By Santokie Nagulendran
Tuesday 11th November 2014 marks the third anniversary of the most important date in Guyana’s footballing
history: when, against all odds, they eliminated Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) from 2014 World Cup Qualifiers and consequently reached the semi-final stages of qualifying for the first time in history. What could have been a date which symbolised a changing of the guard in Caribbean Football has ultimately become a date to reflect on “what might have been?” Whilst T&T eventually recovered from the loss and are currently ranked 49th in the world, Guyana has seen its football paused for virtually two years and are now ranked an abysmal 153rd in the world.
In 2011, the second round of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region saw Guyana, led by Trinidadian Jamaal Shabazz, grouped alongside a strong Barbados side, Bermuda, and Trinidad and Tobago, who were the undisputed favourites of the group, containing talented players such as Kenwyne Jones in the line-up. Despite being under-dogs, Guyana topped the group and assured qualification for the next round by defeating Trinidad 2-1 at Providence Stadium on 11/11/2011, with goals from Ricky Shakes and Leon Cort ensuring the win, two players born in England but of proud Guyanese heritage.
Assistant manager of the Trinidad and Tobago National team that night, Anton Corneal, paid the biggest tribute to Guyana after the game by saying, “What we saw from the Guyanese team tonight was evidence of how much more they wanted it and an idea of their attitude and desire which we lacked badly as a team. This was the opportunity for them to show that.”
When Leon Cort netted the decisive goal against T&T on 11th November 2011, it opened up a world of possibility for the Golden Jaguars; they had a talented squad that blended overseas-based and domestic players, younger players such as Trayon Bobb were given a chance to play with and learn from more experienced players such as Leon Cort and Christopher Nurse. After going on to play Mexico at the historic Azteca Arena in June 2012 and also facing the same Costa Rica side which made the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals, Guyana’s potential rapidly faded due to much publicised internal disputes within the GFF (Guyana Football Federation).
The 2012 Caribbean Cup, in which Guyana were expected to do well in, was blighted by disputes between the GFF and players, and thus Guyana were eliminated in qualifiers, losing a priceless opportunity to build on their World Cup campaign.
Subsequently, without playing a single game from December 2012-September 2014, Guyana were embarrassingly eliminated from recent 2014 Caribbean Cup qualifiers without scoring a single goal and are now below teams such as St Lucia, Barbados and even Madagascar in October’s FIFA World Rankings. Former GFF President Christopher Matthias spoke against using overseas-based players in the squad, choosing only two for the tournament and picking a largely inexperienced squad for the competition.
Speaking on the issue, acclaimed Caribbean football expert Nathan Carr recently summed up Guyana’s woes, telling me that, ”Guyana looked to be going places under ex-boss Jamaal Shabazz but the federation’s decision to neglect the ‘foreign’ players such as skipper Chris Nurse and striker Leon Cort, who has now retired, has proved very costly indeed… since that momentous 2-1 victory against T&T, the Golden Jaguars have plummeted and plummeted.”
T&T on the other hand, used the loss in 2011 as wake-up call: they sacked manager Otto Pfister weeks after the defeat and begun a rebuilding process, using their time to develop the U-23, U-20 and U-17 men’s teams, as well as the women’s senior team, with an eye on the future. Anton Corneal, who was also part of the coaching staff during T&T’s appearance in the 2006 World Cup, was made Technical Director and emphasised the importance of grassroots development for Trinidad: “A conscious effort must be made to synchronise our club football, college league and the Pro league with an emphasis on proper development. Coaching schools, community teams, primary schools and zonal teams will help form the foundation of our football. These programmes are only possible with the support of the Government and the business community, I know with planning, implementation and patience we will see a better product in our National teams.”
From January 2012, T&T begun to arrange International friendlies with tough opponents such as Finland and Canada as preparation for the 2012 Caribbean Cup; this aided their development as they reached the final of the tournament in November 2012, losing to Cuba in extra-time. Young players in their early 20s such as Kevin Molino, Jamal Gay, Willis Plaza and Atalluah Guerra were integral to the side in the tournament and most importantly, helped the side reach the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup as a result of finishing in the final four.
In the Gold Cup, held in USA and featuring the best teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, T&T defeated World Cup regulars Honduras, and reached the quarterfinals, narrowly losing to Mexico 1-0.
Veterans such as former Premier League player Kenywne Jones were used in the side to work alongside the new generation of players and help the cause of the team. The global coverage of the tournament was such, that in 2014 T&T were able to arrange friendlies against Iran, and Argentina (featuring a certain Lionel Messi), as preparation for the 2014 Caribbean Cup. Clear progress has been made, as evident in the higher calibre opponents the team can now attract for friendlies. Midfielder Kevin Molino has gone on to earn a move to America playing for Orlando FC, and scored 20 league goals for them last season, a new record, as well as being a great personal achievement for him, his experiences abroad will inevitably benefit the National side.
Thus far in the 2014 Caribbean Cup qualifiers, T&T have scored nine goals in three games and eased into the final tournament to be held next week, with a 23-man squad named that features sixteen players now based overseas, they are seen as favourites to win the competition and will likely get the chance to further develop by qualifying for the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup as a result. With World Cup qualifiers also beginning next year, T&T harbour realistic hopes of making the 2018 edition.
During Guyana’s period of football inactivity, T&T played a total of nineteen competitive games, and as such, their progress is no surprise, as the old adage goes: ‘practice makes perfect’. The development programme they have embarked on since 2011 has begun to pay dividends, as Nathan Carr went on to tell me: “The domestic division (TT Pro League) continues to grow, the Under-20s won the CFU U-20 Championship back in September (3-0 v Haiti) while the women’s team have a two-legged play-off with Ecuador coming up to decide whether or not they make the Women’s World Cup in 2015. All-in-all, it is fair to say Trinidadian football has improved since 11/11/11 and it is continuing to make strides.”
By focusing on development, with the help of Government and local businesses, as well as recognising the importance of playing International friendlies and utilising overseas-based players, Trinidad have managed to recover remarkably well from their early World Cup elimination in 2011. They have a team which blends youthful vibrancy with wisdom of experience and are arguably now the best side in the Caribbean once again. Currently ranked 49th in the World, their players will also soon be able to qualify for work permits to play in the UK, and their development as a team will surely continue as a result of players gaining valuable experience abroad.
This time next year, the GFF should have a newly-elected President, as well as a reformed constitution and a National Squad comprising of the best Guyanese players, (regardless of where they were born or now play their football), consistently playing competitive games. It is a major under-taking for the normalisation committee to embark on, but as this tale has shown, Guyana should look to T&T for a blueprint on how to turn a footballing setback into a pathway for long-term success.
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