasty but dignified retreat.
Suddenly shaking off their disappointment, some fans gathered around the entrance to the players’ tunnel and began to applaud lustily as Clayton Morris, the national captain, led his men back out, holding hands, as united in defeat as, hours before, the country had been in anticipation of victory.
Tears rolled down the faces of big, hardback men, Cummings, Morris and Jamerson, for instance. They had come so close, so close only to be denied. Just days after his 18th birthday, Dwight Yorke, the baby of the squad, was weeping uncontrollably and had to be propped up by the team’s oldest player, defender Brian Williams. Yorke had been replaced in the final half-hour by Hutson Charles, one of the heroes of the campaign, who had been surprisingly left out of the starting XI.
A visibly disappointed Warren Archibald, the explosive winger from the Team of ’73, fumed. He had expected, he said, the crowd to “push the players some more after the goal” but that had not happened.
“What’s the use of so many supporters just keeping quiet?” he added. “They should have been shouting like hell while the boys were trying….”
Tears welling up in his eyes, TTFA president Peter O’Connor refused to look for a scapegoat, declaring that he had “no quarrel with the refereeing… or anything like that.”
“We lost fair and square,” he said, “but we have nothing to be ashamed of. We accept our defeat graciously. The Strike Squad has brought the people together as never before and they have made us all proud.”
Shirley Rudd-Ottley, the team’s former psychologist, also sounded a positive note as she consoled Sports Minister Jennifer Johnson: “This is not the end of the world. I am staying with the boys. We must not give up. We must now look ahead to the next World Cup in 1994.”
Archibald’s skipper Selwyn Murren, whose team had been cheated out of qualifying for West Germany 1974, put the general frustration into words, declaring, “Again! We have reached so far and again only to fail to cross the final hurdle!”
Meanwhile, inside, at the post-match conference, Cummings did not hide his dismay at the playing surface, reminding the media that he had asked for the sprinklers to be turned on if it had not rained by 10am, a request that was never met. He added that throughout the week, the squad had been training on slippery surfaces, only to meet a bone-hard field on Sunday with the ball bouncing very high – conditions that were ideal for the Americans.
“While not making any excuse for our defeat, that changed things a lot.”
The decision not to use the sprinklers had been made, it was claimed, when the sky had begun to show signs of impending rain which, in the end, never came. No definitive response, however, came from stadium manager Peter Cameron or his deputy Frank Stephen.
American coach Bob Gansler wasn’t being drawn into that controversy.
“We did what we had to do,” he said.
Revealing that the plan had been to put pressure on their hosts early in the game, Gansler added, “Once we got the goal, other tactics came into play.”
Man-of-the-Match, midfielder Caligiuri, was very matter-of-fact as he described his match-winning goal: “I touched the ball over the head of one opposing player and, as it dropped and bounced, I decided to shoot on the volley and it scored.”
Angry critics wondered aloud why Gally had chosen to play an open, attacking game when it was the Americans who had needed a win. Hutson Charles, arguably the fittest and hardest-working player in the T&T squad, had been left out to make way for Paul Elliott-Allen, an all-out attacking midfielder with a powerful shot that he had never once got the opportunity to fire at American custodian Tony Meola on the day. Once Caligiuri beat Jamerson, therefore, there had been no supporting player close enough or quick enough to get in a challenge.
Predictably, Gally refused to fault any of his players.
“They tried but maybe the game was not to be ours,” he commented.
Seeking to explain what appeared to have been a lacklustre performance from a team which, mere days before, he had pronounced to be in “superb condition,” Gally referred to the long trek from Forest Reserve in Fyzabad.
“The players were mobbed going to and leaving the church in Oropouche,” he explained, “then there were people lining the streets all the way to town, some wanting to kiss the players, get their autographs, some just only wanting to touch them. The police escort had it tough. It was a moving experience which we deeply appreciated but I think it took its toll on the players.”
In the days ahead, other questions will be asked. Why, for instance, had the Joao Havelange-led world governing body FIFA declared the match “high risk” and replaced the originally named official with Loustau? It was indeed a question that was already being asked around the Stadium when the score was still goalless and it took on new life, new venom, perhaps, after the Argentinian’s rejection of the penalty appeal in the first half.
Yet another talking point among fans yesterday was the obvious overcrowding of the stadium. Designed to accommodate 25,000 fans, it had, speculation had it, housed upwards of 35,000. Given that, the covered stand aside, all accommodation consisted of concrete bleachers, it was quite possible to squeeze in thousands more than the structure was built to sustain. Indeed, fans were even crammed in into the aisles; despite TTFA general secretary Jack Warner’s protestations to the contrary, most commentators agreed yesterday that had there been an “incident,” FIFA would almost certainly have annulled the result even if T&T had registered an on-field victory.
Yesterday, however, FIFA Special Match Commissary Ernest Walker focused his attention only on the way the stadium crowd had responded to the defeat, saying that he had never seen anything like it in 40-odd years of international football.
“It’s amazing that an occasion like this could pass without incident. We (Scotland) were placed in a similar position a week ago – we needed just a draw to qualify – thank God we got it.
“But I was worried since Friday when I saw the overwhelming response from the people,” he told Wired868. “I believe that the occasion was too big for the (T&T) players. They were unable to handle it. Look at the tremendous burden you had on the backs of those players out there.
“I am sorry Trinidad and Tobago did not make it,” he continued. “Obviously, you all began to celebrate too early and the players never lifted their game to the occasion. “
Former Port of Spain Mayor, Hamilton Holder, was less diplomatic in the expression of his view: “We were celebrating a victory before it was won. That’s wrong. I hope we never do it again.”
That is a view clearly shared by Gally, the coach whose dream was so cruelly shattered. He told the country that if it were to happen again, the celebrations should come after the victory and not before.
“As it turned out,” he lamented, “we were the ones playing under pressure and not the USA.”
But perhaps the biggest question the local media will be asking will be for secretary Warner, the most outspoken official in the days leading up to the finale. Based on the large number of people holding tickets who were unable to find accommodation inside the Stadium, estimates are that some 45,000 tickets were sold in all.
In addition, the “Football Massive” initiative that provided large screens around the country for fans who could not get into the stadium would have generated more revenue to go with the income accruing from the sale of Strike Squad jerseys.
Will the members of the all-amateur squad of players who, against all odds, came so close to making T&T the smallest nation, in size and population, to play at the World Cup Finals, derive any tangible benefits from their herculean efforts? Or will the post-match accounts show the TTFA breaking even or even in the red?
Over to you, Mr Warner.