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Shaka: Here’s why T&T football needs the SSFL

Before I get going in earnest let me start by admitting my own bias. I haven’t actually lived in Trinidad and Tobago for well over 25 years now. As much as I’ve tried to keep up with the local game, it’s been through the media and I fully appreciate that being ‘on the ground’ provides an invaluable insight into our footballing landscape.

Also, I am a product and a huge fan of the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL)—or the Colleges League at it was called back then. As much as I represented T&T at just about every youth level as far as I can remember, without my ‘escape’ to the Colleges League, I can say with some certainty, I would’ve quit the game by age 16.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop calms everyone down during the nation's 2006 World Cup opening group match against Sweden. (Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto Schmidt)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop calms everyone down during the nation’s 2006 World Cup opening group match against Sweden.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto Schmidt)

So please don’t try to convince me that the Secondary Schools Football League is detrimental to our game. Please, don’t.

Over the last few years I’ve been afforded the opportunity to interact with some of the major stakeholders and decision makers in the game, regionally and globally. Regionally, particularly in the United States and Mexico, the approach can be summed up by the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase used over the last 18 months or so. The objective isn’t to gleam the cream off the top, but to raise the standard of the game at every level. By doing so, those at the top would ultimately benefit most.

And let’s be honest here, taking the best players out of the league would effectively kill the SSFL, and with it the opportunity for those players who may not be deemed good enough or do not want to play at a Pro League academy. At 16 or 17, I would’ve fallen into one of those two categories.

Photo: Naparima College midfielder and Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team defender Martieon Watson (right) advances with the ball while St Anthony's College midfielder Shakeem Patrick looks on during the SSFL Big Four competition. Watson, a sixth form student, is also a W Connection player. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: Naparima College midfielder and Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team defender Martieon Watson (right) advances with the ball while St Anthony’s College midfielder Shakeem Patrick looks on during the SSFL Big Four competition.
Watson, a sixth form student, is also a W Connection player.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

Apart from which, why is the SSFL to blame when “we have boys who should be fighting for a place in W Connection or Central’s first team at 17, 18 or 19 choosing to play school’s football?”

There are any number of people you can castigate for that: the TT Pro League, the clubs, their academies, the coaches, the player, the player’s parents, look you can blame Brer Anancy for all I care. But you surely can’t blame and consequently punish the SSFL for giving a player an opportunity that he enjoys.

Through all the talk and suggestion about what or who is at fault for our recent failings and how it should be addressed, I believe it is high time that we have an honest and earnest discussion about our football. We need to define our footballing identity and let that be the foundation on which all of our game is built. We have to get away from this four-year shifting of focus, that merely reflects who won the last World Cup. (We aren’t the only ones guilty of this by any means).

After 1998 when France won, there were calls for a Bloemfontein-esque national football academy. Then in 2002, we needed to play more beach soccer and futsal—a game I’m a huge fan of as a development tool, but that’s for another day—like the Brazilians do.

Photo: Brazil midfielder Ronaldinho (centre) controls the ball between a quartet of Croatian opponents. (Copyright AFP 2014/Antonio Scorza)
Photo: Brazil midfielder Ronaldinho (centre) controls the ball between a quartet of Croatian opponents.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Antonio Scorza)

After 2006, we needed to be better defensively and tactically just like the Italians. In 2010, we needed more tikki-takka (more on Spain in a minute) as Spain rewrote the way the game was supposed to be played. And now we have to be more disciplined, just like the Germans.

When and where will this nonsense stop?

I read somewhere that, late in the last century, Spain’s footballing minds sat down to have a look at their consistent failings and how it should be addressed. They admitted that they’d never be able to match the likes of the Germans and the English in a physical game. Their fans didn’t want to see them playing defensively like the Italians, even if it meant winning 1-0. But they knew they were very good technically.

The resulting philosophy was simple, if we had the ball the opposition didn’t, they couldn’t hurt us and we’d dictate the game for the most part. And so tikki-takka was born.

They then set out to certify as many coaches as possible, at every level—Spain has more certified coaches than almost anyone—so that everyone, from the bottom to the top, understood the philosophy.

