“There are some things in your life you know you’ll never forget. That World Cup, the whole journey, is one of those for me. And I must say, it doesn’t feel like ten years ago. It’s all still so fresh.”
Carlos Edwards, now 37 and still playing for Millwall, is speaking from his English home, and the excited chattering of his young daughters ebbs and flows in the background. But with 2006 the subject of our conversation, his mind is soon wandering, transporting him to Port of Spain, then Riffa and on to Dortmund, Nuremberg and Kaiserslautern.
That was the journey, etched forever in his mind, which saw Trinidad and Tobago participate in the FIFA World Cup™ for the first and, to date, only time. They were - and remain - the smallest country ever to have graced the tournament. But while the experience still conjures up images of bliss – “the whole thing was so, so fantastic”, he says – Edwards recalls that the path to Germany did not run smooth.
“Things were going badly,” he told FIFA.com. “We had one point from three games and looked to be heading out once again. But then, fortunately for us, the federation made a decision that changed everything.”
That decision, with T&T winless and having been hammered 5-1 by Guatemala, was to recruit charismatic Dutchman Leo Beenhakker as coach. For Edwards, that appointment dwarfed in significance everything that happened before and after.
“Without Mr Beenhakker, there’s no way we would have made it to that World Cup,” he said simply. “I remember when they first mentioned his name, I didn’t have a clue who he was. But then I saw the calibre of teams he’d coached and immediately thought, ‘Ok, we’re in safe hands here’. And that’s the way it proved. For me, he had the whole package as a coach. It was a privilege to play under him. He made all the difference.”
With the vastly experienced former Ajax, Real Madrid and Netherlands coach at the helm, the Soca Warriors scraped through to an intercontinental play-off, beating Mexico on the final day of CONCACAF qualifying to set up a two-legged meeting with Bahrain. Again though, they took the tough route to success, drawing 1-1 at home in the first leg to seemingly surrender the initiative.
“We didn’t perform to the best of our abilities - maybe nerves kicked in,” recalled Edwards. “But Bahrain looked to be playing for a 0-0 draw in the second leg and that helped us. Big Dennis Lawrence popped up with the only goal and that was it: we were through. When the final whistle went though, I honestly didn’t even know how to celebrate. That’s how shell-shocked I was. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, jump... I had no idea. At the time, it just felt like someone would tell you it was all a dream.”
Holding their own
Plenty predicted a brutal awakening when Beenhakker’s side arrived at the World Cup itself, with group rivals England, Paraguay and Sweden all licking their lips in anticipation. But while circumstances conspired against Soca Warriors in their opener again the Swedes – with goalkeeper Kelvin Jack injured in the warm-up and Avery John sent off in the first minute of the second half – they battled to a historic 0-0 draw.
“That was all credit to Mr Beenhakker too,” Edwards recalled. “In his training, he always said, ‘My preference is for players to train for two positions because you never know what can happen during a game.’ Sure enough, we got a red card, and at that moment I immediately knew to slot back from midfield to full-back. I did ok there and, for that, I give credit to the coach because he prepared me very well for that eventuality.
“After that Sweden game, I could have happily packed my bags and gone home. I really felt we’d made a mark at the World Cup after that. We knew very well that a lot of people expected us to go to Germany and get hammered. But we showed that it wasn’t by fluke that we had qualified.
“We were unlucky to lose the games that came after that as we played pretty well. But honestly, I wouldn’t change that World Cup for anything. I’ve been lucky and had a good career but that’s the highlight without any shadow of a doubt.”
Road to Russia
Edwards’ great hope is that the same uniquely satisfying experience can now be sampled by another generation of T&T players. He is hopeful that this will be sooner rather than later, too, with the Soca Warriors’ class of 2016 unbeaten and three points clear of USA in their Round 4 section of Russia 2018 qualifiers.
“I think this team have what it takes to qualify,” he said. “They have a great manager (Stephen Hart), just as we had in 06, and I can see real progress there. “
Edwards played every minute of the team’s campaign at Germany 2006 but, at 37, has no expectation of being involved again in two years time. Nonetheless, with experience of 86 competitive internationals, and having distinguished himself in England with the likes of Sunderland and Ipswich Town, he’s happy to remain on call.
“I think my time has passed to be honest, but if the manager needs me I’m always available,” said the Millwall veteran. “I don’t think I’ll be needed, the lads there are doing a really good job. But if he thinks I can help at any stage, I would never say no to my country. I’d be willing to help in any way possible.
“I’ve just started my coaching badges, so I’m already looking towards the next stage of my career. But I still feel good, still enjoy my football and hopefully I’ll still be playing for another couple of years. If not, I know I’ll be able to say that I gave it a real go and walk away with a lot of great memories.”