Soca Warriors on the field

Trinidad and Tobago’s qualification for the 2006 football World Cup was an extraordinary achievement

  • Photograph by Ian Brierley
  • Jubilant fans welcome the Soca Warriors home on Thursday 17 November, 2005. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • The Soca Warriors in training. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Stern John holds the national flag after the Warriors’ victory in Bahrain. Photograph by Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Soca Warriors before the qualifying match on 16 November, 2005. Photograph by Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images
  • A sea of red at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, before the home match between T&T and Bahrain. Photograph by Ian Brierley
  • Dwight Yorke before the 12 November, 2005, qualifying match. Photograph by Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images
  • Russel Latapy dedicates his first Gold Cup goal against Guatemala to his injured teammate Ronnie Mauge, 15 February 2000. Photograph by Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images
  • Stern John jumps on Emery John and Densill Theobald after a goal by Christopher Birchall against Honduras during the 2005 Gold Cup in Miami. Photograph by Brian Bahr/AFP/Getty Images
  • Dennis Lawrence chasing the ball during the home match against Bahrain. Photograph by Ben Radford/AFP/Getty Images
  • Kelvin Jack during the home match against Bahrain. Photograph by Ben Radford/AFP/Getty Images
  • Coach Leo Beenhakker. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • The Reggae Boyz before their match against Croatia in Lens, 14 June, 1998. Photograph by Clive Brunskill/Allsport
  • Christopher Birchall celebrates his goal against Bahrain in the home qualifying match. Photograph by Ben Radford/AFP/Getty Images
  • Maximus Dan performs his song “Fighter” for the crowd at the home qualifying match against Bahrain. Photograph by Ian Brierly

At the 2006 football World Cup in Germany, the Caribbean will be represented by Trinidad and Tobago, the smallest country by geography or population ever to qualify for the tournament. Only three other Caribbean nations — Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica — have made it to the World Cup before. The team’s final qualifying match triggered an amazing and perhaps unparalleled explosion of joy across the country.

For football fans in Trinidad and Tobago, the Soca Warriors’ achievement ends a sixteen-year wait that began in 1989, when the national team, then called the Strike Squad, came within a goal of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

In the following pages, Caribbean Beat recounts the Warriors’ difficult journey to Germany, remembers the stories of previous Caribbean football teams in the tournament, looks at the role of foreign clubs in preparing some of T&T’s best players for their latest challenge, and considers the musical encouragement the team will get from their ardent Caribbean fans.

And, as the opening whistle blows for the Soca Warriors’ first World Cup match on 10 June, everyone at Caribbean Beat — like hundreds of thousands across the Caribbean — will be rooting for the brave men in red.

The Road To Germany

The Soca Warriors’ route to the World Cup was no straight path. James Ferguson looks at the highs and lows along the way

Wednesday 16 November, 2005. Shortly after 2 p.m. Trinidad and Tobago time, the result is confirmed: Bahrain 0, Trinidad and Tobago 1. A single goal from giant defender Dennis Lawrence has settled the two-leg play-off match. The Soca Warriors have qualified for the World Cup finals in Germany in June 2006. T&T is the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup.

Port of Spain goes wild. People spill out onto the streets. Cars are hooting, national flags are waving, school kids and office workers mingle in downtown Port of Spain. The celebrations will go on long into the night.

When Lawrence rose above the diminutive Bahraini defenders to glance Dwight Yorke’s corner kick into the net, it was enough. The game went on for another half-hour, increasingly bad-tempered as the Bahrainis had a player dismissed and a late goal disallowed, but the single goal was enough. The stadium at Manama was a cauldron; at the final whistle the Trinidadian team needed police protection as seats were ripped up and thrown onto the pitch. But even the outright hostility shown by the Bahraini fans could not prevent a jubilant Stern John from brandishing the national flag.

Everyone in Trinidad and Tobago, and many elsewhere, counted every moment until the final whistle. Only then did the magnitude of the achievement sink in. Within hours, Prime Minister Patrick Manning had announced that Thursday would be a public holiday. He called on people to give the returning players a heroes’ welcome, and asked that schoolchildren be allowed to line the road from Piarco Airport into town.

The reception was amazing. The team was greeted by the prime minister on the tarmac of the airport, where a huge crowd had gathered. Masses of people lined the airport road, waving their red and black flags, cheering and whistling. Soca and steelband music filled the air. Grown men wept. Finally, after a long and sometimes chaotic procession, the motorcade made it to Brian Lara Promenade in downtown Port of Spain, where speeches were made and the partying began. Manning spoke a profound truth when he said, “Team Trinidad has done for Trinidad and Tobago what many politicians have failed to do. Bringing together people of every race, class, and persuasion.”

