It'll Be Historical First for U.S. or Trinidad and Tobago

Randy Harvey
Date Published: 
Los Angeles Times

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — When the coaches and players of the U.S. national soccer team arrived at Piarco Airport here after midnight Friday, "under the cloud of night" as the disc jockey on Radio Trinidad said, there were about 3,000 people there to greet them.

But only about 40 or 50 were Americans, most of them having arrived on the previous flight from San Juan. The staff from the U.S. embassy tried to even the odds, giving the Americans small U.S. flags to wave.

Their chants of "USA, USA," however, were easily drowned out by the islanders, all of whom were wearing the national color, red. "No Way, USA," they shouted. "No Way, USA."

Where did the Americans think they were coming, Grenada?

The United States is here to play today at the National Stadium in arguably the most important soccer game of its history, a chance to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time ever.

It has played in three previous World Cups, the most recent in 1950, but all of those were by invitation. This would be the first time that it has earned a berth among the world's 24 elite teams.

It also is the most important soccer game in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, which has never played in the World Cup finals.

But that might be an understatement. Some islanders believe it is the most important event, sporting or otherwise, since the small Caribbean islands gained their independence from Great Britain in 1962.

"Charles DeGaulle said that the islands of the Caribbean are specks of dust," said Jack Warner, secretary general of the T&T Football Assn. and a lecturer in history at the Polytechnic Institute here.

"A lot of people in the world think it. He was frank enough to say it. This is a chance to fly our flag on the world stage, to put our country on the map."

That stage will be next summer's World Cup in Italy. Two teams from the Central and North American and Caribbean region (CONCACAF) qualify. Costa Rica (5-2-1) already has earned a berth. With only today's game remaining, the United States and Trinidad and Tobago are tied for second at 3-1-3.

T&T needs only a tie because it has a better goal differential in the previous seven games. The United States must win to advance.

Ever since the region's weakest team, El Salvador, played the United States to a scoreless tie two weeks ago in St. Louis, it has been virtually impossible to find anyone here who believes T&T is capable of losing.

When that score was announced, T&T was tied, 2-2, in an exhibition game at the National Stadium with a team from Lithuania. A roar went up from the stands, followed by two quick goals in a 4-2 victory for T&T. That is viewed here as an omen.

The entire country has since been in the grips of soccer mania. On Friday, it was difficult to find anyone not wearing red. People were dancing in the streets until dawn Saturday, creating an atmosphere that usually is reserved for February's Carnival.

National Coach Gally Cummings has done nothing to douse the people's enthusiasm.

"After having seen the Americans, I am convinced that they will be no match for us," he said last week.

U.S. Coach Bob Gansler reacted to that remark Saturday in the same manner that he reacts to virtually everything: stoically.

"We didn't come here to deliver a win to them," he said. "We could have done that by staying home and sending it by mail."

But, objectively, it is difficult to disagree with Cummings' assessment. In the previous game in May at Torrance, the teams tied, 1-1, T&T scoring in the final two minutes. T&T, however, appears to have improved while the United States has, if anything, gone in reverse.

Taking advantage of its outstanding goalkeeping and solid defense, the United States is not, by design, an offensive machine. In its first five games, it scored only five goals. But in the last two games, it has been impotent on offense. Both games ended scoreless.

That, naturally, has created some dissension. The defenders are pointing their fingers at the forwards, who are blaming the midfielders.

The players had a team meeting at their training camp last week in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to clear the air and emerged, they say, as one unit again.

Their midfield could be helped significantly by the return of Hugo Perez, who has played only one game this year because of various injuries. In his last game, he scored the only goal in a victory over El Salvador at Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The United States has been scoreless in 208 minutes since then.

Perez practiced with the team last week, but Gansler would not reveal Saturday whether he will play today.

"I am important to the team," Perez said. "I want to play. But it's the coach's decision. It's difficult for him because I haven't been with the team for six or seven weeks."

Although T&T needs only to tie, it is not expected to play for one. A wide-open, attacking team, that is not its style.

Gansler said Saturday that he hopes to take advantage of that aggressiveness by playing defensively early, waiting for a T&T mistake and then countering. If the game is tied midway through the second half, then he will tell his team to attack.

The game begins at 3:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. in Los Angeles), but a capacity crowd of about 30,000 is expected to begin arriving at the stadium as early as 5 a.m. since the majority of seats are not reserved. A program consisting of steel bands, tassa drumming and calypso singers is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.

The game will be televised live here and also will be shown on Diamond Vision screens at three locations on Trinidad, including the 35,000-seat cricket stadium in Port of Spain.

Win, lose or draw, the government has declared Monday a national holiday. Win, lose or draw, few would have been able to go to work Monday, anyway. A major concern on the islands Saturday was that the bars would run out of beer before the end of the weekend.

The game has attracted media attention from several countries besides the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. Veteran soccer reporters from Europe said they have never seen a entire country so mobilized behind its national soccer team as this one.

There has been some criticism from within the country because the display at times has taken on militaristic overtones. The most popular chant among schoolchildren has been, "Search and Destroy." But, for the most part, the atmosphere has been festive.

Nevertheless, at an interfaith service last Sunday, Archbishop Anthony Pantin called upon the islanders to be on their best behavior today.

"Respect the rights of others," he said. "We need a warm heart, one of sportsmanship. If the USA does something good, give them a little clap, too. Be proud, and keep everything in proper perspective."

The U.S. ambassador, Charles A. Gargano, issued a statement Friday to the people of T&T.

"This World Cup qualifying match--important as it is--will pass," he said. "Our nations' friendship will remain."

It is, after all, only a game.

Or is it?