Remember 19/11: O’Connor: Get over football tabanca

Peter O’Connor, TTFA president from 1985 through 1990, tells Wired868 that we should now stop crying over what we didn’t do and start celebrating what we have done well

“Thank you, Strike Squad. We love you still.”

The scoreboard is flashing those eight words large and brightly as I come back into the National Stadium. In my role as the president of the T&TFA, it was my responsibility to quickly escort President Noor Hassanali and his party to their cars immediately after the final whistle sounded in the fateful November 19 World Cup match against the United States.

Normally, I would have a difficult time getting back into the stadium against the flow of people exiting. Today, I find myself bounding up the empty stairwell. Everyone is still at their seats, some sitting, some standing, some weeping, some cheering, all applauding. I see the Strike Squad coming back onto the field, led by Clayton Morris, the captain. He is holding the national flag high above his head.

Photo: The Port of Spain National Stadium on November 19, 1989.
Photo: The Port of Spain National Stadium on November 19, 1989.

And the scoreboard is intermittently flashing its message of love. Alternating with the eight-word love note is this message of encouragement: “Congrats, USA. Do well in Italy.”

In our dark hour, someone had had the presence of mind to think of the victors who would be representing us all on the sport’s biggest stage in just under a year’s time. That arguably did not escape FIFA’s attention. Is that not essentially why Trinidad and Tobago won the FIFA Fairplay Award that year?

Sunday November 19 was a hot cloudless day. Although the preceding week had been full of rain, the field, closed to both teams during that time, was bone-hard. As the team made its long tortuous journey from Fyzabad, a massive crowd turned up at the Stadium and the gates were shut tight from as early as noon.

Still, the defining “mood” in the stands when the match began was not celebratory. We sat in crowded silence and gazed at a lacklustre match: few fouls, no offsides, no yellow cards and certainly no penalties!

With 15 minutes to play, we were still trailing to Paul Caligiuri’s speculative 31st minute shot but you could feel that we would not score. In earlier matches, we had come back to win or draw against Honduras, USA, Costa Rica and Guatemala but we all sensed deep inside that we weren’t going to do so today.

We did not. For me, it remains a defining moment in our history that we stood and summoned our beaten soldiers so that we could salute them. Despite stumbling at the very last hurdle, the Strike Squad had raised our hopes when times were hard and morale was very low. Without recrimination or regret, we acknowledged their sterling efforts and we walked away, temporarily despondent but with hope and pride in our hearts.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago's famous 1989 "Strike Squad". (Courtesy
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s famous 1989 “Strike Squad”.

All of that was 25 years ago but many of us remember it as if it were yesterday; we know where we were and how we felt. We “celebrated” the occasion with a “re-match” on the fifth anniversary in 1994 and again on the 15th anniversary in 2004.

But do we also know where we were and how we felt on November 16, 2005?

Will we as a people celebrate the 10th anniversary of that joyous day when T&T, the smallest nation ever to make an appearance on football’s grandest stage, finally put 1989 behind us and crossed the final hurdle that put us in Germany 2006? When 2030 rolls around, will we still “celebrate” the despair and heartbreak of November 19 or will we celebrate the unique achievement of November 16?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that being part of the 1994 and 2004 “celebrations” where the Strike Squad players were trotted out to replay the match which saw the United States qualify for Italia ’90 and break our hearts in the process, I learned something about myself. I realized that there was something unhealthy about this ghost that had haunted me for years. For too long, I had nursed a severe football tabanca.

Which is probably why, when Dennis Lawrence headed in the winner against Bahrain in November 2005, I rejoiced. My tabanca was over; I could love again.

Photo: Stern John (second from right) celebrates with goal scorer Dennis Lawrence (centre), Kenwyne Jones (far right), Aurtis Whitley (second from left) and Cyd Gray after going ahead against Bahrain on November 16, 2005. (Copyright AFP 2014)
Photo: Stern John (second from right) celebrates with goal scorer Dennis Lawrence (centre), Kenwyne Jones (far right), Aurtis Whitley (second from left) and Cyd Gray after going ahead against Bahrain on November 16, 2005.
(Copyright AFP 2014)

So today I can return to look at that bitter-sweet 1989 experience with new eyes. No longer am I able to understand my fascination, our fascination, with that day. With the rose-tinted glasses off, I can see clearly that it was an unspectacular football match that really is not, from a purely footballing point of view, memorable.

