World Cup 2002 Hexagaonal Preview

Ridge Mahoney
Date Published: 

Trinidad & Tobago keeps knocking on door

Trinidad & Tobago has its best team ever and with it the best chance to erase the memory of 1989 when it fell to the United States in the final game of World Cup qualifying.

As his teammates prepare for the Hexagonal with camps in Brazil, England and the Cayman Islands, Trinidad & Tobago defender Ansil Elcock sits. And waits.

"It has not been easy these past few months," says Elcock.

Elcock, the fifth-year Columbus Crew player, seriously injured Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco with a wild tackle last October during CONCACAF qualifying play and waited months to hear his punishment.

The Mexican federation threatened legal action to compensate it for its fallen star. FIFA examined video and written evidence before slapping Elcock with a three-game ban in World Cup qualifying. It also suspended him from playing club ball for three months -- he had been playing with Joe Public, the top club team in Trinidad -- but that ban was lifted on appeal.

"My agent and I appealed," says Elcock, who is also rehabilitating a knee injury. "and I have been recovering from the incident. Now, it is behind us. I cannot wait to put on the national colors again, for I believe this is the best team my country has ever had."

CARIBBEAN DERBY. The Soca Warriors open the Hexagonal Feb. 28 against Jamaica in Kingston.

"That will be the hottest game," says Elcock. "A lot of our players play with the Jamaican players in the English League, and you can imagine what it's like when the two Caribbean teams play each other."

Of the six finalists, T&T is the only one that has never made it to the World Cup.

Scotsman Ian Porterfield was appointed head coach last March to replace Bertille St. Clair, who had coached T&T to the semifinals of the Gold Cup.

Porterfield had been coaching Joe Public, which is owned by CONCACAF president Jack Warner, yet had to quell a mild uprising from several of the top T&T players.

Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy and Shaka Hislop had been coached by St. Clair since they were youngsters.

"It was poorly handled and was disappointing for me that he's not there because Bertille had a part to play in my career since I worked with him at age 12," said Hislop, the former Howard University star, when the coaching change was announced. "But I have spoken to him on two occasions since and he has come to terms with it and we the players have to do so as well."

STRONGER PERSONALITY. As he juggled personnel and tweaked positions, Porterfield forged a stronger personality within the team.

"I think we are determined now," Elcock said. "We always have good players, and the coach has changed the system and brought more organization, but it is still the players that must fight and win."

A 1-0 win over Mexico last July in Port of Spain, Trinidad, helped propel T&T to 12 points in its first four games and thus clinch a spot in the Hexagonal with two matches to spare. Latapy, fed by Yorke, scored the goal with four minutes remaining to set off a raucous celebration.

"Mexico is not as good as they have been in the past," said Elcock. "But they had a lot of chances, and our goalkeeper [Clayton Ince] made two great saves. Dwight kept saying, 'I will score, I will score.' He gave us confidence. You know he didn't score the goal, but he set it up."

Elcock was sent off for his two-footed tackle on Blanco in a 7-0 hammering by Mexico in the Azteca Stadium.

"If you know me, you know I am not that kind of a player," he said. "I am sorry for what I did. I don't agree with the [FIFA] decision, but at least I can play for my club when my knee is ready."

Porterfield used 28 players during the semifinal stage of qualifying.

"It's great to know you have players like Yorke and Latapy, it is true," said Elcock. "But now, every player realizes what they have to do. If you are a defender, you defend. If you are a midfielder, you go up and back. And if you're an attacker, you go to the goal. We all take the responsibility now. We cannot expect Dwight every game to score the goals."

U.S. CONNECTION. Porterfield took a team of home-based players to Brazil but chose England for the team's second camp so he could see his British-based players.

Porterfield named 11 to his 22-man squad for the Hexagonal opener.

The games in England were important enough that Latapy was scheduled to leave his club team, Hibernian of the Scottish Premier League, to play exhibitions against English club Charlton and West Ham.

There is also a strong U.S. connection to the Soca Warriors.

Porterfield's squad for the Jamaica game includes six players who played college ball: Hislop, Brent Sancho (St. John's), Brent Rahim (Connecticut), Evans Wise (Mercer County Community College), Stern John (Mercer County Community College) and Mickey Trotman (Mobile).

John, Wise and Trotman all spent time in MLS.

Striker Gary Glasgow, injured most of last season with Kansas City, and defender Craig Demmin, taken by Tampa Bay as the No. 6 pick in the 2001 SuperDraft, were in the T&T camp earlier this year.

TERRIBLE DISAPPOINTMENT. The other American connection haunts Elcock, as it does all fans of Trinidad & Tobago.

Just 19 years old, he was a member of the youth national team in 1989, and sat in the sea of red as T&T lost to the United States, 1-0, in the final qualifier for Italia '90.

Yorke, just 17 then, was on the field for T&T that day. In his biography, he wrote: "It was a terrible, terrible disappointment. Perhaps we had all got too confident. I know that the whole nation had got really carried away, thinking we were already there, before the match had begun. The game ended in silence. People just walked away, saying nothing."

Elcock says the loss affected the Soca Warriors a long time.

"None of us could believe it," he says.

Trinidad & Tobago didn't even make it out of the Caribbean zone in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. It was quickly eliminated from contention in the semifinal round of qualifying for France '98.

"Now we have many players who are playing their best soccer," says Elcock, "and we have the organization and the discipline. We have been knocking, knocking, knocking on the door. It is time to get in."