Photo: Spain playmaker Xavi (left) dances away from Italy midfielder Riccardo Montolivo. (Copyright AFP 2014/Patrick Hertzog)
Photo: Spain playmaker Xavi (left) dances away from Italy midfielder Riccardo Montolivo.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Patrick Hertzog)

Yes, they were buoyed by Barcelona playing similarly, and the success that they had. And, yes, the style may vary slightly depending on the personnel or the coach. And, yes, you may criticize tikki-takka itself. But what you cannot question is the success that having a clear national footballing identity has brought to the Spanish national team.

Back in the early 2000s, I met with the newly appointed Minister of Sport, Roger Boynes—I really can’t remember what was the intended nature of the meeting—as it happened, the soon-to-be Minister of Sport Anil Roberts was also present. The TT Pro League was still in its infancy.

I suggested that the approach of the league could better benefit all of our football. I felt, and still do, that clubs should align themselves with schools in their region. The clubs would have first ‘dibs’ on the players coming out of those schools, that’d ensure a natural progression of the talent coming out of the SSFL.

Probably more importantly, given the crowds at Pro League games, there’d also be a natural progression of the fan base—the SSFL was well supported back then.

Photo: Naparima College players (from left) Shane Sandy, Nicholas Thomas and Martieon Watson celebrate another goal during their 6-0 SSFL Premier Division romp over Shiva Boys HC. (Courtesy DP Images/Wired868)
Photo: Naparima College players (from left) Shane Sandy, Nicholas Thomas and Martieon Watson celebrate another goal during their 6-0 2014 SSFL Premier Division romp over Shiva Boys HC.
(Courtesy DP Images/Wired868)

The Pro League club would also be responsible for sending coaches to oversee and assist in the coaching of the school teams, ensuring that all the players were exposed to the professionalism it takes to earn a living playing the game, the best players were well educated in the club’s philosophy and the club’s young and upcoming coaches were given an opportunity to gain valuable experience.

The investment and benefit would be mutual without affecting either’s autonomy.

As luck would have it—and, yes, I’m fully aware of how politicized our football has become—there is a TTFA Presidential election and a general election coming up this year. Regardless of their outcomes, whoever wins will have the minimum security of a four-year term to properly address the game.

It’s high time to get all our game’s stakeholders—the TTFA, TT Pro League, SSFL, Primary Schools Football league, Ministry of Sport, Ministry of Education, coaches and commercial partners—to define our own footballing identity.

Photo: San Juan North captain and striker Brent Sam (centre) shoots past St Anthony's College midfielder Leon Whyle in Big Four action. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: San Juan North captain and striker Brent Sam (centre) shoots past St Anthony’s College midfielder Leon Whyle in Big Four action.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

How can we lift all boats? Let that be our New Year’s resolution for 2016.

Progress, after all, is not a zero-sum game.

About Shaka Hislop

Shaka Hislop
Shaka Hislop is a football analyst with ESPN and a 2006 World Cup player with Trinidad and Tobago. He played professionally in England with Reading, Newcastle, West Ham and Portsmouth and has an Executive MBA in Business Administration and a Mechanical Engineering degree from Howard University. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame athlete in Trinidad and Tobago and Howard while he was the inaugural winner of the England PFA's Special Merit Award for his services to football.

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64 comments

  1. Kelvin why can’t you go to school and still play football. Get some kind of studying done.

  2. The argument people make is that if an aspiring footballer does not make it.. What next? Or if he gets injured? What will he do? The answer is something else.. Everyone cannot be a doctor, or lawyer.. It’s not possible.. Football is a career like many other careers.. If a doctor loses his licence because of an honest mistake.. What will he do? Something else..

  3. Kirwin.. Most people don’t like hearing it. I will say it openly. I could tell if a kid of 16years has a good chance of becoming a good professional footballer. I’m not saying to not go to school between the ages of 5-16… No way.. However.. At around the age of 15 a child and his coaches will more than likely have an idea if professional football is realistic. This thing about going off to university in the US puts you at a disadvantage, that’s if one wants to be a proper professional..

  4. I don’t think it’s a straight choice between school and football. The argument of Nature vs. Nurture arises from that. If the environment is conducive to education and football, it is possible. Most times it isn’t forcing someone to select either or.

  5. Also.. If one wants to be a proper professional footballer being successful in a good league.. This may cause an uproar but it’s a straight choice between school and football.. Not both.. Some, very few, in the past have done both but in my opinion it’s a straight choice..