“What a game, eh!” exclaimed Trinidad and Tobago Women’s National Senior Team coach Jamaal Shabazz, as he opened last night’s post-game media conference. “[It was] not one [that’s] good for the heart but sometimes you have to fight.
“Sometimes you don’t like to fight but fighting sometimes is good for you. And tonight it proved good for us.”
The Women Soca Warriors have a fight on their hands if they are to advance past the first phase of their France 2019 World Cup qualifying adventure. Last night, despite enjoying home advantage at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, they trailed St Kitts and Nevis until the 77th minute and could eventually only muster a 1-1 draw.
St Kitts and Nevis, mind you, are ranked 130th and 118th in the world in the men’s and women’s game respectively while their entire population of 55,000 people is less than the residents of San Fernando.
The Trinidad and Tobago women’s outfit spent the better part of the last 15 months together, training as often as five times a week with many squad members pocketing monthly stipends of up to TT$8,000—which makes them the best paid footballers based in the country, regardless of sex.
All 14 players used by Shabazz last night have represented Trinidad and Tobago at Concacaf level before while six were key components of Randy Waldrum’s team, which came within a whisker of the Canada 2015 World Cup Finals.
On the other hand, St Kitts and Nevis, according to their spritely 34-year-old coach Earl Jones, only brought their full squad together three and a half weeks ago.
Yet, on Sunday evening, when a place in the Caribbean final round will be at stake. the pair of two-island countries will be on virtually even terms.
Trinidad and Tobago have a two-goal advantage on goal difference over St Kitts and Nevis and, when they begin the second game of tomorrow’s double-header, the hosts will know the score required to see them through. SKN face the United States Virgin Islands from 4pm while T&T tackle Grenada from 6:30pm in Couva.
As usual, Shabazz was paternal, easy-going and engaging when he faced the media yesterday. But he may need some more prosaic qualities tomorrow with the women’s game much closer to the precipice than his composed demeanour might suggest.
Since he reclaimed the women’s position from Carolina Morace last July after a six-year hiatus, Shabazz’s tenure—judging from the ‘wins column’—has been a disaster. The National Under-17 Team failed to advance past the Caribbean stage while, despite having home advan, the Under-20s finished bottom of their Concacaf group and without a single point.
Perhaps Shabazz spoke too soon last Monday when, after a 10-0 mauling of USVI and 3-0 win over Dominica, he declared that he had “a little smile.”
“I have not been smiling for a long time since I came back in women’s football,” said Shabazz. “Fa-Inna maAAa alAAusri yusran [which is Arabic for] verily after the hardship comes the ease.”
God, as we should know by now, has a wry sense of humour.
Three days later, Shabazz’s former captain Maylee Attin-Johnson, whom he had graciously invited to rejoin the team for the next round, declared on TV6 that she would essentially be wasting her time if she climbed on board.
“At international level, it more often that not boils down to coaching and tactics,” said Attin-Johnson. “And I don’t think the staff they have is good enough.”
The timing was unhelpful but so was Shabazz’s decision to start inviting players to join his squad in mid-tournament. And now, here we are.
“[Maylee] is [like] my daughter […] and sometimes daughters say hurtful things about fathers,” said Shabazz. “But you have to accept that this is a girl (sic) who always speaks her mind and it is no problem for us. We accept that this is her view and her opinion […] and I love her very dearly.”
For now, the Women Warriors have to forget about Attin-Johnson, Kennya Cordner, Arin King and the other talents who may or may not join the squad in the later rounds. St Kitts and Nevis, as they have already demonstrated, are not here to act as door mats.
“We [did not] come here to lie down,” said Jones, who was a blur of movement on the touchline last night, “and we are coming with fire in our eyes… I guarantee you that!”
Trinidad and Tobago took the kick-off last night; yet, within the first minute, SKN had already won two corners. Veteran Warriors defender Ayana Russell clumsily allowed the second set piece to hit her hand and opposing captain Phoenetia Browne made no mistake from the penalty spot.
Browne, who was born in St Kitts but migrated to the United States at the age of seven, was one of four overseas-based players in the SKN line-up along with the Canada-bred trio of midfielder Cloey Uddenberg, attacker Brittney Lawrence and goalkeeper Kira Dickinson.
Dickinson, a former Howard University student and her national team’s vice-captain, now plays professionally in Sweden and was, arguably, the game’s outstanding player last night.
“Coachman, I am not going to let you down tonight,” Dickinson had told Jones before kick-off.
And Dickinson’s competence on set pieces and grasp of angles was more than a match for the Trinidad and Tobago offence, which kept trying to recreate the long-range crackers that had produced goals earlier in the series.
Three saves in particular from close quarters—against Mariah Shade, Tasha St Louis and substitute Aaliyah Prince—were of exceptional quality. And, even when St Louis did beat her with a free kick on the edge of the SKN penalty box, Dickinson got a hand on the ball but just could not claw it away.
