A tireless worker, deft passer of the ball and a long-range shooter of good effect, Trinidad and Tobago's Chris Birchall is conspicuous for another reason, too. As the only white member of the Caribbean island side, the England-born midfielder stands out in the crowd at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain.
"At first it was a little strange," the soft-spoken Birchall, hailing from Stafford in England's west Midlands, told FIFA.com. "But I never felt anything like racism or animosity. The fans just didn't know what I was all about and they were a little curious at first, wondering 'why's this guy here representing Trinidad and Tobago?'"
The fans' confusion was valid, as no white player had pulled on the famous red jersey of the dual island nation in over 60 years. Birchall's grandparents emigrated from England to Trinidad in search of work opportunities and gave birth to a daughter, Chris's mother, Jenny. She was raised and schooled on the island until her late teen years, at which point she returned to England, soon to start a family of her own.
"She thought that part of her life was over when she returned to England," Birchall remarked. But in 2005, Chris, then 21 and having a good season at Port Vale, was approached before a game against Wrexham by a towering black opponent with a thick Caribbean accent, who asked simply: "I hear you have some Trini blood in you?" The big man was centre-back and occasional Warriors' captain Dennis Lawrence, and he immediately put Birchall in contact with the powers that be at the Trindad and Tobago FA. The rest, as they say, is history.
"To this day, I still don't know how Dennis knew about my Trini background," added 'Chrissy,' as he is known in the squad. "But I'm thrilled that he did."
Losing him will be a blow not only in the midfield but off the pitch as well. As captain he comes around to everyone before the opening whistle and has a chat, tries to build you up,
Birchall wasted no time winning over team-mates and fans with his tireless running, willingness to work hard for cause and dogged determination in midfield, putting in impressive shifts in the final round of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. His crucial goal, a cracker from 30 yards against Bahrain in the play-off for the final berth in Germany, silenced any doubts, sealing as it did T&T's first-ever place at a world finals.
Thirty-five caps and three years later, Birchall, who is now with Brighton and Hove Albion in England's second tier, is a regular for the Soca Warriors. After helping them through the semi-final qualifying group for South Africa 2010, he was in the team that surrendered a 2-0 lead on the road in El Salvador in their final round 'hexagonal' opener last month. "Looking back on it from a month away it looks like a good point on the road," said Birchall. "But then it felt like a loss. We threw away a big lead in the last ten minutes [it ended 2-2] and we need to be sure we've learned from it."
Next up on 28 March for Pacho Maturana's men is a home date in Port of Spain against a tricky Honduran outfit, who will be desperate for a win after dropping their opener in Costa Rica. Birchall, Kenwyne Jones and Co will need to line up without captain Dwight Yorke, who was sent off in the dying moments in El Salvador and has since been hit with a four-game suspension.
"Losing a player like Dwight means everyone will need to pick it up in the next two games [they face the US four days after meeting Honduras]. "Losing him will be a blow not only in the midfield but off the pitch as well. As captain he comes around to everyone before the opening whistle and has a chat, tries to build you up."
The Hondurans, as Birchall readily admits, will be no easy ask even in front of the home fans at the Hasely Crawford Stadium. "You can't beat the supporters here in Port of Spain," said Birchall, knowing full well that T&T have not beaten Honduras at home in three tries. "But Honduras are a good passing team. We've played them before, but this will be a difficult ask. They lost their first game, and they'll be a very dangerous opponent this time out.
"Our aim is simple," the Trini-Englishman concluded. "A win, and that's four points from out first two games. That's what we want."