Only five days before, it had all seemed so different. Trinidad and Tobago were playing at home in the first leg against unfancied Bahrain, who had come third in their Asian qualifying group and then beaten Uzbekistan to jump the hurdle into the play-off match. They were footballing unknowns from a small country with no real sporting track record. In the packed Hasely Crawford Stadium, surely the physically powerful Trinidadians would overawe and demolish their opponents.

It was not to be. With veteran Russell Latapy running the midfield, Trinidad and Tobago played a probing game, having the best of the possession and rarely under pressure. But the Bahrainis soaked up their own pressure, defending methodically and frustrating close-range efforts from Dwight Yorke and Stern John. Then, after half-time, Bahrain did what they do well. A sudden counter-attack ended with a powerful header from Salman Husein. The home crowd was stunned.

But six minutes later, the slight figure of Christopher Birchall, born in the English county of Staffordshire and playing for unglamorous Port Vale, got hold of the ball and unleashed a ferocious half-volley from thirty yards into the top left-hand corner. 1–1. The crowd found its voice again, but it was too late. The return game looked daunting. Captain Dwight Yorke sounded resolute, and in hindsight prophetic, when he said “To the people of the Caribbean, this game is far from over. We know we need to score one away goal and our players are capable of doing that.”

The first steps on the long road to Germany had been taken in the summer of 2004. Victories against the lightweight Dominican Republic, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Kitts and Nevis were to be expected, but then the team lost twice to Mexico, the regional footballing superpower. And in February and March 2005, things went badly wrong. First a home defeat to the United States, then an away 5–1 mauling at the hands of Guatemala, and a goalless draw at home to Costa Rica. Trinidad and Tobago sat bottom of the six-team Concacaf qualifying group. The World Cup finals seemed little more than a mirage.

It was time for a shake-up. On 31 March, a press release from the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) announced that coach Bertille St Clair had been replaced by Dutchman Leo Beenhakker. “We have hired the coach to take us to Germany. That is the expectation,” said the TTFF.

Sixty-three-year-old Beenhakker was a coach with a serious pedigree. He had trained and managed Ajax and Feyenoord as well as Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid in Spain. He had won six national titles and had worked with the Dutch national side, as well as Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Even so, the expectations at first looked unlikely to be fulfilled. A victory against Panama was followed by a 2–0 defeat away to Mexico in June, and a 1–0 loss in the US in August. Qualifying looked no more likely than it had in April.

But then the team’s prospects began to brighten. After stern and stirring words to the players after their defeat to the US, Beenhakker engineered a 3–2 victory over Guatemala, only to lose 2–0 to Costa Rica. An away 1–0 win in Panama suddenly changed things again in Trinidad and Tobago’s favour. The coveted fourth spot in the Concacaf group seemed in sight, if victory could be achieved in the final game. The only problem was that the opposition was — Mexico. To make matters worse, Trinidad and Tobago had to win to be sure of going through, as Guatemala was close behind and was expected to beat Costa Rica at home.

Everyone older than about 35 was by now suffering from a nasty case of déja vu. Twice before, the national team had been on the verge of qualifying for the World Cup. In 1973, the team had steamrollered its way through early qualifying games before making it to the second qualifying competition in Haiti in December. There, amidst some of the worst refereeing ever seen (the Salvadorean referee and Canadian linesman were subsequently banned for life), five Trinidadian goals against Haiti were disallowed and numerous penalty claims ignored. The Haitians somehow won 2–1, despite being outclassed. The Trinidad Guardian sports reporter at the time ironically remarked “They say goals win matches. This is one time they didn’t.” To make matters worse, the team then trounced Mexico 4–0, allowing Haiti to progress to the finals in West Germany.

If that was heartbreaking, then the events of November 1989 were nothing short of a national disaster. Costa Rica had already qualified for the Italy 1990 World Cup finals, but a second place was up for grabs, between the US and Trinidad and Tobago, both on nine points. The Trinidadians had been playing well, and a run of victories against Guatemala and El Salvador had boosted hopes. The squad included a young Dwight Yorke, the “Little Magician” Russell Latapy, the brilliant Leroy Spann, and captain Clayton Morris, a solid defensive presence. Baptised the “Strike Squad”, this was the team to take the twin-island nation to the finals. With Carnival approaching, all the calypso songs were about victory. It just needed a draw in the final game: at home to the Americans.

