Russell Latapy is the man Trinidad and Tobago turn to when the chips are down, a one-man creative cavalry for the tiny dual-island nation. Just as he did in 2005, Latas' most recent return from international retirement has shocked the struggling Soca Warriors back to life.
The Caribbean islanders - whose appearance at Germany 2006 was their first-ever at a FIFA World Cup™ - found themselves in a tough spot in the semi-final group stage of qualifying for South Africa 2010 and on the brink of elimination after a 3-0 hammering by the USA in Chicago. It was then that fellow old boy Dwight Yorke (37) made a call to Scotland, and his old friend Russell, who had hung up his international boots after the finals in Germany.
"You never want to turn your back on your country," Latapy, now a full 40 years old, told FIFA.com. "I saw that the team was in trouble, and the next thing you know the phone's ringing and it's Dwight and he's asking me if I'd consider coming back to lend a hand. Of course, I was happy to do it."
His first game back, in a hybrid player-coach role, was a daunting trip to Guatemala City on 11 October, against the side he helped T&T sneak past for a place in the finals two years before. And the 'little magician's' orchestrations proved invaluable as Francisco Maturana's team stayed alive with a 0-0 draw in hostile territory. Four days later, Latapy became the oldest scorer in FIFA World Cup qualifying history with the first in a 2-1 win in Port of Spain against a youthful USA, who boasted a Freddy Adu 21 years Latapy's junior.
Dwight Yorke sealed that famous win with a late penalty. The Trini pair, with a combined age of 77, turned back the clock to leave the Warriors on the cusp of the final 'hexagonal,' with eight points to Guatemala's five.
"Dwight and I have been playing together since we were 12 years old, and it's an absolute joy still be able to do so," added Latapy, player-coach at Scottish League Cup semi-finalists Falkirk. "We are great friends off the pitch, but more importantly we both think about football in the same way and we have a great understanding."
While Yorke, currently at Sunderland, is considered the most famous player in Trinidadian history, the diminutive Latapy is known as the true artist and midfield genius. Discovered at ten years old kicking about in his native Port of Spain, the youngster's deft touch and precocious style quickly won admirers.
Famous duo head out
After he and Yorke just missed out on a spot at Italy 1990, Latapy joined the ‘smiling assassin' in Europe. Yorke's joys at Manchester United are common knowledge, while Russell made a name in Portugal with Porto and Boavista, and later with Hibernian and Rangers in Scotland before settling in at Falkirk, where he is much beloved in his dual role as coach and creator.
"You never think you'll still be playing when you're 40 years old," added Latapy, whose well-documented love of the nightlife and pack-a-day smoking habit, make him an unlikely candidate to be playing at such an age. "These days you're lucky if you can go past 34 or 35, but I was playing in a World Cup when I was 37, and I thought that would be the last time for me. But maybe it won't!"
If Latas and Co are going to book their place at a second consecutive world finals, a good performance against Cuba at home in their final semi-final group 1 game on 19 November is critical.
"We just need one more good game to make sure we get ourselves into the final round," Russell enthused, knowing a draw would see them through and star striker Kenwyne Jones is likely to be back from injury. "We'll just have to go right at Cuba and get the ball into their goal. We'll attack like we always do."