I can remember the first day i knew i could play. It was my first P.E. class in secondary school (Form 1 - the equivalent of about 6th grade). The P.E. teacher, Mr. Warner - who was also the school's varsity coach and would later be a national team coach - divided us into two teams and basically rolled the ball out onto the field. At that age, we had no sense of field spacing and passing and good defense (except standing in the path of one another), but a few of us had enough good sense, moxie and perhaps half-decent co-ordination, to not just kick the ball wildly when it came to us, but to dribble it the length of the field till something happened.
Something happened immediately and always does in a sport hungry society, when it seemed i had some rudimentary skills. Other kids treated me differently almost immediately. And that was so much more so for the really good players in my year, Sandy and Anthony Joseph, and Brenton and Kirk. Football was a proving ground in a way that cricket wasn't (though it was as important and glorious a game) and in a way that basketball and running and badminton and table tennis, couldn't.
And everywhere in Trinidad, we played. we played till the lights went out. we played in the streets. everything was predicated on the ability to get in a "sweat". we culled out enough space to scrimmage in the backs of classrooms, the school hall, with lookouts at either end watching for the principal, behind the church and ran leagues anywhere there was ground; even if it looked like the land had been furrowed.
we idolized our heroes of the time. In the high school games where folks came out and the press followed - to the same extent that college sport is followed here - we wanted to be like Clauzell and Nancoo and Lovell and our own school's heroes Buggy (who could drag the ball around you in an instant and be off towards goal before you knew what to do with it, and was so black someone once sat on him in a movie theatre) and A.D., to whom a free kick outside the 18-yard box was as sure as a penalty. and we absolutely lost our minds over the brazilian game. we valued the silky smooth skills, the ability to trap a sixty-yard pass with the outside of the boot, the samba rhythm dance and skip over the ball of Zico and Garrincha and Rivelino and the smooth long Dr. Socrates and the marvelous story-book long strikes of Eder and Falcao, Josimar and Nelinho. we worked to be that skillful to look pretty on the ball, caring less about the goal than about developing breathtaking footwork that would bring crowds to their feet and embarass defenders. Football has always been more art than sport for trinidadians.
Still, with all this attention, and though Trinidad had for many many years been the best team in the English-speaking Caribbean (we'd customarily beat Jamaica 5 or 6-0; and put double-digit drubbings on Barbados and Guyana and the Winward Islands), we never made it to the game's ultimate stage. In the 70s, we just couldn't get past Costa Rica and Mexico (though in those days, we beat the U.S. whenever we damn well pleased, believe it or not) and there were only two teams that made it from this region. Imagine then our chagrin as we get older and our players finally get the international exposure they deserve (my generation is the first one to see several scholarship offers from colleges in the U.S. to play football), and still we fall short; often just short of going to the Cup time and time again. In 1990, we were sure we were finally there, playing against the U.S. at home and only needing a tie. We lost 1-0 instead and the country's collective heart sank. After Jamaica for some years began beating us handily, i despaired of Trinidad's ever making it back to the Cup until these past few months, in which the urgency seems to have dawned on the last of my generation's stars, Yorke and Latapy; players i would have played against in amateur leagues (my mom wouldn't let me play in high school - story for another time), in small goal scrimmages in the savannah. the whole team seems to be finally realising the sort of play that our skills have promised for so many years.
so yesterday when the goal was finally scored and the final whistle sounded after some really stellar play from the boys, it was realization of something i thought i might never see. trinidad and tobago is going to the world cup in germany in 2006 and i have never been more proud or ecstatic to be trinidadian. there is no way to explain more than that what is realized in this that is captured in every asphalt square and every back lot field everytime a trinidadian boy first figures out he can feint to his right and go left quickly and beat his man or "spanner" with either foot.
it doesn't matter if we lose all our games by 10 goals. we're one of the world's 32 best teams and we'll look pretty on the ball all the way to Germany.