Nobody who watched or listened on the radio to that game will ever forget. A lucky, harmless-looking long-distance shot from the USA’s Paul Caliguiri somehow sailed over goalkeeper Michael Maurice in the 31st minute, and that was it. Trinidad and Tobago could find no way back. As the game ended, players wept openly, but — and here veterans remember this detail with pride — they and the crowd congratulated the Americans (a far cry from that torrid night in Bahrain).

Stern John, then a boy, had watched the Strike Force’s last-gasp defeat, and like others, the British-based striker would do anything to avert a repeat performance against Mexico. One of many British-based players selected by Beenhakker, Stern had been scoring prolifically throughout the qualifiers. The weight of history was on his and all the other players’ shoulders as the critical encounter with Mexico approached. But there were also grounds for some optimism; hadn’t Trinidad and Tobago beaten Mexico 1–0 in 2000 in the previous World Cup qualifiers (although they had also lost 7–0)?

On 12 October, 2005, the fateful day arrived. The Mexicans, already assured of a place in Germany, fielded a slightly under-strength side, but even so made most of the early running. At thirty minutes, Trinidad and Tobago were awarded a penalty, but Stern shot weakly at the goalkeeper. Then, eight minutes later, Jaime Lozano scored with an elegant chip over goalkeeper Kelvin Jack to put the visitors ahead. A dreadful sense of foreboding filled the Hasely Crawford Stadium. But deliverance was at hand — in the form of Stern John, who atoned for his penalty miss just before half time with a tap-in.

The interval brought the news that Guatemala were leading Costa Rica, and this spurred the Trinidadians into a much more physical and fearless performance than in the first half. After ten minutes, the ball was in the back of the Mexican net, after Latapy and John combined to penetrate the Mexican defence, but the goal was disallowed. And then, after an hour, John scored again, this time after incisive play by Latapy and with a vicious shot that transfixed the stadium. 2–1 it remained, and Trinidad and Tobago might even have scored a third, when John’s opportunistic back heel was cleared off the line. The Soca Warriors had earned the tie with Bahrain.

What had Beenhakker done? “We are a new T&T since he arrived,” said young striker Scott Sealy. “We play a different way now, more disciplined, more organised.” Certainly, the veteran Dutchman’s ability to change the team around to suit the fixture and to make the telling substitution made a big difference. When, in the second leg of the Bahrain game, he dropped Latapy in favour of the twenty-year-old Kenwyne Jones, he ran the risk of incurring the public’s wrath. But the change paid off, as Jones’s pace worried the opposition. And when Latapy came on for the last fifteen minutes, it proved to be a tactical masterstroke, allowing Trinidad and Tobago to hold much more possession and frustrate the Bahrainis.

Beenhakker was also astute enough to accept St Clair’s decision to talk veterans Latapy and Yorke out of international retirement and to add their enormous experience to the youth and energy of the other players. The selection of Yorke as captain, in particular, was crucial, as he had as much experience at the top level with Manchester United as any player in the world. In this way, Beenhakker built a collective team spirit that was strong enough to rebound from adversity and positive enough to create self-belief.

Friday, 9 December, 2005. The draw is made. After a lavish and interminably long ceremony in Leipzig, the Soca Warriors know that they must face Paraguay, Sweden, and England. In a pub in Staffordshire, Christopher Birchall stands nervously with his parents as the red balls are pulled from the different “pots”. It is Lothar Matthäus, a former World Cup winner, who pulls out the Trinidad and Tobago ball, bringing a look of delight not only to the face of Leo Beenhakker but also to Sven Goran Eriksson. Birchall whoops with delight, as do Trinidadians around the world. It is the dream draw.

Trinidad and Tobago, listed 51st in FIFA’s national football rankings, had never played England (9th) or Sweden (14th). But in 1989 the team played Paraguay (30th) in two friendlies, which ended honours even at 2–2 and 1–1. There were few conclusions to be drawn from past form.

The odds on a Trinidad and Tobago victory were, to say the least, long: a thousand to one or more. Even so, the players sounded up-beat. Kelvin Jack told the media that the Soca Warriors were relishing the chance to take on England, while Birchall said that he was living the dream. Optimism was the order of the day.

The whistle blows at 5 p.m. on Saturday 10 June, when Trinidad and Tobago face Sweden in Dortmund. Until that moment, players, staff, and fans will live the dream. And anyone who underestimates the Soca Warriors will do so at their own peril.

