Jamaal Shabazz, head coach of the Trinidad and Tobago Women’s Under-20 team, is well aware that Trinidad and Tobago could use a positive boost in these tense and negative times. And he believes that his players have what it takes to give the embattled nation the inspiration it needs.
“It would be good to give the nation some upliftment in this very difficult period,” Shabazz told Wired868 as the Junior Women Soca Warriors are deep in their preparations for the CONCACAF Under-20 Women’s Championship, “not just in our sport but overall.
“We are living in a time of conflict and war on the streets and the girls could make a huge statement.”
All 16 matches in the tournament, to be staged from the 18-28 January, will be played at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva and the Junior Women, in Group A, will do battle with Costa Rica, Canada and Haiti. The defending champions USA, Mexico, Nicaragua and Jamaica make up Group B and the three teams that come out on top in the championship will qualify for the 2018 FIFA Women’s Under-20 World Cup in France.
Shabazz does not believe that the additional “social responsibility” on the shoulders of his team represents additional on-the-field stress for his charges; he is confident his charges are well placed to handle the pressure.
“They understand,” he assured Wired868. “They played at Under-15 and Under-17 level and they know what it is to play in a CONCACAF tournament. So understanding that USA, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti, etc. that qualified will be forces is a plus.”
“But honestly, there can only be one ambition if you’re playing a CONCACAF tournament at home,” he continued, “in an Under-20 age group with a bunch of girls who are passionate and fearless. I think we want to give it our best shot because it’s a wonderful opportunity to qualify.”
Reminded that the National Women’s Under-17 team had failed to make it out of the group stage in the Caribbean leg of the CONCACAF qualifying series in October 2017 in Haiti, the experienced head coach immediately put the focus on a major difference—apart from the obvious one regarding playing at home.
“Because the Under-17s that went to the CFU finals in Haiti were not exposed to that level before, they didn’t understand what they were getting into. This group understands…”
That Under-17 team, which finished bottom of the group behind Jamaica and Bermuda, featured players like Moenesa Mejias, Nathifa Hackshaw, Aaliyah Prince and Tianna Daniel, all of whom have made the step up to the next age division. None of them, however, is among Shabazz’s list of go-to players, at least not yet, not in this tournament.
Shabazz revealed that he will be leaning heavily on his playmaker, Renae Ward, the elegant passer who recently led Bishop Anstey Port-of-Spain to the 2017 Girl’s National Intercol title. Ward’s team dismantled Pleasantville 6-0 on the back of her goal-scoring MVP performance.
According to Shabazz, defenders Natisha John and Shadi Cecily Stoute are also key players in his set-up but the composition of the final squad will be revealed at a media conference tomorrow. The decision about who will skipper the team is likely to be made public closer to the first game against Haiti on 18 January.
Having been involved in the national women’s game virtually from its infancy, Shabazz only took over the reins of the National Women’s football teams in July 2017, in the wake of the sudden departure of Italian Carolina Morace and her technical team. He noted that, generally speaking, today’s local players lack the technical ability of previous generations, a fact which has negatively impacted the country’s performance in recent tournaments.
“The players that we turning out are not as technically sound as the Maylee Attin-Johnson and the Kennya Cordner, etc.” Shabazz lamented. “Kennya, Attin-Johnson, Tasha St Louis, from 2000 to 2001 trained four days a week with no tournament in sight, on technical development. And look where they reached as players.”
He lauded the commitment of his staff—“Marlon Charles, Isla Browne, Kester Lendore, Jinelle James and company”—who used their own resources to scout and train players from the primary school level but expressed regret that that kind of thing “hasn’t been done since 2010.”
Appointed coach of Guyana’s National Senior Men’s team in 2011, Shabazz was involved exclusively in senior men’s football up until his July 2017 return to the Women’s game. But the reintegration into women’s football has not been without its challenges.
“It has been a more difficult a transition than I imagined,” he told Wired868. “The language I used in Guyana with a Senior Men’s National Team to get the best out of the player (was different and) the antics sometimes included physical force. But with Under-20 women and Under-17 women, it poses a different challenge.
“It has made me a more patient and understanding person.”
The Morvant Caledonia United owner cited as critical his understanding that women footballers may not be able to operate at the same speed and with the same intensity as their male counterparts. There is, therefore, a lingering lack of ease about his players’ ability to remain compact and maintain their intensity when covering the pressuring player.
A larger concern, however, was the recurrent issue of lack of funding. Were the money available, he would have liked, he said, “to get at least two more matches against high-level opposition, outside of the two (friendly) games against Jamaica.”
Praising the TTFA for its “tremendous effort,” he acknowledged that the money problem is not new but was particularly important because of the peculiar circumstances surrounding this team and this tournament.
“Funding has been a major issue and the Christmas period was always going to be difficult, which was the only time other than now that we would have gotten our full squad. Remember at least 40% of the team is living in North America so you have to prepare the team in two parts.”
But Shabazz gave the assurance that his team would not allow anything to stand in the way of its efforts at success in the tournament.
“All in all,” he ended, “what we lack in resources, we want to make up in attitude.”