“We were up against a very good Mexican team. These guys play 10 months of football, more than our senior players locally, they are professionals. Their schedule is the same as the senior men’s, their fixtures are the same, they play the game maturely.”
This from T&T Under-15 head coach, Charles-Fevrier, who tried to explain his team’s 4-1 defeat to Concacaf giants Mexico in the TTFA Youth International Invitational on Sunday.
In the tunnel, TTFA president, David John-Williams, sought to drive the point home, adding: “You look at the Mexico team and the Venezuela team, those guys have played 15-20 internationals already. This is our sixth international, three against Caribbean opposition, three against top-quality opposition.”
Earlier in the tournament, the two-year-old T&T team also fell to Panama and Venezuela, teams that have been training together for a combined three months. In all, T&T conceded 13 goals in three matches, managed five in reply, and for most of their 270 minutes of play, they ceded possession of the ball.
Asked about the return on investment from the Under-15 men thus far, John-Williams doubled down: “What investment? We’re not even going quarter of the investment that these other countries are doing. If you listen carefully to what the Mexican coach said, this year these guys are seasoned campaigners at age 15. We don’t even have the money to match these countries. But I think we are going in the right direction.”
In 2016, TTFA penned a four-year TT$8 million sponsorship deal with the National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB) for the National Elite Youth Development Program.
John-Williams said T&T has a depth issue that cannot be addressed within the current group. “We have to continue scouting. Daily we are trying to get players. We are doing some scouting in the US; we already have two players that are interested out of the US.”
He added: “It’s a work in progress. It’s a four-year plan toward World Cup for the Under-17 boys and I think we can see clearly that there is room for improvement. But we can also see that we came a long way.”
For 75 minutes of their third match in four days, T&T showed what they were capable of. The display was their most composed for the week. They led for 10 first-half minutes and looked threatening even after Mexico equalised in the 16th minute.
But a lack of fitness, application and concentration in the final 15 minutes saw them leak three goals. Mexico had settled into their rhythm, hoarded possession and drove a persistent attack that eventually overwhelmed the fragile T&T defence.
T&T Under-15 captain Jaheim Marshall was clear about the takeaways from the past five days.
“This tournament was really helpful to the team,” said Marshall. “As a team, we needed to know where we are and where we needed to be before we go to the [Concacaf] tournament.”
T&T firebrand Nathaniel ‘Natty’ James said they weren’t surprised by the level at which the opposition played but were grateful for the lessons learned.
“I knew we could’ve competed with them in these games. I think their professionalism was too much for us to handle in the [closing stages] of the match. They were fitter than us, and more experienced. We really want to improve on our defending,” the Queen’s Royal College attacker said.
Marshall added: “At this point, the most we can do is work toward the future, keep our heads up and keep pushing to get the result we want in the future.”
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Ortega said, for his team, it was a difficult match. “We started losing the match, but we managed to overcome. It was a very good match for us. We respect T&T a lot. They were a good team and a good driver for us. We had to be very calm because sometimes when you’re not getting your way, you become desperate.”
Concacaf’s director of development, Jason Roberts, was encouraged by what he saw on Sunday and throughout the tournament. “I think it’s only positive for the advancement and the development of football in T&T to see a team not only raise the intensity level but also to play really good organized football,” he said.
Despite the loss, he praised the resilience of the T&T players. “To match Mexico for 70 minutes, I think is very, very good. The boys showed a lot of heart, a lot of fight.”
Even as his team finished bottom of the four-team group with a nine-goal difference, Charles-Fevrier remained optimistic and praised the team’s improved performance. He said he had two aims for the team: developing a professional mentality and improving their tactical application.
“I believe we achieved those two objectives today,” he said, “You saw a big improvement in both these areas. This is what we need to develop in our players and today was the start.”
The coach made a case for the continued sequestering of elite athletes.
“In Mexico, school is for education. If you don’t want to play for the school, it’s no problem. So that’s why most of them are attached to a club. They go to school and then after school they play for the club, so they are growing up as professionals. It’s a culture.”
Roberts said: “I think the tournament was very exciting. I think what we’re seeing is our member associations recognizing that the earlier they interact with their elite players the better.”
He singled out Khan and ‘Natty’ for special praise.
“Khan showed a great deal of maturity in the way that he played. I think he drive the team forward. James is an exciting prospect, somebody who [always] wants to run at the opposition.”
Golden Boot winner, Panama’s Reymundo Arauz, impressed the former Premier League striker with his power and pace. And tournament MVP, Venezuela’s Klinsmann Gomez, and their number 10, Jesus Anuel, also caught Robert’s eye.
“I think we saw the level of quality in the region, but what we saw was developing countries standing toe-to-toe with [the better teams] and taking them down to the wire.”
Charles-Fevrier extended an olive branch to the rest of the football community, inviting local coaches to bring any players they think capable of breaking into the side to be screened.
“I don’t want to fight with nobody. We can sit, have a conversation and see what’s best for T&T football. The environment now is very difficult to get any meaningful thing going on with football in the country.”
According to John-Williams, the TTFA Invitational is an annual initiative that they intend to hold again in September, hosting at least two international teams.
The T&T Under-15s will next play Venezuela on Tuesday, then enter a training camp on Thursday, break camp next Wednesday, before leaving for Florida on Friday.
T&T is grouped with Mexico, the tournament winners, Panama and Curacao in the Concacaf Under-15 Championship at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida from 4-12 August. They will meet Mexico and Panama at the Concacaf Boys Under-15 Championship at the IMG Academy from 4 August.
Charles-Fevrier said they are much better for the experience on home soil.
“They have felt the level; they know what it is. And I believe they will be better prepared for it in the States. I believe these teams will worry playing against us. I honestly believe so.”