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Sunday, June 11, 2006

A lesson in the defiance of damning expectations...

Written off by the punters as not having a snowball's chance in hell, noted as being from the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup, and recorded as having the oldest team on average at 29 years 5 months, the Trinidad & Tobago football team shocked the world by holding Sweden to a nil-nil draw in their Group B match on June 10th, 2006.

Even some faithful Trinidadians and Tobagonians had written off the boys' chances in Germany, having to face World Cup veterans Sweden and England in Group play. Many expressed that the team might be able to pull off a win against Paraguay, but that a full-strength Sweden, arguably the best team in the Group, and England, riding on their best hope for World Cup glory in many a decade would be too much for our beloved Soca Warriors.

A poor record in friendly matches after qualifying did nothing to bolster public confidence in the Trinidad & Tobago team. Were one to look only at the score lines, it would be easy to believe that the team had gotten worse since beating Bahrain, that the defence had deteriorated and that the attack was even less effective than before.

Anyone who had closely followed the team's fortunes though would have been able to see a marked difference in their fitness, but more so in their structure and play. Most evident in the 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic, the number two ranked team in the world, the T&T players were no longer a collection of individuals, each struggling in their own capacities at forward, midfield and defence. The team was now passing the ball better and keeping possession, getting into space and losing their markers, and this against a full strength team of champion-class internationals. Hindsight suggests that this game showed no real attacking intent in the Trinidad & Tobago team, just good ball possession in the final and middle third of the field. And in what may be a tell, coach Leo Beenhakker appeared unphased by the result of this game. He seemed unphased by the results of any of the friendlies for that matter.

The crafty coaching veteran has been quoted as saying that Trinidad & Tobago will not win the World Cup, but has not really said much else. He will commit verbally to no strategy other than that he will be using Stern John up front and will not play Russell Latapy and Dwight Yorke together. His nonchalance has left all to speculate that the Soca Warriors will in fact just be tourists in Germany, despite Beenhakker's claims that they won't be. And then came the draw with Sweden.

Reported as being under-strength in the absence of Marvin Andrews at the back, and with the sudden insertion of second-choice keeper Shaka Hislop in the uprights, Sweden came out to exceed the five-nil score line that had been anticipated even before the first whistle.

Although the score at the half was still nil-nil, commentators expected that a surprisingly resilient Trinidad & Tobago defensive effort would eventually crack and that Swedish stars Ibrahimovic, Ljungberg and Larsson would eventually break through.

The Soca Warriors down to ten men for the majority of the second half continued to hold though, and in holding off the Swedish attack showed the utility of players like Carlos Edwards and captain Dwight Yorke. All the players on the field suddenly showed an incredible defender's ability to take the ball off the feet of the Swedish players, isolate them, intercept their passes, and read their plays. Sweden were forced to run hard at the T&T citadel to take quick, low-percentage shots at keeper Shaka Hislop, while heavily covered by Trinidad & Tobago players. It was late in the game when it was noted that a number of Trinidad & Tobago players would routinely push Sweden's attack out to approximately 40-yards from the T&T goal before quickly running back into defensive positions.

The further insertion of T&T striker Cornell Glen helped to keep the pressure off the Soca Warriors' defence. Swedish last stopper Mellberg could not commit himself and his back line to the attack with both Stern John and Glen to worry about.

At the end of it all, Trinidad & Tobago came away with an historic draw against top opposition at the highest level of the sport.

And while the team has achieved some small degree of respect, it has been grudgingly given. Commentators still speak of what Sweden did not do to couch statements on what Trinidad & Tobago did to prevent Sweden from securing a win.

This is good for the Trinidad & Tobago team though.

In the first round, each team is required to play three matches. Sweden now has two matches to win against Paraguay and England, not only to be sure of a place in the next round, but also to recover from the embarrassment of their performance against a team still considered competition minnows. They will be seeking to put their stamp on their remaining two games, sinking England in the process.

England had a decidedly poor showing against Paraguay, earning a win off an own-goal. While Sven Goran Eriksson's unit certainly won't be taking Trinidad & Tobago for granted, they probably won't take the team too seriously either. This makes them an excellent victim for Beenhakker's boys, defying people's poor expectations with another show of excellent defensive work and something new out of the cagey coach's bag of tricks.