Perhaps it was not so much the day itself as the road we had travelled to get there that had etched itself in our psyches. Perhaps it was the faith in our future and the pride in ourselves that the Strike Squad had brought to a country seriously scarred by the hard times we were going through and seriously scared by the threat of economic collapse. Perhaps it was that emotionally we had invested too much in the team’s success and built a shaky castle upon those hopes…

The government was certainly confident enough in the team’s achievement to declare a national holiday in advance of its victory. And the red-clad country was certainly confident enough to let the partying start on the night before the match. And, tellingly, in Forest Reserve, where the team was trying to get a good night’s pre-match sleep…

And then on November 20, a team, a country and a government so cock-sure of going to Italy woke up to discover that the dream was a nightmare. The Yankees were going to Rome with not just Jean and Dinah but with our virgin bride as well. And neither Melda’s necromancy nor the vibrations of Rudder’s girl from Bahia nor the protestations of Sparrow’s pretty lil Martinican gyul could help us to undo that.

Photo: United States players celebrate at the Port of Spain National Stadium on November 19, 1989.
Photo: United States players celebrate at the Port of Spain National Stadium on November 19, 1989.

We had travelled the “Road to Italy” but had never reached the end!

Following a disastrous Pan American Games performance in the United States, Everald “Gally” Cummings was appointed national coach in 1987. “Gally” brought a level of leadership and discipline we had not seen before from any coach, local or foreign. He led us past Guyana in early 1988 and then past Honduras in November that same year, winning as well the Caribbean Football Union Championship in Guadeloupe in June.

In the TTFA, we were quietly optimistic that we could qualify; it was, however, an optimism the country continued to feel was misplacedat least until Kerry Jamerson’s thunderous blast against Guatemala gave us in everyone’s eyes a real chance. After that day, September 3, an eager nation, including the government and the corporate sector, fully embraced the Strike Squad.

If they, no, if we could beat the USA on November 19, we would be in Italy.

T&T turned red, thanks in large measure to Lancelot Layne, whose “Strike Squad” classic captured the upbeat mood and spawned a rash of supporting songs and calypsoes that set the whole country dancing on the Road to Italy.

Photo: Teenaged Trinidad and Tobago attacker Dwight Yorke came to prominence during the 1990 World Cup qualifying series.
Photo: Teenaged Trinidad and Tobago attacker Dwight Yorke came to prominence during the 1990 World Cup qualifying series.

And so it was that, on November 6, as we played a friendly against Club Vilnius of Lithuania at the National Stadium, the announcement came: The USA had just been held to a goalless draw by El Salvador. The buzz mounted to a roar as realization swept through the stadium; a draw against the USA in two weeks’ time would put us in Italy.

Had we not made the mistake of seeing this as a gift rather than a warning, we would, I submit, not today have been “celebrating” but truly celebrating November 19, 1989.

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About Peter O'Connor

Peter O’Connor served as TTFA president between 1985 and 1990 when he stepped down. He rejoined the TTFF in 2003 as “Marketing Manager/General Co-ordinator” and remained on board until after T&T’s qualification for Germany 2006.

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  1. …not celebrating a loss ..everyone knows that was the best Trinidad team in our lifetime that didn’t get their full due..i.e didn’t make it to the world cup because the corrupt people in charge made sure of it truly was a tragedy..that 2006 team was nowhere in their class.. 2006 was merely a weak consolation

  2. I was at that match and it was a very sad moment indeed… It was heart breaking to see ‘Grown men walking up Wrightson Road with a trickle of tears on their cheeks’… It was and still is being said that, “We were cheated.”… Peace.

  3. Maybe you should read the article then

  4. I know this may not be popular but why does it seem to me that we are a country that celebrates mediocrity. Why celebrate a loss is beyond my understanding.

  5. But I find he fass. They should of never changed the name from Strike Squad to begin with…

  6. @ Cheryl Ann Lalla. See what Briggs says. It would have meant different things to different people. To the young men of the nation this is what it meant. It was that one beautiful time in Trinidadian life that the country felt like one people.

  7. John Wayne, all yuh have court clothes or wat?

  8. remember how ur business was in trouble and the money you got set u back up?

  9. I decided not to comment on Mr O’Connor’s post because i didn’t expect anything different from him after all he was a member of the TTFA at the time.

  10. That’s it right there Ian R Briggs. I hear ya Chris. But what Briggs said is why I won’t dare forget for the good or the bad.

