Trinidad and Tobago Plans to Calypso on Road to Italy

Randy Harvey
Date Published: 
Los Angeles Times

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — When we catch them in the Stadium,

We'll beat them like a bongo drum,

We go show them Yankee who is gnat,

Soca tempo, tit for tat.

--Blue Boy, calypso singer, "The Road to Italy"

It was Sunday, the first day of Winners Week in Trinidad and Tobago. The letter W was for Worship, which is what an interfaith congregation had come to do at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Whatever their religion--Christian, Muslim or Hindu--the faithful had been taught not to trivialize their prayers. So, usually, they pray for fresh water from the skies, oil from beneath the ocean and good weather for the fruit and sugar cane harvests.

But these are not usual times on these tiny Caribbean islands. On this particular day, they had come to pray for victory for their Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) national soccer team in its game at the National Stadium Sunday against the colossus from the north, the United States.

Actually, all T&T needs is a tie to advance with 23 other countries to the World Cup next year in Italy for the first time in. The United States needs a victory to earn a place in the finals for the first time since 1950.

If anyone in the congregation felt guilty about praying to win a soccer game, he or she would have received absolution from Archbishop Anthony Pantin. He told them he had prayed in the dressing room with the national team before an exhibition game the previous week.

"I felt I was praying for the nation," he said.

Monday was the day for Initiative. At 3:30 p.m., the time of Sunday's game, people were asked to interrupt whatever they were doing to honk their horns, wave the flag or sing the national anthem. If they did not know the words to the anthem, a calypso song would do.

No. 1 on the hit parade this week has been Blue Boy's "The Road to Italy." It can be found on his "Super Blue" album, which has the Jules Rimet World Cup trophy on the jacket.

Tuesday was for honoring past National Heroes, such as the country's only Olympic gold medalist, 1976 100-meter track champion Hasely Crawford, and author V.S. Naipaul.

Wednesday was Never Say Never Day.

On Thursday, Energy Day, about 6,000 school children were bused to the National Stadium for a pep rally. As they danced and sang and chanted, they were entertained by steel and oil bands, tassa drumming and calypso singers, including, of course, Blue Boy, who borrowed a melody from a religious anthem. Archbishop Pantin, no doubt, will recommend that he be forgiven.

"When T&T, When T&T,

"Goes on to Rome,

"I will like to be in that number,

"When T&T goes on to Rome."

Enthusiasm reached a new high Friday, Red Day, when everyone on both islands was supposed to wear the national color. From the look of things at Port of Spain's busiest corner, Henry and Queens, everyone did. With music blaring from every storefront, traffic stopped at noon as people spent their lunch hour dancing in the streets.

One newspaper editorial cautioned its readers not to presume that those not wearing red are traitors. It pointed out that some less-fortunate islanders simply do not have red garments. But that seems unlikely after this week. On Wednesday alone, the T&T Football Assn. (TTFA), sold $34,000 ($8,100 U.S.) worth of souvenirs, mostly red T-shirts, bicycle caps and scarfs.

Even newspaper headlines Friday were in red.

"Red or Dead," said the Evening News.

"Red Dawn," said the Daily Express.

"Blood in the Mud," said the Bomb.

Another newspaper, the Guardian, said that the significance of Sunday's game cannot be underestimated. So far, no one here has tried.

One writer in the Guardian called it "arguably the greatest moment in the history of Trinidad and Tobago." Other newspaper, radio and television commentators have expressed hope that a victory will enhance the country's standing in the Organization of American States and boost the economy by stimulating trade and tourism.

In short, they have said, a victory would put T&T on the map. The islands, incidentally, are located off the northeast tip of Venezuela.

"Millions of people will have their eyes on Trinidad and Tobago," Archbishop Pantin told his congregation. "They will perhaps find out for the first time that we are not part of Jamaica."

Expectations are so high that Dr. Harry Maharnj, a consultant psychiatrist at St. Ann's Hospital, said the stadium Sunday could become a time bomb.

"With the national psyche so aroused, I am worried that anything remotely inconsistent with what is expected on the day can trigger mass hysteria," he said.

"The people are now living for something, which I think is very positive. But we are too psyched up, too prepared for this expectant success that, should we fail, thousands will suffer a huge emotional letdown. All hell could break loose."

Fillmore--"Call me, Bones"--Augustus, an assistant in the TTFA office, said the doctor needs a shrink.

"If we lose, we will be upset for a day," he said. "No one will go to work Monday. But we are a very easygoing people, and we will get over it soon. We have Christmas to look forward to, then Carnival in February, then Easter. There is always something."

But, Bones added, it is a moot point.

"We are not going to lose," he said.

That is the virtually unanimous consensus on the islands, although T&T has not beaten the United States in eight meetings since 1982. They tied, 1-1, in Torrance earlier this year.

The leading headline one day this week on the front page of the Guardian (that is the front page of the newspaper, not the sports section), said, "No Way USA."

From a sporting standpoint, the immediate impact of a tie or a victory Sunday for the home team would be to make Trinidad and Tobago, with a combined population of 1.26 million, the smallest country ever to advance to the World Cup finals.