The Predecessors

Three Caribbean nations have previously qualified for the World Cup — Cuba in 1938, Haiti in 1974, and Jamaica in 1998. James Ferguson looks back at these forerunners of the Soca Warriors

Los Cubanos

Most people associate Cuba with baseball rather than football, and it is true that baseball is really the national sport. But in 1938 a bizarre series of events allowed the Cuban national football team to go to the World Cup finals in France.

In that year, the threat of world war hung heavy over Europe. Hitler and Mussolini were in a bellicose mood, and it seemed only a matter of time before conflict would break out. FIFA decided that the third-ever World Cup finals should be held in France, fearful that any other European country would try to use the event as a propaganda exercise, as Italy had done in 1934. Argentina had applied to stage the finals, but FIFA ruled against the South Americans, who promptly boycotted the event. They were followed by a host of nations, who either did not wish to travel to war-threatened Europe or for one reason or another did not want to participate.

Among those teams to cold-shoulder the 1938 finals was the United States, who had got as far as the semi-finals in the 1930 Uruguay competition, but did not want to become involved in a European political minefield. The same worry probably motivated the teams from the regional Group 11, Subgroup B — Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, El Salvador, and Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) — who all pulled out. Which left Cuba with a walkover and a ticket to France without playing a game.

So it was that the amateur Cubans, managed by José Tapia, lined up against fancied Romania at the Chapou stadium in the southern city of Toulouse on 5 June, 1938. It was a free-scoring contest in front of seven thousand spectators, of whom almost none were Cuban. In the end, a goal by Juan Tunas in the 21st minute of extra time brought the game to a 3–3 conclusion. If that was good for the Cubans, better was to follow. In the replay four days later, Hector Socorro and Carlos Oliveira scored to achieve a memorable 2–1 victory.

But if the Cubans thought they were on a lucky run, they were wrong. The quarter-final draw pitted them against Sweden, one of the most consistent sides of the 1930s. The Swedes were fresh; the Cubans exhausted after their two-match heroics. The final score was 8–0, with Gustav Wetterström and Tore Keller both scoring hat-tricks. One French journalist, Georges Capdeville, who witnessed the rout at Antibes’ Fort Carré stadium on 12 June, memorably remarked “Up to five goals is journalism. After that, it becomes statistics.”

The Cuban team made the long trip home to a muted reception. It was the island’s one and only appearance in a World Cup final. Sweden lost 5–1 to Hungary in the semi-finals and then 4–2 to Brazil in the third place play-off game. The tournament was won by Italy.

Les Haitiens

In 1974, Haitians might have been living in dire poverty and under the repressive regime of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, but at least their team had qualified for the World Cup finals in West Germany.

Baby Doc, it was rumoured, was bankrolling the team, paying the group of talented amateurs out of his own, admittedly very full, pocket, as they cruised through the Concacaf qualifying rounds. First they routed Puerto Rico (not really, of course, a footballing island) by 7–0 and 5–0. Then in late 1973, the Haitians overcame the Netherlands Antilles (3–0) and — in a débâcle of a match — Trinidad and Tobago (2–1). Next came the Central Americans: Haiti beat Honduras 1–0 and then Guatemala 2–1. With this sort of form, the Haitians began to believe they could qualify, and when Trinidad and Tobago humiliated mighty Mexico in a classic 4–0 victory, Haiti went mad. It hardly mattered that they themselves lost to Mexico four days later: they had eight points, while Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico had six apiece.

So it was Haiti that made its debut in West Germany’s finals. The team was young, gifted, and highly motivated. All played for local teams, with the exception of captain Wilner Nazaire, who occasionally appeared for French first division side Valanciennes. The star was Emmanuel “Manno” Sanon, whose goals had fired Haiti into the finals.

But if the Haitians were euphoric on making the finals, they received a sobering reminder of the task at hand when they learned that they would face Italy, Poland, and Argentina in their group. The first game was against mighty Italy, runners-up in 1970. In goal was the legendary Dino Zoff, who had just completed twelve full internationals without conceding a single goal. If ever there was a David and Goliath contest, it was on 15 June, 1974, at the imposing Olympiastadion in Munich in front of over 50,000 largely Italian fans.

In the first half Haiti survived wave after wave of Italian attacks. At half-time it was 0-0. Then, in the 46th minute, something almost miraculous happened. As Sanon himself recalled:

“With my pace, you can’t leave me with just one defender, but that is what happened. I was one-on-one with Spinosi. I received a pass from Philippe Vorbe. I beat the defender with my speed. One-on-one with Dino Zoff, and the goal was wide open. I dummied to go left, and then went right. I rounded him, and rolled the ball into the net.”

