The following article, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express newspaper on 8 November 2007:
“I could be the best player in the world,” said 19-year-old CL Financial San Juan Jabloteh midfielder Ataulla Guerra. “All I have to do is stay honest and truthful to myself and work hard; and pray too because He can take it back in the snap of a finger.”
Guerra is not an animated speaker and, throughout an hour long interview, he rarely fidgeted. His voice remained steady and there was no attempt at dramatic effect as he revealed his plans for global domination.
There is no evidence of vanity either—that would suggest a foolish belief in something imaginary. Guerra is certain that his talent is very real and his conviction is supported by knowledgeable football men from 2007 Under-17 World Cup coach Anton Corneal and Jabloteh boss and ex-England senior World Cup player Terry Fenwick to respected Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp.
“Once he gets the physical side of his game in tune with his technical ability,” said Corneal, “we are looking a future top international. His game is based on skill and he handles the ball well…
“Once he is in the right atmosphere, I think he can go places.”
Guerra lives with his family on the border of John John and downtown Port of Spain. From his yard, he can see some of the city’s more majestic buildings as well as some of the less savoury elements of his community.
His home, at a traffic intersection, is a stone’s throw from the Eastern Main Road, Churchill Roosevelt Highway, and Priority Bus Route; or it can lead into the heart of his humble and often rough neighbourhood.
He has spent most of his life at the crossroads too.
Everyday, Guerra steps outside and sees the ‘Guerra Wall of Peace’—a landmark painted in tribute to his late, controversial big brother, Mark Guerra. A gangster to some and community leader to others, Mark, a Jamaat-Al-Muslimeen member, died in a hail of bullets in 2003 at the age of 40.
Guerra adored Mark and remains in awe of his influence.
“I remember when he brought [Prime Minister Patrick] Manning into John John and walked him throughout the community without any police protection or anything,” said Guerra. “I walked behind him and thought ‘wow, he really has power boy’.”
Guerra is proud of his brother’s perceived fame but he hopes to conquer the world in a very different and much safer career.
He was 11 when Mark was deported from the United States and returned to live with his family in John John. The communal abode consists of four houses which are home to parents Marcus and Valerie Guerra and nine sons and four daughters, exclusive of Mark and one daughter who resides abroad.
Most of the stories Guerra heard of his brother came on the street. Mark was fiercely private and Guerra was probably considered too young to understand his brother’s complicated life.
“I never saw the bad side of [Mark],” he said. “I only saw the love. I heard that he did a lot of bad things growing up but I only saw him trying to help people and uplift the community.”
Guerra saw Mark angry just once and he was on the receiving end. It was the young man’s first and, hopefully, last gang experience.
Guerra, 11, went into the city with ‘the wrong crowd’ who were intent on acquiring toy caps guns without paying for them. But one of their would-be victims had a knife and Guerra’s long scar on his right forearm will forever remind him of the dangers inherent in such a lifestyle.
He received 21 stitches for his wound and some firm clouts and threats from Mark as reprimands. Another sibling, Marvin Guerra, took him aside for counselling.
Marvin was credited by Guerra for early coaching sessions at the age of four with a lawn tennis ball and introducing him to the Trendsetter Hawks football club, two years later.
As their biological father Marcus Guerra, a former local middleweight boxer, struggled to support his 14 children financially—Guerra sometimes worked in the Unemployment Relief Program (URP) to supplement his allowance while attending school at Mucurapo—Marvin occasionally assisted with money for football boots.
As Guerra pondered the dark road of gang violence, Marvin, a former Malick Secondary footballer, insisted that sport held his best chance at escaping poverty.
“The name ‘Ataulla’ means unique,” said Marvin. “There is no one like you.”
At 16, he boarded an airplane for the first time as the youngest member of the Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team; and, in the return leg, came off the bench to score the decisive goal as the young Soca Warriors, coached by Corneal, edged Cuba 6-5 on goal aggregate.
“I never feel nervous,” he said. “I know what I can do.”
Months after his 19th birthday, Guerra signed professional forms with Jabloteh on a one-year deal, after spurning advances from Pro League rivals Vibe CT 105 W Connection and Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA.
He came close to a European move, four months ago, but a work permit refusal for Jabloteh teammate Lester Peltier also meant curtains for him and Khaleem Hyland, who were all denied a move to England Premier League club, Portsmouth. There was a trial at Scotland Premier League champions, Celtic, too but Guerra still has to bide his time.
His time with Jabloteh—at present, the Pro League leaders—has been promising so far, although Guerra is frustrated at his failure to cement a starting position. Still, Fenwick is a big fan of the young midfielder and vowed to do his utmost to prepare him for life as a professional.
