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  It's time to plan for future World Cups

By Terence Hilton Clarke

October 15 1999

IT’S that time again.

The grand launch had been only a couple of days old yet certain persons were already being vilified. Questions regarding commitment to the cause were raised - this despite the fact that fanciful slogans, each trying to emphasize its importance had been appearing in the local papers.

No doubt about it, the World Cup bug has descended on us, just two weeks after the official start of this country's bid to qualify for the 2002 competition in Japan and South Korea. Call it coincidence. Refer to it as déjà vu. But, one can already identify some eerie parallels that link the incipient “PROJECT 2002” with the failed Project 1998:

  • In late 1995 the Trinidad and Tobago national team was enjoying a certain degree of success, with back to back Caribbean titles preceding a historic 3-2 friendly victory over Norway, in Port of Spain, in November of that year. Today, Trinidad and Tobago are Caribbean champions for the ninth time (this includes the 1981 and 1988 CFU Nations Cup triumphs) and have recorded wins over the likes of South Africa and Colombia this year.
  • Then, as now, the victories were achieved in spite of a suspect defence.
  • A few months prior to the start of the last World Cup-qualifying campaign, this country was first tested at the 1996 CONCACAF Gold Cup in the USA: at the beginning of next year, Trinidad and Tobago will be making its fourth appearance at the Gold Cup, also in the USA.
  • Four years ago the term, “Dream Team,” started being used to describe any national squad line-up that included at least six players who were based in either Europe or North America at the time. The build-up to the September 8 game against Colombia featured the unwelcome return of the “Dream Team” slogan when it became obvious that there would be at least six “foreign based” players in the team.
  • During the last campaign, Russell Latapy, Trinidad and Tobago’s top player of the 1990s, was severely sanctioned by the (then) TTFA for failing to appear in a qualifying match against the USA and was temporarily banned. Meanwhile, Dwight Yorke’s national team commitment was already being scrutinized– but, at lleast, he played in that game. Now, both players have again fallen afoul of the local football governing body for failing to appear in Miami to face Colombia – despite the consent of their clubs. The game marked the official start of this country's World Cup effort and the TTFF appear to be concerned that a disturbing trend is about to be set, once again.  

Bearing in mind these similarities, we must also be conscious of the one, important thing about the 1998 campaign: it ended in disaster. The inability to master the 3-5-2 system was exposed at the 1996 Gold Cup and Trinidad and Tobago lost both its first round matches against El Salvador and the USA. The warning signs appeared to have been forgotten during the following eight months, during which Trinidad and Tobago recorded a third, consecutive Caribbean Cup victory and routed the Dominican Republic in its second round World Cup-qualifying tie.

Then came the semi-final round group stage.

The problems with the 3-5-2 system re-surfaced as Trinidad and Tobago played poorly in its first game against Costa Rica in Port of Spain and lost 1-0. This prompted an immediate change of coach. However only a solitary point was to be gained from the remaining five matches. The fact that some of our “foreign based” players did not perform particularly well was telling, as was the desperation induced re-appearance of players past their prime at international level. In the end, everything pointed to a lack of long-term planning.

So, can Trinidad and Tobago avoid repeating history?

This all depends on how efficiently we are able to deal with our shortcomings. We still lack the foresight of the Americans, who are already planning for future World Cups with their Project-40 and Project 2010 programs. However, this time, we at least have a more structured preparation plan going into next year. The present national team is set to play more friendlies before the 2000 Gold Cup, than did the team of four years ago, before the 1996 competition. Coach Bertille St. Clair has been doing an admirable job in trying to create a sizeable pool of players with senior international experience. It has been under him that promising players such as Kerwyn Jemmott and Derek King (the outstanding player in the Trinidad and Tobago under-20 team last year) won their first full international caps. We should use the upcoming games to give opportunities to such players, and avoid the mistake of stuffing our team with foreign based players under the illusion that they represent the magic key to success. The Colombia game proved that some of those players should definitely not be considered fixtures in the team. Indeed, there are only about three or four foreign based players who are indispensable to the Trinidad and Tobago national team: including Russell Latapy (again, one of our best ever players, whether some of us like to admit it or not) and Stern John - still developing into a world-class striker at the age of 23.

But, time is already short. There are only a few months to go before the 2000 Gold Cup -  the tournament that will test how good we really are. Coach St. Clair still needs to strengthen the defence and try more players up front. There is a need to continue developing our playing resources so that there can be adequate back up should our top players fall out of form.

Meanwhile, ALL of Trinidad and Tobago must come together to support the team. We have turn out in our numbers for games, whether they take place in Port of Spain, Palo Seco or Tunapuna. Some of our top local companies still haven't come forward to lend financial support, in spite of the moral obligation. There has to be a change in our attitudes: we must stop being so parsimonious.

Finally, we need to start planning NOW for future World Cups. There has to be a development program so that we can produce players approaching the technical level of their counterparts in the top football playing nations. Countries such as Uruguay and Qatar have shown that one can never be too small to enjoy international success. We have to keep striving to be better than some of our improving CONCACAF competitors. We have to start thinking in terms of the highest level.

It is only then that Trinidad and Tobago will become capable of competing with the best.

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