Time to reclaim our game

Lasana Liburd
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

...T&TFF flop again

LASANA LIBURD takes a look at footballers’ suspension

There must have been a sinking feeling in the hearts of 19 Trinidad and Tobago footballers, on Wednesday January 26, as they witnessed the scenes at Hasely Crawford Stadium. Mucurapo. The final scoreline read 2-1 in favour of the visiting Finland team and technical director Hannibal Najjar’s second defeat from three full internationals.

But then results are hardly relevant at this stage of preparation for either outfit.

On the other hand, the building of cohesion, physical preparation, trust and unity are of undeniable importance.

Why then did the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF) suspend virtually the entire core of their team?

In typical style, a press release was submitted on the fate of 19 players who dared to ask for nicities like ice bags and proper medical kits at training sessions as well as match fees at games that patrons were charged to see.

“Players who have indicated their unwillingness to represent Trinidad and Tobago in this match,” said the release, submitted by T&TFF president Oliver Camps, “are hereby suspended from all football activity under the aegis of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation and all its affiliates, both local and international, pending a full scale inquiry into their withdrawal from the national squad.”

There was neither accompanying press conference nor explanatory statements.

The lords of football hath spoken.

Camps’ arrogant edict never sought to address the concern of either party in a matter that had already gone public.

Not for the first time, the T&TFF had taken a bad situation and made it worse with an act of industrial relations to make even Health Minister Colm Imbert blush.

It was, of course, tantamount to using a rifle to silence a mosquito.

Forget the dramatic headlines or sound bytes, these are no rebel footballers.

Nine years ago, Trinidad and Tobago’s national football captain David Nakhid and his men withstood pleas from Prime Minister Patrick Manning, Brigadier Ralph Alfonso, Camps and a host of other intercessors after threatening strike on the eve of the Caribbean Cup final.

The T&TFF caved in on match day and paid their players who went on to hammer Martinique 7-2.

In sharp contrast, the present “Soca Warriors” had only the audacity to ask for ice bags, ankle tapes, sport drinks, a match fee, a players’ union and complimentary tickets to games that are generally poorly attended in any case.

And, this is the good part, they were willing to return to their inadequate training field as an act of good faith with just the promise of improved conditions from their employers.

Nakhid must have been doubling over with laughter at their “rebellious” stance.

The insecure T&TFF were clearly not amused.

Perhaps, the feeling at their Dundonald Street, Port of Spain, headquarters is that one local based player is as good as another and not worth a serious hearing.

The silence of the generally outspoken Najjar–a self professed “players’ coach”–on the matter speaks volumes on who wears the pants in the relationship between team and association.

And, at a crucial juncture in the rebirth of the national outfit, the much maligned T&TFF gave themselves another kick in the backside by showing the finger to their own employees and curious football fans.

This at a time when their financial arm–the Football Company of Trinidad and Tobago (FCoTT)–have just closed their doors and there is little support for their programme from the private sector or the general public.

It is nothing new, of course.

It is the same organisation who sacked Muhammad Isa in 1996 for not qualifying from the Under-17 Caribbean qualifying phase with enough style.

Four years later, though, they were paying $50,000 per month to Nigerian Adegboye Onigbinde who, after two years at the helm, couldn’t even ensure a win against Antigua.

What about their scornful treatment of Everald “Gally” Cummings–a national stand-out as player and coach–whose “Strike Squad” provided the political platform for FIFA vice president Jack Warner and the launchpad for the likes of Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy and Leonson Lewis?

Warner can find no use for Gally at Dundonald Street while not even one of the four recently built World Cup stadiums bears testimony to his efforts and popularity.

Who can forget the firing of national coach and former Strike Squad captain Clayton “JB” Morris–by a similarly brief press release–for merely enquiring about his late salary and asking to be treated with more respect?

So much for whatever Morris may have gleaned as assistant to the well-paid Brazilian Rene Simoes.

Anyone remembers Bertille St Clair who was sacked for taking the Warriors to their highest ever placing as defeated semifinalists in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup?

His dismissal was never properly explained but records show that only Canada bettered him at the 2000 Gold Cup while he remains the only coach to successfully qualify a team for a FIFA tournament.

The list of persons who fell victim to questionable decisions by the T&TFF or Warner–in his all powerful role as “special adviser”–goes on.

Peter Granville, Doc’s Khelwalaas, Queen’s Park CC football club, Nigel Pierre...

Today, it’s 19 young footballers.

Tomorrow, it may be the turn of Najjar or anyone else they feel could be dispensable–and the inventory is long.

It is the same administration in place who ruled over those string of blunders and more will come as surely as night follows day.

The real tragedy then lies, not on Dundonald Street, but at the office or training field of every local football club.

The shame is in the stands on match day or in the bar after the final whistle.

It is in the rooms of sponsors and on the keypads of sports journalists.

And in the living room of supporters who follow their heroes on television or by radio.

Football does not belong to a fistful of administrators.

It is property of Trinidad and Tobago and the country must accept responsibility to look after their investment of love and labour.

If the suspended Warriors looked broken-hearted last Wednesday, it had little to do with the thin-skinned response from the T&TFF which they must have half expected.

They must have been disappointed to see close to 5,000 spectators turn out to cheer for a second string national side who were either unable or unwilling to stand up for their cause.

The result was a fair one and Najjar’s team were not disgraced on the day.

Yet surely the technical director must recognise that he does not have the talent in reserve to outdo their Caribbean rivals in next month’s final round of Gold Cup qualifiers.

Even at full strength, Najjar had to withstand a nervy defeat to St Lucia last November to reach even this far.

Why then did he summon the same reserves for national training this week while the players whom his job would eventually depend on remain in the cold?

Coaches come and go and it is up to Najjar to determine whether he will be remembered as man or mouse.

The same can be said of the Pro League administrators who can hardly afford to stand by and allow an unjust block on their most marketable players.

How can they earn the respect of a sceptical private sector when even their players cannot count on them?

FIFA regulations state that a player can be banned for up to five days for refusing national duty.

It is unclear whether such a rule could be enforced under the circumstances regarding the players’ protest but it is still a far less frightening prospect than “pending a full scale enquiry”.

But the scariest thing of all was the apathetic response of the general public.

“I don’t think they fully understand what it is that we are fighting for,” said one national player, who was present at the Finnish friendly. “(...) We cannot compete with the United States if this is the kind of conditions we’re playing under.”

It is time for the football public to take some responsibility for the state of the local game whether by expressing their approval or disagreement of the players’ actions.

And show the T&TFF, in no uncertain terms, that the people of Trinidad and Tobago have a stake in the beautiful game too.


FIFA Regulations governing the transfer and status of players

(Articles 38-40)

As a general rule, any player registered with a club is obliged to respond affirmatively when called upon by the national association of which he is a national to play for one of its representative teams.

...A player who has been summoned by his national association for one of its representative teams shall, under no circumstances, be entitled to play for the club with which he is registered during the period for which he has been released or should have been released, pursuant to Article 36 above.

(Article 36 gives countries the right to call players for five to eight international friendlies per calendar year).

This restriction on playing for the club shall, moreover, be prolonged by five days in the event that the player, for whatsoever reason, did not wish to or was unable to comply with the summons.

[photo caption]

Trinidad and Tobago national striker Errol McFarlane attempts to keep possession among three Finnish players in last week's friendly football international at Hasely Crawford Stadium, Mucurapo. Finland edged Trinidad and Tobago 2-1.

[photo caption]

Trinidad and Tobago wing back Kwesi Smith stumbles in his effort to regain possession from Finnish attacker Peter Kopteff during last week’s friendly international match at Hasely Crawford Stadium.