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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.

AboutShaka 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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114 comments

  1. Keith is a talker internet intelegent held most position in foitball best suscess was at Malik in the collages league he has one of the worst track record as a national coach around the 80, s losing every game around 6-0 got the worst beating in club championship with fomer joe public 8 -0 half time he was down about 5-0 and told the players once we do not get more than 5-0 in the second half the lost 8-0 mr Warner held a meeting 3 am that morning when they got back put evey one to sit on the floor and treaten to close it down .

  2. W cobbextiin coaches are into the schools pro league clubs benefiting from collages players it was once the breeding ground for clubs an natiinal teams in the 50, s 60, s 70,’ and up to the 80, s simple because again no avenues for other development keith was a college coach and most of his selection for his national team back then was outstanding collages players back then you play Eddie Hearts youth football other than that waa basically collages league into a national team now you have jus under 5 months youth pro league an by september back to SSFl . All over European you have u 17 and u 21 or u 23 championship same as south America what do we have here ssfl or youth pro league

  3. Mr. Look Loy is looking at this from a Techinal perspective and in that sense he is right! However, the SSFL has what the PL doesn’t, which is Mass Appeal! So until the PL can establish itself and become more attractive, the SSFL will continue to b the preferred outlet and platform for Young Men!

  4. All I have to say is if we don’t get the best technical coaches in the business to get these kids early to master the individual techniques needed to play the game properly, all this talk is smoke and mirrors. We don’t need to teach kids systems because every coach they go to will introduce them to his or her own system. What we need is to teach them how to trap, pass, head, etc. If our national team is not an example of why we need to do that then nothing will convince you guys. When you have guys playing at that level and they cannot make simple passes with consistency or protect the ball under pressure, it matters not about who is to blame. We all are. Too many so called coaches in this country are concerned only about winning and exploit the young kids’ raw talent without spending the time to refine the talent. For example, at the youth level, a speedy kid can outrun a defense all day until he gets to the next level where everybody is as fast as him and stronger than him, then what?

  5. Yeah the Sunshine Snacks under 14 youth league produced alot of youth players, like Colin Rock, Clint Marcelle, Marvin Faustin, Sean “Yellow man” Constatine, Kurt Barrington, The Butcher Family, Russell The Magician Latapy, Sean Walks” and I can go on and on, and why did that youth tournament just ended just so, just so eh did the company Sunshine Snacks went out of business eh. Them really good yes.

  6. If the SSFL are one of the avenues for youth foitball why not the youth pro league is one of the only other avenue we once had the TNT cup Alvin corneal the super league also once had a youth arm however there are no youth championship held by the federation an keith and others who was once part of youth development no one has voice to national youth structure .

  7. Some parents may find it difficult to place their minor child in the environment of an adult football club with adult footballers…and the exposure that may bring

  8. This was David Nakhid’s view during a previous interview:
    “Nakhid, a former Grasshoppers (Switzerland) and New England Revolution (MLS) playmaker, also proposed a new paradigm for the development of players in the Caribbean that seeks smooth relations between schools and professional clubs.

    He believes the Caribbean must have a professional league and said the CFU might be the last region in global football to be without a properly organised competition. However, he thinks schools can and should remain the bedrock of player development.

    “The Caribbean is very much school-based and community-based (and) we are very distinct in that way from Europe where things revolve around clubs,” said Nakhid. “I can tell you what a small European nation did that we can learn from.

    “In the 1990s, Belgium introduced a template in which incentives were given to primary schools and secondary schools, where, if they produced players for the national level, they got funding for school grounds and so on… I know because I played there.

    “Some parents oppose sending their children to clubs but they allow them to represent their schools. This template forces schools to invest in better coaching and create more curriculum time for football because it pays off in real economic terms.”

