Trinidad and Tobago coach Stephen Hart had a problem. Down a goal in St. Vincent, his side was short on inspiration and in need of a spark. The boss looked up and down the bench, where one set of eyes gleamed sharper, more eager, than the rest. They were the eyes of a boy, barely old enough to drive. But Levi Garcia’s eyes were hungry.  

“It was like a dream,” Garcia, just 18, told about being handed his senior debut with the game on the line, that golden moment when a player either becomes a hero or comes up short. “The coach just told me ‘go out and do what you came to do.’”

What Garcia did was score twice, crucial interventions in a game that proved far trickier than the pundits predicted. The 3-2 win sent the Soca Warriors to the top of their Russia 2018 qualifying group, ahead of giants USA. Garcia’s first goal came 13 minutes after taking the field. A series of blinding step-overs, reminiscent of his hero Neymar, bamboozled his marker out wide before the youngster cut inside and fired home a rocket of a right-footer. The second, a match-winner, was a calm tap-in on the end of a long ball. When the final whistle went at the Arnos Vale cricket ground in Kingstown, it was clear that something special had been glimpsed.

Hug of relief
The spiky-haired winger was hugged tightly by his coach as the players milled off the bumpy grass, warm smiles for their young teammate on his big day. The embrace was tinged with relief, and gratitude, the excitement of finding a rare gem in the dust of an overlooked drawer. Garcia’s class, a cut above everyone else on the pitch, was evident from his first touch.   

It was this elegance, speed and sharpness that earned the teenager a move last year to the Netherlands, to Europe’s big stages where Trinidadians are in short supply. He was given a trial and was determined not to blow it. “I showed what I could do,” said the affable youngster, aware of his skills but falling short of over-confidence. He received special training from Dutch legend Marco van Basten, then assistant at AZ Alkmaar, and was soon handed a debut with the first team. 2016’s been a year of firsts for the boy.

“I felt a real fear then. It was a fright,” Garcia said about making his first appearance for AZ in one of Europe’s top leagues, not even two months ago, against Rotterdam giants Feyenoord. “Big stadium. Big crowd. It was all new and almost too exciting. But when I got my first touches, I settled into it and it was just like any other game.”

The first games Garcia remembers were in the back garden with his three older brothers in the tiny village of Santa Flora in Trinidad’s south. “They used to rough me up, if you know what I mean. I was the youngest so they kind of knocked me around,” he said, with a fond chuckle for home, knowing no one’s pushing him around now.  

Those early tests served him well. He scored his first goal for Alkmaar last month and he’s already being called the biggest thing to come out of the dual-island national since Dwight Yorke. Born in 1997, two years before the legend Yorke won a famous treble with Manchester United, the young winger’s not even old enough to remember Trinidad’s historic appearance at Germany 2006, where his current captain Kenwyne Jones was the youngest player in the team. “I saw the clips on YouTube and people are always talking about it back home,” Garcia said, sheepishly.

Long way from home
Despite being a star on the rise, Garcia’s also a young man – often a long way from home – trying to make his way. “You miss your people a lot sometimes,” he said of his life in the Lowlands, a country far from the aromatic scent of Doubles, a local Trini delicacy of chickpeas and fried bread, and the tender goat meat of the roti shops that dot the island. “I’m the lonely Trinidad guy out there in Holland and that makes me feel like I have to make it. There’s no going home without making it, without going to the sky.”

Trinidad and Tobago head home on Tuesday to play St. Vincent again. The fans at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, having glimpsed a new hero, will be eager for their teenage sensation to make the starting XI. But it’s still the boss’s call.

“Home or away, we’re always looking to get the three points,” concluded Garcia, eager for a nap before training, with a clarity born of youth. “Home or away, anyway we get those points is the right way.”