The following article, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express on 23 October 2003:
Sometimes it is too easy to forget who are the real power-brokers in football.
Not the talented and sometimes extravagantly paid players whose careers last as long as a St Ann’s taxi ride. Ditto for the coach or manager who is always three bad results away from the sack.
Not even the team chairman, president or, as in the case of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF), the ‘special advisor’ who—although much harder to get rid of than a coach or player—has more limited control than he often realises.
Influence, it has been said, is the thing one thinks he has until he tries to use it. If you want to see who really determines the soul of an outfit, look into the stands. They are flippantly referred to as ‘the fans’.
They are the most abused people in the set-up. Never invited to discuss team strategy, the last to know about signings and dismissals and often unsure of even their seat in the ground. But you fail to appreciate their value at your own peril.
Trinidad and Tobago’s own supporters should take note.
Remember Dutch international star Patrick Kluivert’s summer of uncertainty after being asked to take a wage cut by employers, Barcelona?
He postured, threatened to quit, insulted his bosses and then did a u-turn and was accepted by a forgiving chairman and coach. The terrace technocrats were not impressed and, barely two months into the season, Kluivert’s position is virtually untenable after failing the test of the ‘boo boys’.
With the fans on his back, he is yet to get off the mark in the La Liga and could soon be on his way to Newcastle.
Or Turkish central defender, Alpay, who has been a first choice for Aston Villa manager David O’ Leary but has been forced to consider his future after a public spat with English idol and captain David Beckham.
The niceties offered by Tugay were back pew church whispers compared to sentiments exchanged by West Indian and Australian cricketers Ramnaresh Sarwan and Glenn McGrath but that is another story.
The point is that despite which millionaire is bankrolling the club—or country—it is the fans who have the final say.
On Portsmouth team sheets, manager Harry Redknapp lists the ‘Pompey’ fans as his 12th man. It is not an idle boast. Because what is football without supporters—the game’s true unsung heroes?
It is the manager who will blush into the television cameras after Southampton upset Manchester United and gush over his choice of tactics and the minor adjustment in his line-up. The interviewer will ask about the pearls of wisdom he passed on to his charges before his mediocre bunch took to the field.
But of what value is the roar of the crowd that greeted the home team when they stepped out to face one of the game’s elite outfits?
The cheer that went up after Southampton stopper Micheal Svensson blocked United star Ruud van Nistelrooy, which—more than anything said in the dressing room—made the unheralded defender feel they both belonged on the same pitch.
“Hell, I could play too!”
It is, more than anything else, the missing ingredient in the local game. Not a magical coach or another Russell Latapy.
On the day, it often boils down to who wants it more and few want it as badly as the patrons. There is no better example of this than derby day. It is a match that defies conventional logic.
A meeting between Birmingham and Aston Villa, for instance, has less to do with their ambitions on the league table as do contests involving relegation-threatened clubs like Wolverhampton or high fliers like Arsenal.
For the odd 30,000 spectators at the Midlands derby, though, it offers them a chance to get the last laugh at the guy who sits across the room in work and backs the ‘wrong club’.
Birmingham fans know what it is like to be taunted and put down by more illustrious neighbours. Derby day is the chance to get their own back.
On Sunday, the sight of near two dozen millionaires running themselves into the ground and putting limbs on the line to satisfy the ‘everyday Joes’ was an eye opener.
Which chairman or president could provoke such commitment to the cause?
There is more than the memories of Pele and Zico and the Nike swoosh that adds value to the Brazil shirt. It is the fanatical following that travels around the globe to support them. Their expectations are enormous; they expect polish and points.
In return, the Brazilian players try hard to satisfy them in every outing.
How much do Trinidad and Tobago football fans add to the value of their national or club teams?
The answer might have more to do with the success of the local game than one may think.