By the time the world gets to understand what's happened, all that will be left for Trinidad & Tobago will be Paraguay, a team whose play we'll have come to understand after the game against Peru, and a team that will have been run ragged by a Swedish attack running on "bad mind".

The Object Lesson for Trinidad & Tobago

I received a very disturbing piece of email from a friend this week. It describes in fair detail an incident that is purported to have taken place on the Audrey Jeffers Highway. The writer and her husband's reactions to the incident in their missive is as follows:
I was infuriated. I wanted to shout and cuss at [the perpetrators] but my husband held my hand and said "Hun, stay quiet and act like you doh know what goin on, you want them to come and kill us?" He was right, those ignorant fellas would have walked up to us and beat me and my husband for protesting to the wrong that they were doing. And you know what, there is no justice for something like this, take the car number and it won't make a difference. I've been in too many hit and run accidents where taking the car number and giving it to the police is a waste of time, they could never find the vehicle or driver that wronged you.

This is what we live in, this is what we face, this is what our kids have to grow up in. FEAR [Emphasis hers]. And it'’s getting worse. Please, I urge you, be careful, in fetes, on the road in traffic, wherever, don't give anyone bad eye, don'’t try to stand-up for what is right, cause in Trinidad, this will get you killed and for what, they will get away and be able to do it again.

To the young men in the SENTRA [Emphasis hers] [vehicle number given], I think you are all big stupid cowards!!!! To the man in the Subaru, I understand what you were doing, but not in this country, think about your life and family first before you do something like that again, it will only get you killed.

Thanks to the police who could never find the car even though you have the license plate number, thank you for never being there when we need you. To the government, thanks for letting the crime reach this stage and still being able to steal our money and get away with it. Maybe when it's your son or daughter, maybe then you'll do something about it. Until then, we live in fear!!!!

Please pass this on to all your trini frens and relatives that you care about!

Concerned and scared citizen!!!
The incident is described as having taken place on June 2nd, 2006 and is pretty fantastic. It's so fantastic in fact that I'm really surprised that it didn't end up on the newspapers of June 3rd. But that aside, if the account has any truth in it, I'm disappointed in the reaction of the writer and her husband.

The writer could have gotten on her cell and dialled 999 or 555 and provided a full description of what was taking place. If she were so equipped, in the same way that someone took a camera phone picture of the 13-year-old accused of Sean Luke's murder, she could have taken a snap or two of the criminals engaged in the assault completely unknown to them and then driven straightaway to the St. James Police Station to make a report.

Instead she encourages others to do just what the criminals want us to do I'm sure, which is to throw up our hands and do nothing at all.

What would have happened if Chris Birchall had dropped his shoulders and lost heart in that game against Bahrain at the Hasely Crawford Stadium?

What would have been the result if Carlos Edwards had decided that the Swedish attack was too much and he failed to operate in defence when Avery John was sent off?

What would have been the result if Shaka Hislop had not given up his body to save more that half a dozen shots?

What would have happened on a hot evening on June 10th, 2006 if the entire Trinidad & Tobago team had not committed itself to spirited defence to earn a draw and our first point in World Cup finals competition?

Each player could have looked at his fellows and said to themselves that they weren't going to do anything more than they were specifically required to do, especially if other players couldn't handle their assignments. But each one helped the other and the unit came together in the face of seeming insurmountable odds and damning public opinion. They showed that working together, the Swedish attack that was written as certain to destroy Trinidad & Tobago was not quite as potent, and that on the day, we could very well prevail.

The situation in Trinidad & Tobago is similarly neither helpless nor hopeless. We don't have to effect dramatic citizen's arrests or run into burning houses to save crippled old ladies. No grand effort is at all required. We just need to effect some common sense and discipline.

We need to stop condemning the security forces wholesale too. There are those among them who really are desperately trying to help. But we do them no favour every time we put them on trial and sentence them in the court of public opinion. Further, they're stretched having to deal with both criminal activity and our own silly indiscretions, like needing to be on the bus route to ticket us when they should really be preventing or investigating another more serious crime somewhere.

Instead of throwing up our hands in despair, and making disparaging and discouraging statements about those around us, let's try to go back to principles earlier espoused, and work together to improve our lot.

Our Soca Warriors have done it, and will continue to do it. So too can we.

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