Sancho defends players’ rights

Ian Prescott
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

Leading from the back

At one time, Brent Sancho could not command a place in Trinidad and Tobago’s national football team. Sancho believes it was because of his Rasta-hairstyle. The 25-year-old Belmont defender dubs those the dark days.

“It was a sad time for me,” Sancho admits. “It is a sad thing when someone’s personal views could prevent you from representing your country. I felt quite short-changed.”

His tiff with then national coach Bertille St Clair is now over. But now, Sancho is involved in another battle—the struggle for players’ rights.

Having seemingly emerged triumphant from the St Clair issue, he takes on a greater foe.

Just prior to the recent friendly against Finland on January 29, Sancho was named captain of the Trinidad and Tobago national football team.

As captain, the rugged 6 foot 2 inches defender would have been expected to provide leadership from the back. Instead, Sancho has assumed a new role.

Along with senior national footballers, Travais Mulrain, goalkeeper Kelvin Jack and Gary Glasgow, Sancho is battling from the front for players’ rights. Articulate and outspoken, Sancho assumed the role of spokesman for 19 national footballers, fighting for better playing conditions, who withheld their services against Finland.

At that stage, Sancho might well have been late trade union leader Tubal Uriah Butler. The response from the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation(TTFF) was typical and immediate. The best footballers in the country were all indefinitely suspended because of their demand for compensation for their services.

In a world where labour relations have changed drastically, apparently nothing has with the local football federation. Had they the power, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation might well have called out the police. Instead, the Joe Public Football Club—owned by federation adviser Jack Warner—wielded the big stick by announcing that any of their players involved in the strike would be immediately fired. National newcomers Hollis Brown, Jeremy Delpino and defender Keyeno Thomas were the causalities of that action. Makes one wonder what type of contracts players sign at that club.

Still Sancho and the striking footballers remain uninhibited and determined to form a Players’ Association which would safeguard the right to compensation for services rendered and also to secure proper working conditions for present and future national footballers.

At this stage they are about to register their Players’ Association and have installed an interim committee until elections are held after Carnival.

“The response has been unbelievable. We have had support from everyone in Trinidad and Tobago and people, the public, footballers. We have had a lot of advice from people,” Sancho says.

But the ones the players would like to hear from most is the football bosses. But not even news of their suspension has come from the football Federation. The footballers learnt of their plight from the newspapers.

Sancho has emerged as a natural leader in the national team. A senior player on the young team, Sancho is also one of the few that have played professionally overseas.

Before his stint with the St Clair-led national team, many had not heard of Brent Sancho although he played for both Trinity College and later Malick Senior Comprehensive in the Secondary Schools Football League.

For much of his playing career, he worked at scoring goals. Today, his main ambition is stopping those who would score them.

When he played for Malick and Trinity College, Sanhco was a mainstay in the forward line. Sancho then left Trinidad for St John’s University, USA where he played as a striker up to his final season in 1997.

His first introduction to defending came at age 14 at Ken Elie Coaching School. But it was only an injury to a key player at St John’s which saw him moving into the backline again. Much of his impetus to do well there would come from his coach Dave Masur.

“I still hear him in my sleep...screaming at me to do better,” Sancho says. “He pushed me to get rid of the laid-back Trinidad and Tobago attitude and to do better. At St Johns, Sancho was part of the team which won the NCAA Division One Championship.

His senior year saw him selected on the Conference second team. He also make the first team in the New York region. Sancho was also the second leading goalscorer with 12 goals. His most memorable moment came in scoring one goal and assisting in the other to give St John’s a 2-1 win over Big East Conference rival Rutgers University to put them in the finals.

Following his college days, Sancho earned his first professional contract in Finland at age 21 with top club MYPA 47.

“It was a huge stepping stone for me to have earned a professional contract with one of the better teams there. I learnt a lot of life lessons there. It taught me how to adapt to living alone in a foreign country and to a foreign language and culture.”

After a season in which MYPA 47 finished third in the First Division, Sancho was voted Most Valuable Player by his peers at the club. it was a year in which, coming from a defensive position, he notched eight goals and one in which his team qualified for European competition.

He later had a brief stint with the Metrostars, before signing for the Charleston Battery of the A-League in the USA. “That was a very professional team. They had a lot of money and attracted a lot of good players.” At Charleston, Sancho was among the Jamaican, Bulgarians and other internationals the franchise had brought in.

The last two years he has been with the Portland Timbers, while playing in Trinidad and Tobago for champions CL Financial San Juan Jabloteh in the off-season.

What Sancho admires most about the Americans is their level of professionalism. It is this which assures him that his stance with the Trinidad and Tobago national footballers is a correct one.

Sancho may have a lot more to lose than the other 19 national footballers who downed tools for the Finland friendly. There is the question of how the ban will affect his A-League contract? The defender has also attracted the eye of Scottish Premier League team Dundee after two commanding performances, at the back, in two recent friendlies against the Scots. The good showing is part of a good run of form by the big defender, who many believe is at the top of his game.

But even at the risk of losing out, Sancho says that risk of victimisation is a lesser issue than the fight for better conditions for national footballers.

“While there is always room for something like that to affect my career or my chances of being on the national team, I see this as an opportunity to better the Trinidad and Tobago national football team. This is not about us fighting the Federation. It is about players wanting better working conditions,” Sancho says.

Like a true union leader, Sancho says if Trinidad and Tobago is to ever achieve the goal of doing well on the world stage, things mus change at ground level.

“This is not a fight for money. It's a fight for better conditions. If we want to be a successful national team, we have to have preparations and conditions which are conducive to producing success. All I want to see is footballers in Trinidad and Tobago being acknowledged as professionals...the same as they are around the world.”

While they remain suspended, Sancho is keeping up his personal preparations and has urged his national counterparts to do likewise.

“I still believe that we have a Gold Cup to qualify for in March. If we are given better working conditions it also puts us under more scrutiny. Therefore, we need to be even better prepared.”

He reiterated that the battle was not with the football federation and that it was in the interest of both the governing body and the budding Players’ Association to resolve the issue in the interest of Trinidad and Tobago football.

“In the long run everyone wants the same thing. Whether it is to win the Gold Cup or the World Cup, the goal is the same. It’s just a question of what road we take to get there. That is what the Federation and the players have to sit down and discuss,” he says.