T&TFF mayhem stirs old warrior

Lasana Liburd
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

George Hislop UNPLUGGED

The guard dies, as the Latin proverb goes, he does not surrender. And, as publicly evidenced over the past month, there is life in old George Hislop yet.

So when Hislop sauntered into the Cascadia Hotel Conference Room, St Ann’s for a press conference called to clarify a strike by 19 Trinidad and Tobago players, tongues were immediately wagging at his mere presence.

Trinidad and Tobago national football team technical director Hannibal Najjar’s response was calculated as he pretended to absolve his players from blame and instead pointed fingers at an unnamed and meddlesome “adviser”.

By all appearances, the 67-year-old Hislop was not unnerved.

“Imagine Najjar is wasting people’s time talking about who advising (his players),” said Hislop indignantly. “You have to advise somebody that they’re hungry? Najjar must know they’re hungry. The players must know they’re hungry.

“What (are) they trying?”

Hislop, as Najjar should know, will not be chased away easily.

If you take the former magistrate’s opinion, though, it is just one of many important facts that Najjar has shown an inability to grasp.

Hislop was bred to fight–and win.

A week ago, the veteran attorney and sporting enthusiast agreed to publicly explain why his name was back on the lips of the local football hierarchy.

The interview was conducted in his new law office at the Diamond Vale Consumer Co-operative Society Ltd where Hislop has somewhat grudgingly accepted a call to return to duty seven years after he left the bench.

“I still regard myself as being retired,” he said. “But, when you are in law, you are always able to do something and people sometimes come to you.”

One such aggrieved party who sought out his professional advice was Najjar’s squad who walked out on a training session two days before an international friendly against Finland last month.

The players complained that training sessions were often conducted with nothing but water for national athletes.

There were no energy drinks, lunches, ice bags, tapes for wrapping ankles or proper medicine kits.

They had also represented the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF) at several competitive matches without receiving appearance fees.

It was a matter that touched Hislop closely.

A man with a penchant for such landmark cases, he could not say no.

The present football public may know Hislop as the father of Portsmouth goalie and ex-national football captain Shaka Hislop–the only Trinidad and Tobago custodian to compete in the English Premier League while at Newcastle and West Ham.

Older heads would recall his battle with the newly formed Football Company of Trinidad and Tobago (FCoTT) in 1995 which potentially cost Fifa vice-president Jack Warner’s company millions.

His first suit came long before, though, and was even more far reaching.

An impressive all-round athlete as a youth, Hislop’s credits included the 1958 West Indian Championship long jump gold medal as well as a place among the country’s top five cricketers in 1959 alongside Jeffrey Stollmeyer, Gerry Gomez, Nyron Azgarali and Selwyn Charles.

In 1959, Hislop, who also represented Queen’s Royal College (QRC) as an outfield player and goalie, also broke the national long jump record with a leap of over 24 feet–a record that stood for 12 years.

But it was as a fairly inconspicuous physical education school teacher in London that he had his first major brush with the estalishment on January 31, 1963.

At the time, England were displaying zero tolerance for immigrants after an influx of West Indians which started at the end of the second World War.

Hislop was liming with former co-employee and law student Desmond Allum–now a senior counsel–on the streets of North West London when the pair were arrested and accused of trying to steal a motorcar.

High Commissioner to Britain, Learie Constantine, was instructed by the late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams to pursue the case on their behalf.

“Eric Williams told Learie to do everything he could to prove that the English government was racist,” said Hislop. “He wanted to expose them for what they were doing to our students.”

Not only did Hislop and Allum win their case, they counter-sued and received a record settlement of £8,000 for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Allum promptly headed back to Trinidad to start his practise while Hislop–not surprisingly, suddenly interested in law–returned briefly to his homeland where he fell in love and married a court stenographer named Gina.

He studied law in London while working as a teacher before finally returning home with his wife and two sons, Shaka and Kona, in 1971.

The couple later had a third son, Kali.

Hislop was every bit the doting dad as he spoke about his three sons and grandchildren.

Ironically, Shaka has three daughters.

“He might decide to go beyond me,” he said, with a laugh. “He might be braver than me.”