  11. Lasana Liburd and Trin Bagonian like allyuh ganging up on me? Lol. Let me just say that I was in the stadium on Nov. 19 bawling my eyes out like a little whimp!! Because I couldn’t understand why Michael Maurice couldn’t wear a cap like the US keeper? why Philbert Jones couldn’t fall in the box rather than trying to stay on his feet? why we couldn’t hold on for a draw on home soil? Yes I remember well!! And yet I say let’s keep it moving!!

  12. O’connor miss the whole point about that team…. we remember that team not for the loss but hat they represented…. Spirit , Fight and above all what it meant to be a trini…. That team embodied the true essence of our nation and above all represented US (every youth man playing ball in the streets, every father and mother that wash dirty socks for man to go play, every sister and girl friend that show up to watch football, every partner that take time off to go see their “boys” play… Every grandmother that stuff a $2 in a man pocket to travel and eat some parlor food)… They represented us… However, that game represented the best and worst of us as a society at large, and quite frankly can easily be argued as one of the major turning points in Trinidad sport…. I dont think the Trinidad sporting public, especially in football, has ever recovered and trusted the TTFA with events from that day….. The reason it resonates is that WE of that era remember a better TT, and know we can do better…

  13. I do get his point in part. And Chris’ too. But look through at life at the raw emotion of many dark days we remember in a special, nostalgic way.
    Nov 19 was our Titanic in a sense. In another way, it brought a togetherness for us like Sep 11 did in the US. It really isn’t just about us losing a boring football match.

  14. Hush O’connor every olympics I hear bout the US 1972 basketball team that was supposedly robbed. 1989 is a red letter day no pun intended. I celebrate Nov 16th every year as it not only buried Nov 19 but we achieved the goal of qualification. That being said there is no way the 25th anniversary of that momentous day must just pass with no regonition. We have no sense of history in a while you will not even know about Nov 16.

  15. Thanks for filling in the blanks Lasana Liburd…the Strike Squad magic was undeniable…it’s too bad the fans were turned away and/or trampled on…

  16. Also the events of November 19, many of which were not raised in this piece, made local fans very cynical thereafter.
    Many fans said they would never go to another Trinidad and Tobago game after this and some didn’t.
    That wasn’t because we lost. It was because they bought tickets to be a part of something magical but were then trampled and turned away at the gates.

  17. The 1974 team did not play any of its final qualifying games in Trinidad. And it had a foreign coach and sever foreign based players; not that they were not born and bred trinis…
    But part of the magic of the Strike Squad was the entire starting team was born and played right in Trinidad and Tobago while the coach was a 39 year old Trini and former local hero.
    They visited schools and we could watch them train or see all their practice matches. Also the majority of the team was under-25.
    Those are some of the reasons the Strike Squad will always be unique and hold a special emotional bond with us.

  18. Chris Whitehall I am sorry I cannot speak about the 1974 team….but I understand what you are trying to say. The point though is, not that we are *not* trying to keep it moving…we certainly are/should be…and with this Women Warriors team as well as the Soca Warriors…we are not trying to live in the past…we are looking to the future…but there is no reason we cannot celebrate the past still.

  19. Trin Bagonian point taken, but if we are going to celebrate losing then let’s celebrate the 1974 team also. They were actually robbed of going to the WC. I was also there on that faithful day, but I think we should just learn from our mistakes and keep it moving!!!

  20. Chris Whitehall if you can remember “Red Dawn” – that was the newspaper headline (I remember like it was yesterday) and remember the feeling throughout T&T….it was like “Spirit day” (some schools do this in the US) for T&T….this should not boil down to a loss, remember this team fought its way through many matches to get to this point and T&T saw hope through them….I will never forget that day….it seemed like the day T&T really united for the first time in my life….it’s like nothing I have ever felt to date….it’s not about celebrating a loss….although I honestly was wondering the same thing yesterday….but I finally have some clarity now….we cannot forget this team that gave us hope in the possibility of showing up at the World Cup for the first time…that’s unprecedented…so though we lost, we cannot forget the team or what they did for T&T that year, that day….and we must still celebrate…

  21. I can never understand why we still celebrate losing… This is the wrong message to send to young footballers if you are trying to groom champions.

  22. I for one will always cherish Nov 16

  23. I don’t think we should forget for they are the ones who truly inspired the 2006 team and brought back some togetherness in us

  24. Respect to you Mr. Connor for a nice piece going down memory lane, but I will disagree with you about the tabanca being gone. The Soca Warriors achievement is etched in our history, but the Strike Squad is etched our hearts. That side played to win, with no favors asked or given. This isn’t about comparing the teams, but understand there will always be that love for that team that no historian can cure. Leave me with my tabanca.

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