Italians, watching the game live on TV, were aghast; Haitians, almost all listening on radio, were ecstatic. The least fancied team in the contest was leading one of the favourites. For six heroic minutes Haiti led, then Italy equalised. Then an own-goal gave the Italians the lead, which they solidified in the 79th minute.

The defeat was an anti-climax, but worse was to come. The next day, defender Jean Joseph tested positive for a banned substance (it was, he claimed, an asthma medication). With their morale rapidly evaporating, and fearful of reprisals back in Haiti, the Haitians lost heavily to Poland (7–0) and, more creditably, to Argentina (4–1), with Sanon scoring the consolation goal.

The Haitian team returned home with no points gained and a goal deficit of 14–2, but at least Sanon went down in footballing history as “the man who beat Dino Zoff”. For six minutes, Haiti had been a world-beating side.

Haiti remains as football-mad as it was in 1974, with most Haitians adulating the Brazilian national side as well as their own. But the impoverished country, wracked by political turmoil and deprivation, has struggled to mount another successful bid to get to the World Cup. Its league football carries on regardless, even though starved of resources, while courageous individuals such as ex-political prisoner and football fan Bobby Duval have done their best to improve the lives of Haitian children by introducing them to the sport in Port-au-Prince’s worst slum areas.

The Reggae Boyz

France, 1998, and at last a team from the English-speaking Caribbean was at the World Cup finals. Jamaica, a.k.a. the Reggae Boyz, booked a place in the 32-team competition after a long and gruelling qualification that began with double victories over Suriname and Barbados. Victories over Canada, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, plus draws against the United States (twice) and Mexico, gave the Jamaicans third place in the table behind Mexico and the US. Third was good enough to qualify.

It was a steep learning curve for the players, and for the Brazilian technical director, “Professor” Rene Simoes, who began work with the Jamaicans in 1994. He was not the first foreign coach, nor the first Brazilian to take over the Jamaican national side, but, in collaboration with national coach Carl Brown, Simoes stamped his authority and personality on the team. He insisted that the team play free-flowing, cultured football in the Brazilian mould. He insisted on discipline as well.

Simoes’s own brand of charisma and guile, together with the forceful personality of Captain Horace Burrell, had gradually created the impetus that brought the Reggae Boyz to the finals. Their nickname pointed to the strongly patriotic feeling that ran through team and fans alike.

It was with a potent mix of local talent and experienced players from the UK (who, sceptics said, had suddenly discovered Jamaican roots) that Simoes’s squad arrived in France. Expectations in Jamaica were sky-high; neutrals wanted the Reggae Boyz to do well simply because they were underdogs and, not least, because they looked like they enjoyed their football. Several thousand Jamaicans were in France to support their team, some from the UK and Europe, others from Jamaica itself. They brought a good-natured fanaticism, some loud reggae sound systems (and the gyrating Ouch Girls), and won a great many friends.

At the Stade Félix Bollaert in Lens, Jamaica faced Croatia on 14 June. After Mario Stanic scored for the Croatians, Wimbledon’s Robbie Earle equalised just on half time with a powerful header. The Reggae Boyz came close to scoring on a couple of other occasions. The second half, alas, was a different story. As Jamaica began to tire, midfielder Robert Prosinecki lobbed the ball over the Jamaican keeper Warren Barrett. Then, after Burton had come agonisingly close to equalising, Davor Suker settled the game with a 69th-minute goal. There was no way back from 3–1, despite the best efforts of substitutes Boyd and Andy Williams.

The next match, against Argentina at Paris’ Parc des Princes on 21 June, is one that most Jamaican fans would probably rather forget. Although the Reggae Boyz started with purpose and courage, they were overwhelmed by the technically brilliant South Americans. The first goal came on 32 minutes, when Ariel Ortega capitalised on Juan Sebastian Veron’s through ball. After Derby’s Darryl Powell had been sent off in the 46th minute, things did not look promising. In the second half, ten-man Jamaica fell apart under the persistent pressure exerted by Argentina. Ortega scored again, then Gabriel Batistuta chalked up a hat-trick, including a penalty. Simoes was telling the truth after the game when he admitted that “we were beaten by the better team.”

