Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

TRINIDAD: “Soca Warriors” Get a Shot at the World Cup

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Nov 16 2005 (IPS) - Sixteen years after it failed to make the World Cup Championships in Italy, Trinidad and Tobago is heading to Germany next year as the smallest country, both in size and population, on the world’s premier soccer stage.

In 1989, needing only a single point to secure a berth at the finals in Italy in 1990, home fans watched in disbelief as the United States scored the lone goal that booted the “Strike Squad” team out of the championship.

It was a game that left a country best known for its creation of the steel pan from oil drums and calypso, an infectious Caribbean rhythm, in tatters.

But on Wednesday, Trinidadians took to the streets in the midday sun to celebrate the victory over Bahrain, honking car horns, shooting off fireworks and forgetting, as least for the time being, a crime wave that has resulted in the deaths of 300 people and the abductions of more than 200 this year.

“We are going to Germany,” shouted one enthusiastic sports fan, while a radio caller declared, “This is therapy for the country.”

“It is a moment in time,” said sports commentator Joel Vilifana.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who was attending a session of Parliament when the results of the game were relayed to legislators, said he joined the whole country “in the tremendous pride that the people of Trinidad and Tobago are now experiencing”.

“I would like to congratulate the team and tell them that a proper welcome awaits them when they return tomorrow (Thursday),” Manning said.

He said despite the draw in Port of Spain over the weekend, he always felt that “the true test of the team would be to win away from home”.

The main opposition United National Congress (UNC) described the victory as “historic” and said it hoped the team would show off its qualities beyond the first round of the finals in Germany.

Wednesday’s 1-nil victory by the “Soca Warriors” over the tiny Middle Eastern country of Bahrain brought closure to the many attempts by the national team to recapture the enthusiasm for the game that propelled captain Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy, two of the survivors of the 1989 match, to international stardom.

Yorke, 34, emerged as the country’s most recognised footballer. He is plying his trade now in Australia, after stints with a number of football teams in the Premiership League in Britain, including the world famous Manchester United, with whom he enjoyed both British and European glory.

“This is something the whole country should be proud of,” Yorke said in a telephone interview from Bahrain.

Lataphy, 36, nicknamed the “magician”, has also been able to show off his skills on the European stage, including Portugal, where he played with Porto, and in Scotland, where he is now a coach and player to the Falkirk team in the Scottish premier division. “If you can pick two players to represent Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup, it would be Russell and Dwight. Russell to me is by far the best player ever to put on a Trinidad and Tobago jersey. And Dwight deserves to play because he is the most famous player from Trinidad and Tobago,” said Leonson Lewis, who played professional football in Portugal and was also a member of the 1989 “Strike Squad” team.

As the country of 1.3 million people, whose ancestors came from Africa as slaves and from India as indentured labourers, prepares to line up alongside the likes of Brazil, France, Portugal, England, and even the United States, the players are aware, just like Jamaica before them, that they carry the hopes and aspirations of an entire Caribbean population.

“Any team that qualifies from the Caribbean region affects positively all the other countries. I can recall when we qualified for the 1998 World Cup that every Caribbean territory told me how very proud they were and therefore I see no difference in this case,” said Horrace Burrell, former president of the Jamaica Football Federation.

The arrival of the Dutch Coach, Leo Beenhakker, who took over the team as it languished at the bottom of the ladder during the qualifying stages in the Caribbean Confederation zone, has done wonders for the national team.

Beenhakker, who failed to take a talented Dutch team past the World Cup second round in 1990 and was axed by the Saudi Arabian authorities after steering their outfit to the 1994 tournament, has been able to use the blend of overseas professionals and local talent to good effect.

“If you have the ambition to play on a high international level, it’s part of the job. You prepare yourself and you play your brains out,” Beenhakker told his charges prior to the game against Bahrain on Wednesday.

Vice President of the International Football Federation (FIFA) Austin “Jack” Warner, a Trinidadian, who spent millions of his own money in order to have the country qualify for the world’s greatest sporting event, had little doubt of the team’s ability to do the job in Bahrain after Trinidad and Tobago was held to a 1-1 draw in Port of Spain on Nov. 12.

“We will qualify, there is no doubt about that,” Warner said prior to leaving here for Bahrain on the specially charted flight that took the Trinidadian players to the Middle East.

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