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.
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.
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.
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.
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 misplaced—at 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.
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.