Football crazy on carnival isle

Donald Trelford
Date Published: 
UK Observer

SOON after 5pm today, local time, Trinidad-Tobago and the United States will have settled which of them, David or Goliath, has secured the twenty-fourth and final place in next year's World Cup. Not since Honduras and El Salvador went to war 20 years ago has a game of soccer taken on such momentous meaning.

The outcome is of more than passing interest to the superpower, which has invested megabucks in a campaign to host the 1994 World Cup (including a fistful of dollars for the services of Dr Henry Kissinger — not , one hastens to add, as a player, but in his more familiar role as negotiator and international lobbyist). But that is only money.

For T-T, as the twin-island Caribbean republic likes to abbreviate itself, it is more like life and death. Feelings run much deeper than the normal sense of national pride that a country with only 1.5 million people, not much bigger than Birmingham, is entitled to enjoy if it becomes the smallest entrant in history to reach the final stage of the world's premier football tournament.

'This country is going to explode,' said a local columnist. 'The tension in the air, the sense of expectancy and of hope, is so thick one can almost reach out and touch it.' A visitor here is engulfed in a hurricane of hysteria that seems to threaten the people's sense of identity; even, it seems, their sanity.

'Psychologist sees danger if T-T loses', screamed the normally sober Trinidad Guardian. 'Soccer Horror ', said an aptly-named paper, The Bomb. The match makes headlines every day, upstaging the Berlin Wall.

Dr Harry Maharaj, a consultant psychiatrist who spent four years studying the Brixton riots, thinks defeat could 'trigger mass hysteria. We are so psyched up that, should we fail, thousands will suffer a huge emotional let-down and all hell will break loose.' In other words, the place will go collectively mad.

The islanders are certainly in an exalted state of mind that even this seasoned sports freak found hard to compare or comprehend. It would take a V. S. Naipaul, who was born here, to explain the phenomenon in terms of the Trinidadian 's restless search for identity, for self-respect, for roots: 'Finding the Centre', as he called his autobiography, though he didn't have soccer in mind.

The ubiquitous street banners, car stickers and shop window displays, the calypsos, the ticket frauds . . . such things one takes for granted as par for the course, just as one notes that on Friday every person in the country wore symbolic red. What astonishes here is the religious fervour, like a countdown to Holy Week. At a special Inter-Faith Service in Port of Spain Cathedral, at which Hindu , Muslim and Christian prayers were heard, the Archbishop said of a visit to the team: 'When I prayed with the Strike Squad in their dressing-room, I felt I was praying for the nation.'

C. L. R. James, who also was born here, would have understood if it was cricket, the chief binding force in Caribbean culture and society, that was going 'beyond the boundary' into people's lives in this way. But even the wisest of sporting gurus would have been amazed to
see soccer achieve a stronger emotional impact than cricket has ever done.

A modern Trinidad writer, Kevin Baldeosingh, explained it thus: 'It seems as if we have invested all our hopes, and our very ideal of nationhood, in the football team. It is as though winning through to Italy will confirm us as a society, a cultural entity, which is relevant to the wider sphere of this green and blue planet . . . by producing individuals like Naipaul and James we have confirmed our potential. But the endemic insecurity remains, largely because
of the narrowness and inability of our politicians.'

The Prime Minister, A. N. R. Robinson, whose mild grey demeanour belies his middle name of Napoleon, quoted Tacitus when I asked him about the football phenomenon: 'Success has a
thousand fathers. Defeat is an orphan.' Put another way, more perhaps in the style of his old Oxford chum, Michael Heseltine, this can be read as meaning: 'If I'm going to be blamed for losing, I might as well take the credit if we win.'

In the past three years, after coming surprisingly to power (he brought only two parliamentary seats to the business coalition that swept out the ruling party after 30 years), Robinson has steered the islands away from the wilder shores of socialism into gentler, more
pragmatic waters.

But the IMF still hovers watchfully over T-T's infant capitalism, concerned at the size of the country's debt and its over-dependence on oil. A further devaluation has been averted, but a swingeing and unpopular VAT seems bound to come in.

Today's football result could have far-reaching effects. Assuming T-T win, one political scenario sees Robinson bringing in VAT in the afterglow , coasting through to Christmas, to the Carnival in February, the England cricket tour in the spring and the World Cup finals in July . . . then calling a general election while the nation is still high.

If they fail, however, and all the 'Italy Here We Come' T-shirts have to be junked, the picture is gloomier: social unrest, economic crisis, leading to a lost election, followed (some say) by Robinson retreating to his native Tobago and reviving a secessionist movement. Cynics note that he has already favoured the smaller island with a deep-water harbour and a major runway extension.

Who said soccer was only a game?