If the Jamaicans were deflated by their treatment at the hands of the Argentines, they managed not to show it in their third and final game on 26 June against Japan, also without a point after defeats by Croatia and Argentina. Neither side could therefore qualify for the next round. Perhaps it was because the pressure was effectively off (or because the Japanese were a less formidable proposition than the others) that Jamaica finally began to play. In front of 24,000 spectators in Lyon, the Japanese started more brightly, but the break came for Jamaica in the 30th minute when Theodore “Tapper” Whitmore fought off two defenders to score with a low shot. In the second half he doubled his tally, and although Masashi Nakayama pulled a goal back, Jamaica held on, with Aaron “Spider” Lawrence forced to make some fine saves.

It was redemption of a sort. The Reggae Boyz had won a game at the highest level, and the relief was palpable. To have returned beaten three times to Jamaica would have been unbearable, and even though there was a sense of anti-climax among players and coaching staff, there was also pride that a poor country of 2.5 million people had produced a world-class team. If the players did not return to a tumultuous reception, they at least went home with their heads held high.

“The road to Germany” and “The predecessors” are excerpts from James Ferguson’s book World Class: An Illustrated History of Caribbean Football, to be published in June by Macmillan Caribbean (ISBN 1-405-098-252)

The “Foreign LEGION”

Some of the key members of the Soca Warriors earn their stripes — and livings — playing for clubs outside Trinidad and Tobago. James Ferguson investigates

What do British football clubs such as Falkirk, Port Vale, Gillingham, and Luton have in common? Bad meat pies perhaps, or draughty stands? Apart from non-household-name status, they are all the employers of players who are likely to be representing Trinidad and Tobago this June. Glamorous they may not be, but these clubs have provided invaluable experience as well as a decent living to many key members of the Soca Warriors’ squad.

Some of the players are seasoned professionals, with CVs encompassing several previous clubs. Veteran Russell Latapy appeared for Hibernians, Rangers, and Dundee United as well as Porto before ending up at Falkirk. Prolific Coventry City striker Stern John has played for Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham Forest, and a handful of American clubs in the past. A few players are still with their first British clubs: Dennis Lawrence at Wrexham, Kenwyne Jones at Southampton, Chris Birchall at Port Vale.

Many of the British “foreign legion” are Trinidad-born, having arrived in the UK from local clubs, but others were born in Britain, claiming Trinidadian nationality through parents or grandparents. Shaka Hislop was actually born in London (although he grew up in Trinidad), while Gillingham’s Ian Cox hails from Croydon (his mother is from Tobago).

The best-publicised case of an English Trini is that of Chris Birchall, humorously nicknamed “White Yorke”, a Stafford and Potteries boy through and through. The Port Vale winger knew that his mother had been born in Trinidad, but it still came as a shock when Dennis Lawrence approached him during a game and asked whether he had any “Trini blood”. He managed to say yes, and the conversation continued after the game.

According to Birchall, the omniscient Jack Warner was behind his unexpected recruitment into the T&T squad. “Apparently he’s heard that I had some Trini connection, and then he saw a goal I scored for Port Vale that was on Sky TV.” Fittingly enough, it was Birchall’s scorching thirty-yard strike against Bahrain in the play-off first leg that kept the Soca Warriors’ hopes alive. Why did you decide to shoot? I ask him. “I was angry,” he says. “It was out of frustration, because the coach had told us not to concede a goal and we did. We couldn’t get any shots in going forward, so I just hit it.”

Birchall thinks the main difference between his bread-and-butter club football and the Trini-style game is that the latter gives him more time on the ball. Lawrence also believes that the emphasis is more on ball-to-feet and individual skill than the less cultured kick-and-hope pattern of English lower-league football. Is there such a thing as “Caribbean football”? Lawrence thinks there is, pointing to the region’s long-standing love affair with Brazil. “It’s a mix of natural athletic ability and that extra skill of being able to dribble the ball and take on players.”

Latapy, a.k.a. “the Little Magician”, agrees. “The Scottish game is a hundred miles per hour, but you can’t play that way in the heat of the Caribbean. As a result, we emphasise different things, and that’s a reflection of our culture and our outlook on the world. Nine out of ten people in the Caribbean like Brazil and the way they play.”

It’s a long way from Latapy’s relegation tussle with Falkirk to the international stage and a meeting with Beckham and Company, but the British-based Trinis certainly don’t lack confidence. True, most of them don’t play against Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard on a weekly basis (except Shaka at West Ham and Tony Warner at Fulham), but at least they know how the opposition will play and what to expect. “Anything could happen,” says the experienced West Ham goalie. “I’ve spoken to all the players based over here, and we are looking forward to it.”


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