The Trinidad and Tobago Football Association’s (TTFA) elite youth teams were thrown into varying levels of disarray this week, as the Boys National Under-14 and Women’s National Under-15 Teams struggled to get to their respective competitions in Curaçao and the United States.
On Friday night, the TTFA chartered a Liat plane to take to the Boys Under-14 Team to Curaçao, which left coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier’s outfit with barely 14 hours on the island before their first Caribbean Football Union (CFU) fixture against Guyana at the Ergilio Hato Stadium in Willemstad.
For the Women’s Under-15 Team, the situation is far more dire though. The Trinidad and Tobago outfit are scheduled to play their opening Concacaf Women’s Under-15 Championship fixture against Bermuda at the IMG venue in Florida from 9am on Monday.
However, as of Saturday morning, the girls did not even have visas, let alone booked flights. The team’s visa appointment at the US Embassy is set for after the completion of the competition and manager Vernetta Flanders admitted that there was no guarantee they would get to the tournament at all.
“The girls remain hopeful and we know people are working hard to ensure we get there,” Flanders told Wired868. “So we are still hopeful of getting to the tournament. We are working to get there.”
It might not be what football stakeholders had in mind when TTFA president David John-Williams unveiled his National Youth Elite Programme on Friday 14 October 2016.
John-Williams, who is also the owner of Pro League club W Connection, announced a four-year deal from the National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB) worth TT$8 million—which was approved by former chairman Marvin Johncilla and is the largest sponsorship deal in NLCB’s history—while the local football body promised to invest a further $2 million into the project, which meant the elite programme was a TT$10 million project.
“In broad terms, this National Youth Elite Programme will seek to foster the dedication and discipline required to be a successful professional sportsman,” said John-Williams, “and instil a professional approach to football in Trinidad Tobago from a very early age, and at the same time integrating the program into communities. Thus creating a national bond that will allow for the rekindling of the national spirit with a home grown team.”
The promised features of the elite youth programme included:
- A programme of year-round coaching, training and national team duty inclusive of two four-week periods of being ‘in camp’;
- A schedule of games including one friendly international game every two to three months;
- Procuring the necessary personal and team performance recording and monitoring equipment to enable scientific performance analysis and assessment;
- Implementing a Personal Development Program (PDP) for each player, including nutrition education, educational assessment and tutoring for the players;
- Maintaining a players’ ledger on all those involved in the program to ensure accuracy of their playing history and professional career progress;
- Promoting the formation of a parent and family support unit for the players, inclusive of tutors and mentors who will facilitate life skills coaching and training as required.
Two years later, the elite teams are believed to have been kept in training as promised but there have been no international matches for either squad. The only international exercise for that age group came at the 2017 Boys CONCACAF Under-15 Championship—in which coach Russell Latapy’s team scored once and conceded 21 goals in four matches, inclusive of a 8-1 hammering by Jamaica.
Elite programme coordinator Gary St Rose, who is one of seven current or past W Connection officials employed with the project, said he was not at liberty to provide details on the two national youth teams to the media.
“Unfortunately or fortunately, there is a protocol in place and all elite programme media relations should be directed to Mr Shaun Fuentes or Wayne Cunningham,” St Rose told Wired868. “This has been in place for close to a year now.”
TTFA general secretary Justin Latapy-George could not be reached for comment while press officer Shaun Fuentes said his colleague, Wayne Cunningham, had jurisdiction over the youth programme.
Cunningham, who is in Curaçao with the Boys Team at present, promised to get back to Wired868 regarding the queries on the elite programme. But he spoke earlier about the Boys Under-15 Team and said that all is fine, despite their late arrival for competition.
Cunningham even suggested that the U-15 Boys were early.
“Nothing is happening with the team other than we got in a day early because we were initially supposed to get to Curaçao today,” said Cunningham. “But we were able to get a Liat charter which left around 9:30pm yesterday and got in at midnight.
“We couldn’t afford to get them here two days earlier because the prices were ridiculous and we actually saved money by getting the charter.”
Wired868 asked whether the problem was the TTFA booked too late to travel during the school vacation—hence the increased prices.
Cunningham did not reveal when manager Wesley Webb tried to book their flights; but he said it was not a big deal and international teams often flew to play on the same day.
