Trinidad and Tobago may not be the best known footballing nation in the Caribbean, but these islands perched discreetly off Venezuela and Guyana are a force to reckoned with in the region. The Soca Warriors have been punching above their weight for several years now and are not too far behind traditional big guns Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica. Two victories in June have propelled T&T up 14 places to 63rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, making them the zone's biggest mover this month.
The Trinidadians have a reputation for being a somewhat inconsistent outfit, but they belied that image in June in the first qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup™, when they shook off the challenge of an admittedly modest Dominican Republic side (ranked 172nd in June) 2-0 and 4-0. That was the perfect response after two heavy defeats the previous month, 3-0 to Northern Ireland and 4-1 to Scotland.
The impressive recovery sent Bertille St Clair's men through to the second qualifying round in the CONCACAF Zone, where they will take on St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The latter will be no pushovers despite being ranked 153rd in the world, since they reached the second round by eliminating Nicaragua in emphatic style (2-2, 4-1).
St Clair showed he is not taking any chances by bringing his troops to Asia in July for warm-up games against Thailand (where they lost 3-2) and Korea Republic (1-1). Those matches turned out to be just as testing as the manager had wanted: "We've introduced some new faces," he said before the trip, "which is all part of my strategy or blooding new talent. It will be a difficult tour, but the whole point is to get my players used to playing in trying conditions, since the World Cup is no cakewalk. The days when you can just turn up and expect to wallop the so-called small teams are long gone. To make progress, we'll have to fight even harder than before."
The Soca Warriors are an effective blend of local-based players and those plying their trade overseas. The country recently lost the services of its biggest-ever star when Dwight Yorke, who spent several glorious seasons at Manchester United, announced his retirement from international football. T&T can still field an exciting attacking duo though, in the form of Stern John (Birmingham City) and Jason Scotland (Dundee United). In midfield, Anthony Rougier of Bristol City is a highly competent ball winner and the defence features promising youngsters such as Derek King, Keyeno Thomas, Kenwyne Jones and Marlon Rojas.
Another key component of the team is Angus Eve, who expressed his satisfaction with the draw against the Koreans. "I think this performance will give us a lot of confidence for the next qualifying round," he declared. "I would never have predicted that we could come back from a goal down against them, but we showed great strength of character."
The method works
St Clair may have some fine talent at his disposal but he is determined to unearth even more: "This is a small country of nearly one million people," he said. "We used 23 players over the first two matches but there are others I need to look at. In Europe alone, there are 17 players who could conceivably play for the national team. And in China and the United States, there are others."
Since his appointment last January, St Clair has demonstrated that his method works. After the two convincing wins over the Dominican Republic, his charges took a 2-0 lead over Thailand before losing and then went on to claim that excellent draw in Korea.
Before the Korean match, midfielder Brent Rahim spoke almost prophetically of the attitude the Trinidadians would have to adopt. "There's no reason for us to be intimidated by the strength of our opponent," he said. "The atmosphere should not affect us, even if we're very far from home. We've got to get used to it because that's exactly the sort of atmosphere we'll have to face in the World Cup qualifiers."
Having proved they could handle the atmosphere, Trinidad and Tobago earned a new admirer. "Their team fights hard on the pitch and gave us a good work-out ahead of the Asian Cup," said Korea Republic manager Jo Bonfrère. "Technically, they are very good. I would have liked to have seen them attack more but I suppose they adapted defensive tactics for this game because we are ranked much higher than them and reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup." Sharing the honours with a side ranked 20th in the world is certainly a fine platform for the Soca Warriors to build on prior to their next qualifiers.
This month's ranking is the Trinidadians' highest since October 2003, and they look set to rise further next month, but the islanders still have quite a way to go before they equal their best ever standing, 25th back in June 2001. St Clair is happy to progress slowly but surely though: "We are taking it one step at a time, building brick by brick," he says. "But I'm confident and I know that when the moment of truth arrives, we'll show we're a strong and disciplined team." St. Vincent and the Grenadines, you have been warned!