  9. OK so what about the 16 year old and older kids who not interested in professional football how they getting a scholarship without exposure

    • “Grayson, a former national player and coach, helped develop the likes of Dwayne Demmin, Brent Bennett, Sherwin Siefert and the late Mickey Trotman, who all graduated from the SSFL to study in the United States. And he challenged the Pro League to either adjust their sessions to allow teenagers to continue at school or fall in line with FIFA’s guidelines for the coaching of minors, which means tutors or private schooling.”

  10. Players making club debut in the English League at 16 years but we have 18 to 19 year old in SSFL I think it is a backward step…a player who loves the game at that age should be in a club …can we name other teenaged players called into the senior team other than Levi Garcia..

  11. I’m agreeing with Keith Look Loy and we could have the both just make it mandatory that SSFL is only til you reach 15..

    • I would say 16 personally. 🙂

    • Why? So students form 1-3 playing for their school? What about forms 4-6 that’s not reasonable and it’s also impossible for all “school stars” to make club teams. They get the exposure in SSFL and the confidence with proper coaches discipline that is needed for club level. Until we have a proper football league that is properly managed, funded etc SSFL is all some very talented young men would ever see

    • I was 15 years old in Form Five. I’d say 16 should generally be Form Four or Five. At 17, I think the better players would develop more by playing against strong, better players.
      The flip side is that the Pro League clubs have to be ready to facilitate the players. Some players told me that W Connection has asked boys to drop out of school to play for them. I’m vehemently against that.

    • Lasana Liburd that’s ideal let’s leave it there where I am we have 14 in form 1

    • The top 100 makes a lot of Primary schools keep down students ( yes some need to) but the dynamics of the school system has changed, also as a reflection of society at large the “quality” of students have changed. If I have to give a cut off it would 17 which in my school is the average form 5 and other places a L6 student

    • The form of the student isnt the issue. This has to do with physiology. There was a form one league. Should a 11 year old and a 15 year old play together.

    • DeNyssa well that is still better than the current age limit, which is 20. Players who leave the SSFL at 20, like Brent Sam, really set themselves back.

    • Anthony N. Wilson that is an excellent point. It gives the 15 year old a false sense of accomplishment.

    • Again I reiterate unless and until there are avenues for everyone SSFL is what these youths have because training with a professional club is fine but they not making the bench much less the field. So have a proper Jr. Pro league then yes, for now it’s the SSFL

    • A 16 year old who is a form 4 or form 5 student is first a footballer or a student? To me this what it really comes down to. I don’t agree with having a mandatory age limit at 16 simply because: 1) Most 16 year olds aren’t mature enough to play professionally, so when you limit these guys how does this help them? 2) Most pro league teams do not have the structure to properly develop most 16 year olds.
      3) Not all 16 year olds want to play pro football, maybe they just want to play for school with classmates and friends etc. The decision of whether a 16 year old should try go make WConnection or Central should be personal and not instituted!

    • Taharka from time to time, national youth coaches have banned their players from participating in the SSFL from a certain cut off point or outright.
      The rules would be really aimed at the national players.
      In other football countries, they won’t play for schools at all from even younger than that.
      But we do have to consider our realities here too and our pro league hasn’t shown it can take care of teenagers.
      Below I think David Nakhid mentioned a fair compromise.
      I’d agree with you that the best case scenario won’t work here because our adult clubs aren’t up to the task.

    • Lasana Liburd I agree with Nakhid. I always use the example of track and field in Jamaica….we don’t have the resources or situation to allow clubs to develop 16 year olds…incentivize schools to do so (as Nakhid said). Maybe a few talented 16 year old can move to pro league clubs, but let’s face it, there are almost no 16 year old SSFL player who can consistently hold down a place on Pro league teams at the moment…maybe with the right Development they can do it at 19…my fear is what can happen if the Development from 16-19 is carried out by pro leagues teams!

    • It is easier to create system to develop players in school than at clubs here. The other question is whether the schools are doing enough of that.
      But you make some good points.

    • Taking in and appreciating the discussion stimulated as always.

  12. Love Shaka Hislop this response is correct!

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

  14. 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..

  15. 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..

  16. 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.

  17. 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..