“This is an Under-14 development tournament [and] the medical staff say it isn’t an issue [for them to play within 14 hours of a one hour and 15 minute flight],” said Cunningham. “I don’t think we booked it too late. I think the prices were too high.”
The Women’s Under-15 Team, according to coach Marlon Charles, tried to get visas and flights within a week of their opening match in Florida. The US Embassy turned down the TTFA’s request for expedited visas.
“The Embassy’s visa situation is the problem,” said Charles. “I think last week we applied because we had to wait to get the names of the travelling players first.”
TTFA technical director Anton Corneal suggested that Concacaf and the US Embassy were not doing enough to assist national sporting organisations.
“Normally the Embassy would help us but, this time, the regular date they gave us was way after the tournament,” said Corneal. “And we went through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they also couldn’t get us a visa… This is something where you now have to question these tournaments being played in the US. You would think the Embassy would support us; because this is a national team going to compete and not just somebody going on a vacation.
“With a national team, you can’t pick a final squad a month before. So it is only if you get visas for everyone who is training…”
So, Wired868 asked, why didn’t the TTFA get visas for a shortlist of 26 or 28 players in advance?
Corneal explained that would be a financial issue and he did not have enough information to respond.
“Normally, Concacaf would send money for visas and tickets; but I don’t know when that money came in and if it came in early,” said Corneal. “So I can’t really go into a discussion as to whether the issue was the TTFA. If I knew, I would be able to speak with more authority; but we have to find solutions.
“[…] This is always an issue in the Caribbean—and remember most of the other islands have to go to Barbados to get their visas. We need to sit with the US Embassy to come up with an agreement for sport teams, because I doubt this happens to football alone. [And] if it means tournaments are played in a neutral country until this is rectified, then Concacaf should do that.
“It is killing the dreams of young players and could even make some players walk away from the sport, after working so hard… And to think USA, Mexico and Canada will be hosting a World Cup!”
It is uncertain if any other Caribbean teams are in the same predicament. Wired868 understands that Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis and Grenada are already in Florida—although the latter two teams had to travel to Barbados first, since neither have a US Embassy in their own country.
Should Charles’ troops get to Florida for the Women’s Under-15 Championship, it would be the first time that Trinidad and Tobago will compete in the competition’s second tier—where they will avoid Concacaf’s top ranked nations.
In the inaugural Concacaf Women’s competition in 2014, the young Women Soca Warriors, under then coach Rajesh Latchoo, finished with bronze medals and narrowly missed out on a place in the final, after a 1-0 loss to Canada.
But two years later—and roughly eight months into the term of new president John-Williams—the T&T women, coached by Charles, failed to get out of their group and conceded 38 goals in four matches while scoring just four. They were hammered 22-0 by the United States and 11-0 defeat by Mexico.
Despite a year and a half of the elite programme, Charles does not feel that his new squad can compete with the best in Concacaf and recommended that they face second tier opposition, which the confederation permitted.
“The main reason I chose to go to the second tier is so the girls could at least be able to compete,” said Charles. “The last U-15 team started in same year and I had a few months to teach the girls everything [from] how to run, pass and control. This time the preparation is a little better because the girls were in their zones last year and then I had them this year—two days a week from January, then three days a week and finally four days a week from June.
“[…] Latchoo [allegedly] had his team for about two years to work with them. You will always struggle when you don’t have that sort of time to work with your team—especially in this age group, in which players are now learning the basics of football.”
Charles said his players are excited by the challenge that awaits in Florida.
“They want that experience of playing and travelling and seeing other teams play,” said the coach. “This is a great learning experience for these young kids.”
Corneal, who headed a TTFA women’s football “situation analysis” in midweek, said much of their investment in this team—the football body collected TT$2.3 million of the promised $4 million from NLCB over the last two years—could be lost if they do not make it to the Concacaf tournament and parents and players react badly to the disappointment.
“It is tough because it can really break a young player’s dream and morale,” said Corneal. “It is difficult for a young player to even have to go through this adversity and people either come out worse or better from adversity.
“[…] We need to sit down with the US Embassy and create a pathway [to deal with visa applications] when a national team is chosen.
“They have rules and regulations but meeting with a national organisation is a bit different to a person going on a holiday. And this meeting has to be done in the very short future.”