The following article, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express on Thursday 24 June 2006:
Russell Latapy was outnumbered and, it seemed, cornered.
It was the mixed zone at the Franz Walter Stadion, Kaiserslautern and the pint-sized Trinidad and Tobago midfielder had to walk past a scrum of media representatives for the last time as a player.
“Latapy! Latapy! Excuse, Latapy…” said reporters, who begged him to stop with tape recorders at the ready.
A polite nod, erect thumb, dip of the shoulder; and Latapy had left the building.
“I know Latapy,” said one journalist, “he was upset that he didn’t play longer. That was why he didn’t stop.”
Perhaps the dreadlocked playmaker guessed the sensitive nature of the questions that might come his way after a breathtaking cameo in Trinidad and Tobago’s final Group B World Cup qualifier, which ended in a 2-0 loss to Paraguay. Or maybe the 37-year-old ‘Little Magician’ was just tired.
Latapy had almost everyone guessing and, I suspect, he wanted it that way.
Gifted and moody, Latapy affected the emotions of a generation of football fans like no other. At least thrice, he quit the national team.
In 1996, he failed to show for a crucial qualifier at home to the United States and was promptly ‘banned until further notice’ by the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF).
He walked out alongside close friend and present team captain Dwight Yorke in 2001, after being cut by technical director Rene Simoes for ‘indiscipline’, and initially ignored an invitation to join the 2006 campaign by coach Leo Beenhakker.
During my stay in Britain , I found Latapy the most elusive subject to pin down for an interview. Yet, once we got together, he surprised me by his forthrightness and analytical mind—most sportsmen view themselves as diplomats or are unable to say anything insightful beyond their own roles in the team.
Just to clear things up, Latapy confessed his love for a puff during an interview in Scotland last year but it was below the rumoured ‘40 fags a day’. Latapy, by his account, draws on four or five cigarettes a day while in training and double that amount in the off season.
Whatever his indiscretion, Trinidad and Tobago football fans were always ready to forgive; and, although he was an unwilling interviewee, I would happily alter my schedule for another fascinating chat with the little maestro.
One either loves or hates Latapy and it is damned difficult to despise such a charming player. Everyone has a memorable Latapy move or match. My favourite was his hattrick in an international friendly against Norway in 1996, which ended in a 3-2 win for the hosts at the Queen’s Park Oval—I was a rookie reporter thrilled to personally meet my hero after the pre-match press conference.
But the most moving match involving the player was surely his first and last World Cup appearance on June 20 at the Franz Walter Stadion. In 23 minutes, he glided past opponents, threaded passes and struck the ball with remarkable technique.
Latapy’s display did not change the course of the match. Trinidad and Tobago trailed Paraguay 1-0 when he came on and went on to lose 2-0 against a team that started the match without a point and was regarded as weaker than earlier group rivals, England and Sweden.
So, how did less than half hour played in a match that seemed lost by the time he came on become the talking point of Trinidad and Tobago’s tournament?
Beenhakker was suddenly under fire from the country that previously lauded him as a genius and begged him to remain after the tournament. Fifa vice-president and T&TFF special advisor Jack Warner, who is essentially his employer, said that Latapy should have been played earlier. West Indies cricket batting star Brian Lara, who is also Latapy’s close friend, said the midfielder was ‘under-used’.
Beenhakker could not avoid the ‘Latapy issue’ in the post-Paraguay press conference as a Trinidad and Tobago reporter prodded him to admit a perceived error. The Dutchman, a former Real Madrid, Netherlands and Ajax boss, stood his ground.
“If it is one guy who has much respect for the career of Russell Latapy, it is me,” said Beenhakker. “Against England and Sweden, we spent 70 minutes trying to get the ball back. With all due respect, the guy is  years old… It [was] not his game.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s most successful match at Germany was in Dortmund, on June 15, when the Soca Warriors won their first point against Sweden with just 10 players.
Arguably, our proudest moments came in our second fixture against England at Nuremberg. When Stern John rose over England defender Rio Ferdinand to redirect a Dennis Lawrence header goal-ward, only for John Terry to perform a panicky goal-line clearance, Trinidad and Tobago fans were sure we belonged among the world’s best football nations.
And yet, Latapy gave us something less tangible but just as precious and exhilarating. The French call it that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’—a palpable quality that is difficult to describe or express.
As unwilling as I am to compare players, perhaps a look at Trinidad and Tobago’s two greatest footballers, Yorke and Latapy, can shed light on the latter’s worth.
Yorke won more distinguished medals in his career than his magical friend, not least the European Champion’s League title and is—to me, indisputably—the more complete player in terms of his all-round ability. Yorke lacks Latapy’s killer pass within 35 yards of the opposing goal, but he can head, tackle, and hold up the ball, and switches seamlessly from midfield conductor to hustler to second striker to lone forward.
A fantastic captain, Yorke leads his men by example and the weight of his resume. His teammates marvel over his mastery of the ball and the way bonafide stars like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney go out of their way to make his acquaintance.
When Yorke tackles, his players switch on; when he shouts, they listen.
And Latapy? All he has to do is step on the pitch and caress the ball for players to fall over themselves in their eagerness to please him. A mere gesture from the maestro leaves them spellbound.
When England met Trinidad and Tobago, it seemed that whenever the play became flat, English boss Sven-Goran Eriksson sent Rooney to warm up. The very sight of him excited the crowd whose increased energy level, in turn, lifted the English outfit.
Beenhakker does not do gimmicks and Latapy, at 37, might not have stomached being used as a mascot. But it is clear that the dreadlocked player’s inspirational powers go well beyond what he can do with a football.
In the end, he was a gamble that the experienced Dutch coach did not take and rightly so. Against Sweden, Beenhakker opted to hang on to the point in hand and his employers should be grateful. Britain’s Times Newspaper described his sideline tinkering in that match as the best coaching display of the first round.
Trinidad and Tobago conceded their first goal to England too late to affect major change. But, once more, Beenhakker’s decision to introduce left winger Evans Wise instead of Latapy seemed reasonable.
England took the lead after a cunning alteration by Eriksson, who moved Beckham to the right back position; and it was from this deeper role that he set up the opening goal.
By sending Wise out to test Beckham’s defensive qualifications, Beenhakker tried to turn England’s strength into a weakness.
Furthermore, Trinidad and Tobago still had to be mindful of their opponents’ quality through the central midfield area and, to underline that point, Steven Gerrard sidestepped Aurtis Whitley to score a superb second for England.
Latapy would not have fared better than Whitley in the defensive third of the field.
It is better to savour the pleasure that Latapy brought to our World Cup campaign than to harbour misplaced grudges.
At Kaiserslautern, we witnessed the end of an era.
Argentina tried, without success, to retire the number 10 shirt after legendary playmaker Diego Maradona ended his international career. Trinidad and Tobago have a better case. Nowhere, from Point Fortin to Charlotteville, lies a player with Latapy’s qualities and I can only hope that one can be unearthed in my lifetime.
There was something in the way Latapy danced with the ball and caused others to move along that touched the soul of a people who cannot resist a spontaneous party.
In Germany, I was filled with pride at the heroism and commitment of nearly two dozen of my countrymen. Some performers stood out above others. The composure and class of goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, right back Carlos Edwards and Yorke or the brave, consistent offerings from Dennis Lawrence, Cyd Gray, Brent Sancho and John.
But only one player made my hair stand on end.
You get one guess.