“We created 16 or 17 chances, the same amount and even more than when we played the other teams,” said Shabazz, with only a slight exaggeration. “[…] They are better on the ball [than our earlier opponents]. They have three or four really talented players in attack and, for the first time in the tournament, we really had to defend.
“If we had scored our chances, it would have been an easier game but Allah prescribes for us, not we prescribe for us. The Almighty decided we must fight and it was a good tonic [as opposed to us] getting accustomed to rolling teams.”
Shabazz had a point. Trinidad and Tobago created more and enjoyed more possession than any of their opponents in Group C. And, while SKN were at full strength, the hosts have an embarrassment of riches—at least by Caribbean standards—still expected to join the team.
In that sense, it would be overly dramatic to use the word “crisis.”
Sooner or later, though, Shabazz will have to prove his worth in results.
“Throughout this tournament, the speed of [play by Trinidad and Tobago] is a bit worrisome,” said the veteran coach. “It is an area we need to work on, bringing the ball forward a bit faster.”
But Shabazz has been in charge for 10 months already while the Women Warriors have played eight internationals under his watch.
If they cannot deliver emphatically on Sunday against the group’s bottom-placed team, Attin-Johnson will not be the only person who thinks Shabazz has passed his sell-by date. And, frankly, qualifying from such a straightforward group is the least local football fans should expect and does not in itself remove all doubts about the current direction of the team.
For now, Shabazz is the epitome of coolness.
“If we understand the game, we will see we created chances; we [just] didn’t score our chances,” he said. “It is not a major concern because we got the point; all of this too is part of the growth.
“[…] They showed good character to claw their way back, they showed they wanted it and I am happy with that.”
There is one hurdle left on Sunday before the Women Warriors can begin thinking about the next step in earnest. If the Almighty is willing, of course.
Shabazz—who also made a gesture of solidarity to Muslim trainee teacher Nafisah Nakhid, who was prevented from taking up duties at Lakshmi Girls’ unless she removes her hijab—urged Trinidad and Tobago football fans to continue to stand by their women.
“While you’re in the situation, you’re thinking, ‘My God, will we be humiliated today?’” said Shabazz, “but it is part of the journey to have difficult moments, to have moments of anxiety. The nation must feel that with us too.
“[If] you’re supporting but you’re only supporting when we’re up, then you’re not supporting.”
2019 World Cup qualifiers Group C
(Saturday 19 May)
St Kitts and Nevis 2 (Brittney Lawrence 8, 11), Dominica 1 (Romelcia Phillip 10) at Ato Boldon Stadium;
Trinidad and Tobago 10 (Patrice Superville 16, Mariah Shade 36, 40, 81, 89, Karyn Forbes 37, Tasha St Louis 39, Jenelle Cunningham 43, Kedie Johnson 60, Katelyn Wiater OG 73), USVI 0 at Ato Boldon Stadium;
(Monday 21 May)
USVI 3 (Maya Wright 74, Bianca Canizio 89, Tamika Aguilar 90+2), Grenada 0 at Ato Boldon Stadium;
Trinidad and Tobago 3 (Jenelle Cunningham 5, Rhea Belgrave 36, Karyn Forbes 54), Dominica 0 at Ato Boldon Stadium.
(Wednesday 23 May)
St Kitts and Nevis 10 (Cloey Uddenberg 6, 19, 71, Phoenetia Browne 9, 52, Brittney Lawrence 40, 73, 85, Iyania Bailey-Williams 86, Leranja Wilkinson 89), Grenada 0 at Ato Boldon Stadium;
USVI 0, Dominica 3 (Keanna Francis 23, Romelcia Phillip 49, 88) at Ato Boldon Stadium;
(Friday 25 May)
Grenada 1, Dominica 1 at Ato Boldon Stadium;
Trinidad and Tobago 1 (Tasha St Louis 79), St Kitts and Nevis 1 (Phoenetia Browne 2 pen) at Ato Boldon Stadium.
(Sunday 27 May)
St Kitts and Nevis vs USVI, 4pm, Ato Boldon Stadium;
Grenada vs Trinidad and Tobago, 6:30pm, Ato Boldon Stadium.
5—Brittney Lawrence (St Kitts and Nevis),
4—Mariah Shade (Trinidad and Tobago),
3—Romelcia Phillip (Dominica), Phoenetia Browne [1 pen], Cloey Uddenberg (St Kitts and Nevis),
2—Jenelle Cunningham, Tasha St Louis, Karyn Forbes (Trinidad and Tobago),
1—Keanna Francis (Dominica), Iyania Bailey-Williams, Leranja Wilkinson (St Kitts and Nevis), Patrice Superville, Kedie Johnson, Rhea Belgrave (Trinidad and Tobago), Maya Wright, Bianca Canizio, Tamika Aguilar (USVI),