That would be a staggering accomplishment considering that the TTFA almost ceased to exist earlier this decade. Between 1983 and '86, a rival group, the T&T Football Federation, attempted a hostile takeover of soccer on the islands. It had the support of the ruling party, the People's National Movement, but it was not sanctioned by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA).

In 1986, another party, the National Alliance for Reconstruction, came into power and threw its weight behind the TTFA. That was the end of the upstart federation.

One of TTFA General Secretary Jack Warner's proudest moments this week was when the former federation chairman, Arthur Suite, came with hat in hand to the association office to ask if he could buy tickets for the game. Warner gave him two free of charge.

Although the TTFA won the war, its balanced budget was a casualty. Warner said he was humiliated when he felt compelled to sell a home game to the United States in the 1985 World Cup qualifying tournament, taking $20,000 to play in Torrance instead of Port of Spain.

"It is not out of patriotism that we are still in the red," Warner joked, noting that the TTFA still owes $500,000 in debts.

With a victory Sunday, the TTFA's financial prospectus would improve significantly. FIFA guarantees $1.4 million to each of the 24 finalists in the World Cup. Furthermore, local companies are lining up to sponsor the team and individual players if they reach Italy.

So far, the TTFA's most generous benefactor has been the government. The National Alliance for Reconstruction has not been able to turn around an economy devastated by the decrease in oil prices, but it has scored points with its constituency by providing for the soccer team.

Besides donating about $100,000 earlier this year, the government also has helped by putting the coaching staff and a psychologist on its payroll and providing the National Stadium rent free.

"Calypso football at its best,

"T&T versus the rest."

The real hero of T&T's emergence in international soccer is its coach, Everald (Gally) Cummings, 41, who was on the national team at 16, then played in the now-defunct North American Soccer League a few years before returning home.

In 1987, after the national team lost all three games at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, he was asked to become its coach. The first thing he did was give the team a national identity.

A British colony until 1962, T&T was still playing a style heavily influenced by Englishmen who coached on the islands years before. Their style featured long balls down the wings and crosses to target men. Cummings decided to stress individual one-on-one skills but with structure. He looked toward Brazil.

"I felt we had a lot in common with the Brazilian people in cultural terms--a mixture of races, music, football played in poverty areas and on the beach, the desire of young boys to become star players," he told Soccer America earlier this year.

"The performance of the player must be a mirror of the people in his society. It must reflect the people and the things that make T&T the place that it is--our calypso music, our carnivals."

Cummings' players have made such beautiful music that their style is called, "Calypso football."

Their record in the Central and North American and Caribbean region (CONCACAF) qualifying tournament is 3-1-3. The United States has the same record, but T&T has the advantage in case of a tie Sunday because of a better goal differential.

Rarely is anything resembling a negative word heard about the team on the islands. T&T is known as the Rainbow Country because of the many different nationalities and ethnic groups that live here in harmony. Some East Indians have complained because only blacks are on the soccer team.

But the primary complaint from most islanders is that they cannot get tickets for the game in the 30,000-seat stadium. The match will be televised live and also shown on Diamond Vision at three locations on Trinidad.

"You could not imagine how many old ladies are backing the team now, although some of them don't know football from cricket," Archbishop Pantin said.

T&T was this close to qualifying for the World Cup finals once before, in 1973. But in a decisive game in Haiti, four T&T goals were called back in a 2-1 loss. Afterward, the referee and the linesman were banned for life by FIFA, but the result stood.

So there is good reason that TTFA officials are paranoid about Sunday's game. Although there is no history of soccer violence here, 1,200 soldiers and 700 policemen have been enlisted to make sure that no one among the capacity crowd does anything that would lead to a U.S. protest. That is a larger security force than the island had for visits by Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth.

"Behave . . . or Else," a headline in the Guardian warned.

But after the game, if T&T wins, all bets are off. The police chief has denied permission for a jump-up, which is the dancing in the streets that islanders do during the annual Carnival. That, however, does not mean there will be no jump-up.

"I don't think the police are against it," said Peter O'Connor, president of the TTFA. "They can't very well say that it's OK for people to dance and drink in the streets. It's just going to happen."

"The streets like ah festival,

"People making bacchanal,

"East, west, north and south,

"Lord, hear they mouth,

"People jumping half-naked,

"and sipping dey Carib.

"On the road, on the road,

"The road to Italy."


Trinidad and Tobago are separate islands that have been influenced by cultures from Europe, Africa and Asia since growth there began in the 18th Century--Christopher Columbus claimed Trinidad for Spain in 1498--but they have been paired only since 1888, when they became a single colony under British rule.

During the Depression of the 1930s, the colony suffered serious economic problems and the people demanded greater voice in the government. Gradual increases in self-government were allowed in the 1940s and '50s, and the colony became an independent republic in 1962.

Trinidad, the larger of the islands, lies seven miles east of Venezuela. It accounts for about 95% of the land area and 95% of the population, much of it centered in Port of Spain, a major seaport. Tobago is about 20 miles northeast of Trinidad.

The country's economy is based on oil production but agriculture and tourism also play major roles, and the country is particularly noted for steel drum bands, calypso music and the limbo dance.