Giving Jack his jacket
November 20, 2005
By Raffique Shah
I must confess that I was pleasantly, no, ecstatically, surprised when the Stern John/Dennis Lawrence combination put Trinidad and Tobago into the 2006 World Cup finals. In fact, as soon as that goal was headed beautifully into the net, I switched off mentally, moved away from the television set, saying: "We win!"
What I did not say to other members of the family who were also looking at the game was I did not have the "belly" to sit out the remainder of the game to see Bahrain come back from behind. I didn't think they could, given their track record. But in sports, one knows anything can happen in a split-second to change fortunes.
When it comes to sports at the national and international levels, I am not just a fan of anything or anyone Trinbagonian, but almost a fanatic, especially in the disciplines of cricket, football and athletics. Oh, I don't attend matches, be they at the Oval or the stadium, not since television has brought sports into the comfort of our homes, replays, et al.
But my heart is with every national player or team: I don't need to wear red, drape myself with the national flag, run about the streets like a madman in order to show my bona fides. In fact, on the very night that the Soca Warriors did us proud in Bahrain, I later found my soul badly wounded when I decided to follow the West Indies team playing in the second Test against Australia. After Smith, Sarwan and Lara were dismissed, and with Gayle back in the dressing room ill, I lost all hope. By the following morning when I heard the scores, I resigned myself to facing another bout of humiliation at the hands of Australia.
But back to our national football team. Early on, when the campaign had just begun, I saw some performances that were less than impressive-and that's putting it mildly. In my mind, I compared this team with its forerunner in 1973, and even the "Strike Squad" of 1989.
It did not quite measure up, especially in the absence of our two star players, Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy. Surely, if only for their experience, they were needed to help us get past all the other Caribbean teams, and to seriously tackle the more experienced Central American ones, some of whom had made it to the World Cup before. Game after game, even as we scraped through, I became less confident. Even the victory against a depleted Mexico did not lift my spirits.
What I learned in this pock-marked road to Germany was that I was no good at interpreting football, assessing players. Not because I never played the game (except for "small goal" and some "street football"), but because I never studied it as carefully as, say, I have done with athletics. I did, however, talk with people who knew better. When Lincoln "Tiger" Phillips returned home to serve (I had long questioned why this ace goalkeeper was never brought back, not just for his skills, but for his ability to lead, to relate with young players), I asked him pointedly: Can we make it to Germany? He answered in the affirmative, but he did outline some conditions we needed to meet in order to get there. Ken Butcher, too, told me as much.
However, I had grown so accustomed to disappointments in sports, I remained sceptical. Even after that first match against Bahrain, clearly a team with inferior players but equal in determination to get to Germany, I was... well, scared. In fact, I felt if we did not put two or three goals into the net by half-time in the crucial return match, we could forget it. How wrong I was. And how happy I am that I was wrong! Because what I saw in those young players in the early minutes of the second half was nothing short of a fighting spirit that I associate with the military.
The man I want to single out, though, for his tenacity, his confidence in the team, his dogged fighting spirit that saw him pitted against Government, Cabinet and corporate T&T, is Jack Warner. Although we attended the same college, Jack and I have been at odds on many issues, not the least of which was his misplaced confidence in Basdeo Panday. Even in football, I have publicly disagreed with him for hiring and firing players and officials "by vaps".
It is clear now, though, that had it not been for Jack's determination, his style of leading from the front and devil-take-the-hindmost attitude, we might never have seen the glory of a place in the World Cup finals. Sure, the coach, technical staff and players, made it happen. But Jack's obsession with making a seemingly impossible dream turn into reality was probably the most critical element in this nerve-racking exercise. He deserves all credit for T&T's history-making entry into the stratosphere of international football.