Hislop had a natural disposition for athletics but his sons quickly began to show promise in football and it was then that he came face to face with T&TFF special advisor and former general secretary, Warner.

A regular face around the national youth team sessions, Hislop was approached by Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president Peter O’ Connor and Warner but he resisted.

“I felt very uncomfortable about them declaring several people persona non grata,” he said. “Alvin Corneal (his former cricketing teammate), Ken Butcher and others...I stayed away from the TTFA because of that.”

By 1986, Hislop was also considered to be an enemy of the establishment when the TTFA were subject to a commission of enquiry headed by Justice Ralph Narine.

At the time, football was split down the middle as Arthur Suite’s Professional Soccer League provided an option to players, supporters and sponsors without the stamp of approval by the TTFA.

The TTFA responded by declaring administrators, coaches and players alike to be undesirables and Narine was mandated by sport minister Jennifer Johnson to restore sanity.

Hislop said the enquiry found that the TTFA’s rules had been amended to create a “constitutional dictatorship”.

The findings were publicly rejected by Warner who became a political ally to the ruling National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) party and soon government money was again being pumped into the local organising body for the 1990 World Cup campaign.

The “Road to Italy” was a success in many ways as stadia were filled and the “Strike Squad” captured the imagination of the western hemisphere.

Warner had also caught the eye of many in the Concacaf region and was on his way to higher office.

But the TTFA remained in debt.

By then, Shaka was earning rave reviews at United States college Howard University and was seen as the natural successor to incumbent custodian Michael “Brow” Maurice.

Hislop paid his own money to bring Shaka home to represent his country at the 1990 Caribbean Cup which was aborted because of the attempted coup.

Not before Hislop was invited to speak to the team by his son, though.

“The Strike Squad had brought big crowds out to watch football,” he said, “and the T&TFA had decided to hold on to the team, which were just locally based players, to play games for commercial value.

“They were playing against anyone they could (like) Crystal Palace, the East German under-23 team; all in front sell out crowds. Then the fellahs, who weren’t being paid, started to ask what about us.”

Hislop and Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) executive member Ricaldo Gomes formed the Association of Football Supporters of Trinidad and Tobago (AFSOTT) and fought on their behalf.

The group staged what Hislop termed a successful boycott of one triangular tournament which featured Russia and the United States.

AFSOTT also raised approximately $12,000 for the players to start a union which he eventually placed on a fixed deposit at the Clico Investment Bank.

He has already offered this money–now a tidy sum of just over $30,000–to the present batch of disgruntled players if they succeed in creating a players’ association.

In the early 90s, though, the national players apparently lost their nerve.

“I told Clayton (Morris) that I would give them the money in front of the press,” said Hislop. “But they ran scared.”

Warner and Hislop locked horns again in 1994 when the former administrator announced the formation of the Football Company of Trinidad and Tobago (FCoTT).

FCoTT applied for a license from president Noor Hassanali in pursuance of section 20 of the Companies Ordinance which meant that all financial donations to the company would have been considered tax writeoffs.

As required by law, the FCoTT application was published in the daily newspapers on October 24, 1994 by assistant registrar general Francis Michael Sandy.

On November 7, Hislop responded in his capacity as AFSOTT president and stated, in a five-page report, why the local body–who had since been reborn as the T&TFF–did not deserve such a privilege.

“The T&TFA had owed millions when they were closed down,” said Hislop. “All their assets were moved to the T&TFF as a means of avoiding their creditors. This is regarded as fraud and, on this ground, I objected.

“Since the TTFA was incorporated by an act of Parliament in 1982, it would have meant that Parliament and the president were being party to fraud on creditors.”

Initially, attorney general Keith Sobion resisted terming their objections as “speculative and not based on sound evidence”–Hislop showed documented evidence of the exchanges to the Express.

By the following March, though, Hislop had proved his case and FCoTT were denied the license.

“Jack and them never forgave me for that one,” he said. “That was the point of no return.”

It was not the last that the T&TFF would see of Hislop, though. (See Pages 8 & 9)

PART TWO next week:

Hislop questions Najjar’s role in stand-off between players and administration and the way forward for both parties while also discussing his son’s controversial international career.