U.S. facing must-win in World Cup soccer qualifier

Date Published: 
The Capital

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) — Two years of preparation and more than $1 million have gone into U.S. efforts to qualify for soccer's 1990 World Cup. Today, on this tiny island off the coast of Venezuela, the Americans' fate will be decided.

If the United States beats Trinidad and Tobago, it will qualify for its first World Cup since 1950. If the U.S. team doesn't, it will have been embarrassed, five years before it plays host to the world's largest sporting event.

How big is the game?

"This is when people kick their own grannies," said Keith E. Walker, secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

"I think you have to be comatose not to be aware of the significance of the game," said Bob Gansler, the U.S. coach.

The Americans played in the World Cup in 1930, 1934 and 1950. Trinidad, a former British colony, has never made the World Cup. It would be the smallest nation in size and population ever to qualify.

"This is the biggest thing to ever happen to Trinidad and Tobago, bigger even than our national carnival, which annually attracts international attention," said Dave Lamy of Radio Trinidad, a prominent sports journalist on the island. "I am hoping it does not put too much pressure on our team."

The 33,250 tickets for the game were sold in two hours. Jack A. Warner, secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association, warns of many counterfeit tickets. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) designated it a high-risk match and ordered that five percent of the tickets for National Stadium not be sold. About 1,000 troops from the government's Defense Force will guard the ballpark.

Originally, Jose Vergara Guerrero of Venezuala was to referee the game. A few weeks ago, FIFA changed its mind and replaced him with Juan Carlos Loustau of Argentina, the referee at the Chile-Brazil match on Sept. 3 that ended with a flare thrown on the field and Chile walking off.

"We ourselves at the football association did not expect the degree of international attention which will be focused on us for Sunday's game," said Peter O'Connor, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association. "Our football team is perhaps ahead of the country in respect to preparation and expectation of what going to Italy can mean for football in this country."

Giant video screens have been erected in Port of Spain, Chauguanas and San Fernando, so that fans without tickets can watch the game in groups on closed circuit. Radio and television stations are playing calypso songs about the team and showing calypso videos. The colors of Trinidad and Tobago's uniforms are red and black and many of the 1.2 million people on the islands wore red Friday to show support.

While soccer seems to be on everyone's mind, in the United States it is hardly noticed, rarely placed on the level of baseball, football, basketball and hockey. The game won't even be televised live; ESPN will show it on a two-hour tape delay, starting at 4:30 p.m. EST.

"The development of our game in this country, this could hurt us or slow us down a bit," said Walker, who runs the USSF on a day-to-day basis. "But let's be positive. We know we go there going for all the marbles. If we win we'll be gracious. If we lose we'll be bloody disappointed."

Walker grew up in Scotland. Werner Fricker, the 53-year-old president of the USSF, was born in Karlsdorf, Yugoslavia, raised in Austria and came to the United States in 1952. For all its efforts to appeal to Americans, the sport still is marketed by foreigners and its officials seem to think that spectators should flock to it without provocation.

On Tuesday, the team played an international match against Bermuda at Cocoa, Fla. The attendance: 0.

Why? There was no advance announcement of the game.

"We wanted to play behind closed doors," Walker said.

Trinidad, on the other hand, played an exhibition match against Zhalgiris Vilnius of the Soviet Union and drew 20,000.

And it's not as if the USSF doesn't need the money.

"We've spent about a million, and this is extremely important for us," Walker said.

"Success on Sunday eases some problems. If we don't succeed, we may have to pull the belt in a notch and may have to do some things we may not be happy doing."

If the U S. team makes the World Cup, it gets $1.4 million from FIFA, most of which, presumably, would be used for expenses preparing the team between now and June 8, when the 24-team tournament begins in Milan, Italy.

There are 166 nations in FIFA, the largest sports organization in the world. Of those, 112 entered the 1990 World Cup, which began on April 17, 1988, when Trinidad and Tobago beat Guyana 4-0. Twenty two of the 24 spots in the final have been filled. The other two will be on Sundav with the U.S.-Trinidad game and the the Cameroon-Tunisia match.

Trinidad an island of 1,861 square miles is 7 1/2 miles off the coast of Venezuela separated by the Gulf of Paria. It was discovered by Columbus in 1498, on his third trip to America. Spaniards colonized the island in the 16th century and a large number of French, fleeing the revolution settled in 1797. The British occupied the island during their war with Spain and took it over in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens.

Tobago, a 117 square mile island 19 miles to the northeast, was joined to Trinidad in 1889. The two remained a British territory until Aug. 31, 1962, when Trinidad and Tobago became an independent state in the British Commonwealth.

Lately, the No. 1 topic isn't the rainy season, it's soccer. The team has been training in Forrest Park, at an abandoned sugar estate about 40 miles from the capital.

"The emphasis from here on in will be on mental preparation as the team is fit and cannot possibly get much fitter," said Everald "Gally" Cummings, the 42-year-old who coaches Trinidad's national team.

For more than a week, there have been heavy rains, turning the field to mud.

"The possibility of heavy fields can give us an advantage as we have been playing here in very soggy fields," Cummings said. "Our natural game is more suited to dry conditions to facilitate speed and rythmic passing."

While Cummings is a hero, Gansler has been [illegible]. There is growing talk that [illegible] be fired.