TWELVE YEAR OLD Chris "Quicksilver" Savary collected cleanly, spun around on desperately thin legs, raised his head and passed perfectly to his winger sprinting down on the right. All in a second. And the church clock, adjoining the Tacarigua ground chimed, acknowledging, as it were, that football in Trinidad was alive and kicking.
Lost as I was, watching nine, 12 and 14-year olds collecting, dribbling and passing with convincing precision, it was left to the seasoned Eddie Hart to introduce a note of reality. It was a sour one.
"Boys like Chris will grow up, go into town, lured by the chances of press coverage and national publicity, they will join one of the big clubs. They will play for a while. And then the daily scramble for the dollar to go into town will begin to tell, they will give up, their game will peter off and they will join the ranks of the ex-big-time footballers. I know. I have seen it and I have experienced it."
Coming from him, these were pessimistic words indeed. For a man who in 1967 organised what he thought, then, would be a small league but saw it mushroom into a league that takes in some 1,500 players and 50 officials giving freely and voluntarily of their free time, he didn't seem to think that football was alive and kicking.
In spite of the visible brilliance of the footballers taking part in his League, in spite of the artistry witnessed in the streets when youngsters with no grounds on which to play dance around pot-holes and rubbish cans, passing pedestrians and passing cars, Eddie felt football was in serious trouble.
It was this concern over the game that led him to organise the League in 1967 — a League which almost overnight became a key centre of football in the country attracting the star players in the game until the TFA revived the old rule No. 19 under which members playing in affiliate clubs of the TFA were forbidden to play in the Minor Leagues.
FOOTBALL FOR ALL
Argued Eddie and his Committee in a memo to the then Parliamentary Secretary for Sport, Frank Stephens: "Any rule which seeks to keep the 'stars' in any particular sport aloof from the underprivileged but talented is a hindrance to the meaningful fraternity to which our nation aspires . . . football must not be for the privileged only — be it player, spectator or organiser. Football is for all. It must not be restricted to one or two, or just a few particular 'Meccas.' It must be played in all fields throughout Trinidad and Tobago."
Former ace Trinidad forward, Alvin Corneal, concedes that there might be a case for the T.F.A.'s ruling in that:
(1) the Minor Leagues do not offer any protection from injury, and injury is always possible since the up and coming players are out to "get" the stars;
(2) the big-boys by playing on a team deny up and coming youngsters a chance to make the side.
At the same time, however, Alvin also concedes that the Minor Leagues afford the players a tremendous amount of joy in that they bring out the home crowds and players are able to get recognition that for one reason for the other might be denied them playing in the major leagues organised by the TFA.
Making a round of past and present footballers it was clear that they felt that players from the small clubs were discriminated against with key positions on representative bodies going to members of the big clubs. Malvern, Maple, Paragon, Regiment (now the Defence Forces) as against clubs like Midvale, Colts, Dynamos and the rest.
What everybody seemd to be arguing was the case for a new football structure with the pinnacle being a professional League. The TFA, for all that it has written into its Constitution does not organise football throughout the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago — hence the need for the Minor Leagues to fill the breach.
As Eddie put it:
"There's tremendous talent all over the country. In Toco there are good players — but what happens — they play for a while, then end up in the village rum shop, frustrated with nowhere to go and the country loses a possible star player." In stressing that football should not be organised on any one or two "Meccas" Eddie put his finger on what was wrong with Trinidad's football. Again it is a question of the overcentralisation.
The sings are pointing to the need for Community Leagues, incorporating the Minor Leagues into the major structure, with players bringing off their best where they live, thus getting away from the daily scramble to get that dollar to go into town. While it is not possible for the country to support every football player, players would be willing to make the sacrifice if they felt that their ability could lead them to the top of the football ladeer where they could be paid for their skills and for their contribution to the game.
Oragisation from this point of view seems a tall order. And it is in the present context of TFA organisation. But if local government authorities were made more meaningful in that they were given control over their area, organising not only the maintenance of roads, sanitation but sports in the area as well, then the workload would be considerably lessened.
More important, the top community-team in the country would come about not simply as a result of the skill and dedication of the players but of the ability of the community to organise as well. As such it would be the community and not simply the team that would emerge champions.
After years of talk the country still does not have a Professional League. Everybody opposing it argues that it is too costly. But they ignore the fact that while it is costly in the context of the game today where only revenue collected is at the few "Meccas", people in Trinidad and Tobago will pay to see football and that they will be even more prepared to pay if they know that revenue collected will go to assist players, more likely than not friends of theirs, and to maintain existing grounds and even set up new grounds where necessary.
To embark on such a programme, however, the TFA must approach football not as an extra-curricular activity in the country but as what it is — a form of recreation that means a tremendous amount to a huge section of the population. It cannot, of course. Amazingly, the players that I met mentioned the one work in connection with football: politics.
By that was meant not the intervention of a political party — though this was argued to be the case in the National Sports Council — but a manner of procedure: selecting people not on merit but on connections: friends standing up for each other and paying no attention to the real issue under dispute.
Take the case of the proposed National Football League which was suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.
Efforts to find the real reason for scrapping the League revealed that again it was the petty interests of officials whose first allegiance was to the teams they represented.
To my mind, it is more than that for any attempt to fit a Professional League into the present football structure simply cannot work. Jealousies are bound to arise since the thing would not have grown organically but would merely be an imposition that has come about, not because the officials see any real value in it, but as a concession to footballers, many of whom are unemployed.
Like so many things here, the only answer is a radical approach. Either that or football will continue to stagger along from year to year. Indeed, if we are to judge from the fewness of players who turned up at the pre-season practice matches of the varioius clubs (imagine a club like Malvern scrambling to get players, Malvern who have been dubbed the "glamour side" of the land) the fears of our football officials that the minor leagues will become the real centres of local football will come to pass.
The TFA would do well to look around and see with which current the people are moving. Things have changed during Eric James' 30-odd year tenure. It can hardly be an accident that the best players find themselves in Police and the Defence Forces — and let us not fool ourselves: they are brought into these units because of their football ability, either through direct representation from police and army boys or because the path to joining is made easier for them because of their known prowess. They are in fact being paid to play.
Hopefully, Eddie will yet be proven wrong. And "Quicksilver" Chris may have a football future after all. The point is if the TFA is too set in its ways to provide for that future — then we will have to rid the sport of them — and this time with no hypocritical plaudits either.