“He is six foot one and a great athlete with great feet and terrific close control,” said Fenwick, a former Tottenham and England international defender. “I think his composure in the attacking areas of the pitch is second to none in the country but I don’t think he has 90 minutes in him yet, so I try to use him for 20 or 30 minute spells…
“I am still trying to figure out how he works so I can press the right buttons and get him to perform for 90 minutes and not 20 or 30.”
Peltier hogs the headlines, due to his unsuccessful work permit application, while Hyland receives the most playing time but there is the suggestion that Guerra has gifts to surpass even his talented teammates.
Jabloteh play fast and direct football. Relentless and ruthless, they try to bully opponents into submission.
Guerra’s qualities are more artistic. He is a self-confessed fan of the more cerebral exponents of the game—like Argentine playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and, his personal favourite, former France maestro Zinedine Zidane—and the lanky teenager brings a refreshing poise and wizardry to the Jabloteh engine room.
Guerra did not excel as a student but his feet are capable of brilliant things and his decision making capabilities are promising. He is not short on confidence either.
“I was born with skill,” he said. “I did not train to get it. I am very good on the ball but I think [I stand out] because of the way I think on the field. I make decisions in a split second.”
National under-23 coach Michael McComie did not find a spot for Guerra in his disastrous, short-lived Olympic Games qualifying campaign. But Corneal, an assistant to Soca Warriors head coach Wim Rijsbergen, appeared to be more impressed with his gifts and rubbished any notion that he might be a bad apple.
“He is very coachable and has a lovely attitude towards practice,” he said.
But there is concern that the tough reality of life in John John and the negative connotations surrounding his title, Guerra, might retard his progress.
The weekend murder of 27-year-old Superstar Rangers midfielder Kerwin Cooper on Bournes Road, St James provided an unhappy reminder that the nation’s talented players are not exempt from the scourge of gang violence.
“We hope to have Guerra in a [private club] apartment by next season,” said Fenwick. “We want to get him away from Laventille and what is going on there particularly in light of this G-unit [gang] business. It is the same with Peltier in Carenage.
“But Guerra is very close to his family and especially his sister [Olufemi Marsha Guerra] who, I must say, seems a very sensible person. He has great talent and I have been enjoying him in my team, but I think he needs to go abroad to better himself.
“When he goes home at night, you don’t know what is going on.”
Corneal too is anxious that Guerra makes more use of his talent than a fellow inner-city playmaker, Kerwin ‘Hardest’ Jemmott, who was sacked by Rangers for indiscipline this season—just months after forcing his way back into the national team.
“He has above average potential,” said Corneal. “In two years’ time, you can never tell where he can go.”
Guerra dreams of being able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for his entire family one day, in a very different way to his deceased brother.
A few years ago, he recalled being introduced to veteran Jamaican dancehall singer, Desmond ‘Ninjaman’ Ballentine, who was protected during his stay in Trinidad by his brother Marvin’s security firm, Triple M.
Ninjaman is famous for his aggressive lyrics and antics, but he knew who the real ‘don’ was.
“Your brother (Mark) was the baddest man in Trinidad,” said Ninjaman.
Ataulla plans to appeal to a much wider audience through a more enjoyable medium.
“Expect big things from me,” he said. “Expect me to be a national footballer and to play abroad. My goal is to be in the Trinidad and Tobago team that goes to the 2010 World Cup.
“I know that nothing comes easy but I am just taking it step by step.”
There could hardly be a better example for the positive influence of sport than the Jabloteh teenager, if he does beat a legitimate path to success.
The Guerra family might soon be under new management. The Soca Warriors could be better off as a result.
Editor’s Note: Violence continued to stalk the Guerra family in the aftermath of this article.
On 17 February 2013, Marvin Guerra ‘was ambushed and shot dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time’, on nearby St Paul Street.
“He used to encourage children from around the area to play football and one week ago he even bought equipment and supplies to start a league in his neighbourhood,” his mother told the Trinidad Express. “He was not in any gang thing, just a cool, outgoing person, but it was just that he crossed the border and they gun him down.”
On 11 May 2013, Ataulla’s sister-in-law Beverly Nurse, the widow of murdered gang leader Mark Guerra, was gunned down as she stood in front of a parlour below their home. She was 38.
Guerra played professionally in Finland for one year with RoPS, but quit soon after the murder of his brother and sister-in-law in 2013. He later spent three years with second tier United States team Charleston Battery (2016-19), where he scored 26 times from 90 appearances.
At present, he is contracted to the Terminix La Horquetta Rangers.