This article written by Lasana Liburd was first published in the Trinidad Express and offers a peek into the Soca Warriors’ dressing room on an unforgettable Wednesday night in Bahrain on 16 November 2005:
“We going Ger-many! We going Ger-many!”
Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop was in full cry in the dressing room after Wednesday’s famous 1-0 football victory over Bahrain in the National Stadium, Manama. His teammates supported him by beating out a rhythm on benches, lockers, walls and anything else they could knock their fists against.
Hislop did not carry a tune particularly well but there was something about his simple message that drove the room delirious with excitement. Six months from now, for the first time in history, Trinidad and Tobago will line up alongside the top countries in the globe at the greatest single sport competition in the world: the Fifa World Cup tournament.
Back arched like a cobra, Hislop hopped from one leg to the next in time with his extempore rendition, and his teammates responded with roars of delight.
In the midst of the euphoria, 37-year-old midfielder Russell Latapy and 21-year-old striker Kenwyne Jones tried to keep up with a wide range of emotions. Both wore wide smiles that seemed at odds with the tears streaming down their faces.
Right-back Cyd Gray, midfielder Aurtis Whitley and starting goalie Kelvin Jack huddled in various corners trying to share the moment with family and loved ones via their mobile phones.
Media representatives crafty enough to sneak past the security guards were sticking microphones and recorders in front of any moving mouths. Jack, who preserved the win with a superb late reflex save, was a primary target.
“Honestly, I can’t explain it,” said Jack, who plays for Scottish Division One club Dundee. “It was just one of those things; reward for hard work. God must smile on Trinidad.”
Earlier in the match, the former Holy Cross College student left his goal line for a long punt into his area and lost sight of the ball in the overhead lights. Defender Marvin Andrews headed clear to prevent Bahrain from capitalising. And yet, by the final whistle, Jack had atoned in spectacular fashion.
There were similarities with Trinidad and Tobago’s faltering 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, which seemed to have petered off in March after a crushing 5-1 loss away to Guatemala only to enjoy an amazing revival with three wins from the last four Concacaf qualifiers.
Trinidad and Tobago’s resurgence was all-inclusive. Five years ago, Latapy and Dwight Yorke stormed out of the national team after being denied special privileges by then coach Rene Simoes.
On Wednesday night in Manama, though, Yorke—now the team captain—accepted an unfamiliar role on the left of midfield for the sake of the cause while Latapy took a place among the substitutes. It was the first time in 16 years that a fully-fit Latapy was kept out the starting team.
There was no question about whether the sacrifice had been worth it. Yorke’s eyes seemed to glaze over as he spoke about what lay ahead for the Trinidad and Tobago outfit.
“We will not just be going to make up the numbers,” said Yorke, who plays for Australian club team Sydney FC.
Hislop and Latapy were happy to bask in the moment.
Hislop, once Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper when he joined Newcastle for 1.75 million pounds, explained it was no coincidence that his contract with England Premier League team West Ham ends with next summer’s World Cup.
“This is the reason why, at 36, I am still around,” said Hislop. “There was one piece of the jigsaw remaining.”
Two months ago, Latapy joked that he was Yorke’s ‘guest player’ within the team. But his commitment has since gone well beyond a favour for a close friend.
“I came into the team pretty late,” said the Falkirk maestro, “but from the time I came into the team to now, the team has grown as a unit. We played really well as a team today.”
Latapy and Yorke have been the central figures of Trinidad and Tobago football for over a decade and will play important roles for the team in Germany. Striker Stern John, Andrews and Hislop also proved their worth in previous campaigns.
But there could be no mistaking the contributions of new stars like winger Carlos Edwards, left-back Avery John, Jack, and the indomitable Whitley, who has transformed himself from the midfield’s fifth wheel to its fulcrum.
Spare a thought too for lanky Wrexham central defender Dennis Lawrence who wrote his name into the history books with the decisive goal in Bahrain.
Lawrence, who stands at 6 feet 7 inches, has spent much of his international career dwarfed by the country’s nimbler attackers like the 5-foot-5 Latapy. He could not have given a better reminder of his worth, not just with his headed goal but the strength of his defensive contribution in both legs of the playoff tie against Bahrain.
Lawrence, draped in a Trinidad and Tobago flag, spent the entire evening trying to deflect media attention away from his spindly frame and on to his teammates and God.
And then, there was Netherlands-born Trinidad and Tobago coach, Leo Beenhakker. A former Real Madrid and Ajax boss, Beenhakker has been credited with the team’s fantastic shift in fortunes by the local and international media.
As Hislop pranced in the dressing room, Beenhakker smiled. For a few moments, there was no sign of his trademark sneer or smirk.
He spoke in Dutch to two reporters from his homeland and seemed pleased with himself. One felt that Beenhakker took an added delight in hiding his thoughts behind his native tongue. A cigarette dangled from his lips but he stopped short of lighting it out of respect for his inquisitive compatriots.
“Hello coach, there is a press conference now,” said a Bahraini official, who showed the importance of the request in his bustling manner.
“Yeah,” Beenhakker replied and lit his cigarette.
The smirk was back.
The two Dutch journalists smiled and everyone else quickly caught the unspoken joke. Beenhakker would go when he was good and ready.
On the night, even Fifa bowed to the demands of the 63-year-old coach by tailoring the length of its press conference so that Beenhakker could catch a plane to Holland. The Warriors flew from Manama to Spain that night, where the European-based players caught connecting flights. Beenhakker preferred to set his own route.
Somewhere between his single-mindedness and Trinidad and Tobago’s natural skill and flair made for the most glorious night in the history of the local game.