Caribbean football fever takes hold

“These are the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean and I’m not saying that just because I live here.” And who would disagree with Jefferson, a bus driver in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago? With its stunning beaches, charming houses and lush greenery, not to mention its party spirit, friendly inhabitants and infectious Soca music, this Caribbean nation certainly does have a lot going for it.

Another of the country’s plus points is its love for football. When Trinidad and Tobago took on the challenge of hosting the ninth FIFA U-17 World Cup back in 2001, some 331,198 fans flocked to the games, quite an achievement for a country with a population of around 1,200,000.

Reliving the dream T&T’s growing support for the game was amply rewarded a few years later when the national team, also known as the Soca Warriors, qualified for the 2006* *FIFA World Cup Germany™, their first appearance in the world finals and a feat that sparked jubilant scenes on the islands. “That was one of the greatest events in Trinidadian history. It was amazing,” says a smiling Matthew, who supports San Juan Jabloteh, one of the leading clubs in the T&T Pro League. “Hosting the women’s U-17 World Cup is a chance to enjoy that wonderful feeling all over again.”

Judging by the coverage of the tournament in the press and on TV and the extent to which people are talking about it on the streets, Matthew is right: Trinidad and Tobago 2010 has definitely brought that feelgood factor back. The country’s knowledgeable fans have been turning up in numbers at stadiums from Arima to Marabella, applauding every flash of skill and every feint, the noise levels going up whenever the Soca Princesses get on the ball.

We love football here and our passion for it is growing all the time.

The tournament hosts conquered the hearts of the home fans with their wholehearted performances. The richly deserved standing ovation they received after exiting the competition with a 1-0 defeat to Korea DPR in Couva provided compelling proof of that. “They are wonderful players and they have given their all,” says Marta, an enthusiastic fan in her forties. “It doesn’t matter that they lost. We are very proud of them.” In the process Lauren Schmidt and her battling team-mates have become national heroes, their faces adorning the giant billboards currently lining the country’s roads.

Football as a way of life For a small nation Trinidad and Tobago has produced more than its fair share of sports stars, among them Ato Boldon, a living legend of track and field, and Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricketers of all time.

Its most famous footballing sons have also overcome difficult circumstances to find fame and fortune. Former Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke hails from a disadvantaged suburb of Scarborough, Tobago, and the widely travelled Russell Latapy, now national team coach, was born in brought up in Laventille, one of Port of Spain’s tougher neighbourhoods. The examples set by those trailblazers are now inspiring the nation’s young footballers.

“We love football here and our passion for it is growing all the time,” explains Lawrence, who runs a little cafe in Port of Spain. “In the past people tended to go and watch cricket more, but things have changed in the last few years. You only have to look at the excitement this World Cup has generated to realise that. Football is definitely the top sport here now. It is a non-stop party.”

The FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup might be over for the Soca Princesses, but Trinidad and Tobago’s love affair with football looks to set to blossom.