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Down to the Mathematics

June/July 2001

By TERENCE HILTON CLARKE


ONE point from three games.Dead last in the group.

You does not get any worse than this. But such is the predicament that Trinidad and Tobago is in right now. At this point we are already down to mathematics. Even though the seven remaining matches still give this country the chance of reaching the "safe haven" of 15 - 20 points, which should ensure qualification for the 2002 World Cup, the national team is also trying to play catch up. While Trinidad and Tobago certainly has to start winning games from now on, it also has to count on other games finishing in draws or other teams losing, in order to move up into the valued valued top three positions in the group.

Especially crucial will be the June 16 fixture against Honduras at theHasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain. It's the first of three games in fourteen days. Anything other than a victory will mark the official beginning of the end of this country's World Cup dreams. Just four days later, Trinidad and Tobago has to travel to Boston to take on group-leading USA - a team that is now proving itself as a competitive force at senior level. Then, only ten days after this, there is the return match against Jamaica at home. Should Trinidad and Tobago get through this intense period unscathed and with at least seven points, then things should definitely be back on track.

However it will still be far from over. There is the home meeting with Costa Rica, the visit to Mexico City, where Trinidad and Tobago went under 7-0 last time around, another away game against Honduras and, then, the final clash against the USA in Port of Spain, on November 11. This last game could very well be the decider, a situation that all concerned should have been dreading from the outset. Even if Trinidad and Tobago has about 15 points by then, with the United States having already qualified, it may well find itself still having to avoid defeat on the final day, in order to qualify for the World Cup.

Of course, this scenario will only be possible if Trinidad and Tobago gives a much-improved performance in its remaining fixtures than it did in its first three. The national team was incapable of meeting the challenge of playing its first two games away and then hosting the region's strongest team, Mexico. Coach Ian Porterfield's unit was out-hustled by Jamaica in a tepid affair in Kingston, settled by one, blockbuster strike by the home side's Tyrone Marshall. Trinidad and Tobago were then outclassed by Costa Rica in San Jose, 3-0, and threw away the lead against Mexico at the 'Oval, forced to settle for a 1-1 draw in the end.

Not surprisingly blame has been ubiquitous, with coach Porterfield receiving a lot of stick. However it is a much wider and deeper problem that exists. It all boils down to a lack of long-term preparation and planning. The lead-up to the opener against Jamaica went wrong. Following a pair of friendlies against Grenada in St. George's in January, the national team engaged in subsequent tours to Brazil and England, excursions that involved matches against club sides. It had been hoped that some of this country's England-based players would have been able to participate, thus getting to play alongside their home-based compatriots, while immersing themselves into the system. After all, it had been a popular complaint was that both sets of players seldom performed together, except when it came to competitive internationals. Here, problems with cohesion on the field would be there for all to see, with some players unable to gel with the rest. But, the reality of the situation was that European clubs, in this day and age, were never going to release players for such an affair, in midseason. So, no foreign-based player turned up and, in the end, the trip only served to give a little exposure to a group of fringe players who are not going to feature prominently in the World Cup games anyway. The power of the clubs over the TTFF also means that some players only have a day or two to prepare for games, whereas they really should be with the squad for at least five games. This indicates that both long and short-term preparations are fraught with obstacles.

The situation could actually have been eased had there been advance planning, allied with a proper structure and development plan. But, none of those things exist. In comparison to the USA, which already has a Project 2010 program in place, Trinidad and Tobago is simply taking every campaign as it comes along, forced to start afresh every few years. This time, there was a sudden change of coach and playing system just days before the campaign got underway. It seems that there is not as wide a pool of players of sufficient international standard as one would like to think. This is evidenced by the fact that experimentation is still continuing, even in the midst of the final round. The use of one man, Dwight Yorke, up front for a friendly against Guatemala last March baffled many. The loss to Costa Rica, four days later, involved the ill-fated use of Cyd Gray - a debutant against Guatemala - as the replacement at right full-back for the suspended Ansil Elcock. Gray was overwhelmed as the Costa Ricans constantly raced down the left flank and terrorised the visiting defence.

Even the style of play - tight defence seems to indicate that the coach has instituted a system that he believes is best suited to players at this point in time, based on their overall technical ability. A system that, in essence, is designed to give Trinidad and Tobago it's best chance of adequately competing with its rivals and eventually qualifying for the World Cup. It definitely proved effective during the semi-final round, when the group was won, with five victories in six games. The major problem is that any break down in this system leads to the limitations of the players being severely exposed. This is what happened in the second half against Costa Rica in San Jose. The midfield engine became non-existent and Costa Rica immediately took control. Tremendous pressure was then applied to the Trinidad and Tobago rear guard, which eventually crumbled.

Another problem, and a long-term one at that, is the lack of a development program, which has led to a dearth of up and coming players with the all round technique required at senior level. This country's youth teams continue to fall further and further behind their regional counterparts. In the ten years since Trinidad and Tobago's historic appearance in the World Youth Championship in Portugal, this country has won only two out of 15 games played in CONCACAF/Football Confederation competitions at under-20 level. It is even worse in the under-17 bracket, with Trinidad and Tobago's last Football Confederation victory coming in 1991. Yet, this country is hosting the World Under-17 Championship.

This does not augur well for the national senior team in the long run.