Football- 2006 World Cup – Trinidad
On November 16th 2005, Trinidad and Tobago created history by becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup. By beating Bahrain (who would have been the smallest country had they qualified with a similar population of 1.2 million) 1-0 at the Bahrain national stadium, they provided Trinbagonian fans with a once in a lifetime moment for many.
Supporters were understandably circumspect about the possibility of qualification. In 1989, needing just a draw to qualify for Italia ’90, the national team, dubbed the “Strike Squad’ had been paraded across the entire country as heroes. The team bus to the national stadium for this final, all-important match was at the back of a slow moving motorcade to allow the fans to see their “World Cup heroes”. They lost 1-0 to the USA, who qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 50 years. They have been to every World Cup since then and 1989 is generally considered the turning point of American soccer, with their reappearance to the World Cup coinciding with being named hosts for the 1994 World Cup.
Hopes were higher in 2005 even with the lingering memory of that 1989 defeat. The squad that qualified for World Cup 2006 was not a young one. Captain Dwight Yorke and playmaker Russell Latapy were members of the 1989 Strike Squad. They may not have thought their chance to go to the World Cup would ever arise again and they were not going to be complacent. Furthermore, Bahrain was not a football power. Few Trinidadians could name a single player from their team. To have the playoff game against the AFC playoff winner was considered to be an easier route than to play the representatives of the Oceanic Federation (where at the time Australia were still members and perennial champions) or a South American team.
The first leg of the playoff was held on November 12th, 2005 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago is comprised of two islands and populated by members of various ethnic groups brought to the island by the British during the period when the island was a colony. It is a young country, having gained independence in 1962 and the status of republic in 1974. Overt sporting patriotism is rare due to the fact that the country is rarely a front-runner at world events. At the time, the main claims for fame for Trinidad and Tobago were the 1974 Olympic Gold in the 100m sprint by Hasely Crawford (whose name was borne by the stadium the playoff would be held at) and the silver and bronze medal performances by Ato Boldon (who would direct and produce a documentary about his travels to Bahrain for the second leg of the playoff) at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
In the lead-up to the match, the national colours of red, white and black could be seen everywhere. Vendors were doing quite well on the sale of miniature flags and bandannas and even the replica shirt of the national team was enjoying high sales (despite usually being derided as overpriced). Scalpers, dreaming of immense markups, tried in vain to obtain tickets for the match to no avail. No one would sell their ticket.
With the home support behind them, Trinidad attacked regularly and most of the game was played in the Bahrain half. However the Bahrain team was well disciplined and had clearly come into the game expecting to have to defend. Their resolute defending coupled with inspired goalkeeping from Hussein Ali Hasan eliminated Trinidadian chances one after another. The Bahrainis, likely inspired by their excellent defensive display, gained the lead against the run of play. Salman Isa took advantage of a largely untested Trinidadian defense’s lapse and headed in from the edge of the six yard box after a short corner. Chris Birchall would equalize less than three minutes later with a ferocious shot into the top left corner but Bahrain would hold the advantage of an away goal going into the second leg.
The return leg was played on Wednesday 16th November 2005 at 8 p.m. Bahrain time. It was 1 p.m. in Trinidad and the entire country had come to a standstill. Even people who had never watched a minute of football in their life could not fail to be carried away by the historic moment that was underway. Most workplaces gave their employees half-day and schools, who could not just send students home, allowed pupils into the staff rooms and audio-visual rooms so they could follow the action. Those unfortunate enough not to have access to a television surrounded radios where the match was being broadcast on several stations.
Not many Trinidadians had gone to the away match. All the supporters were able to fit on a single chartered plane and numbered less than 300. Yet prior to kickoff it was still possible to hear the sounds of the Trinidadian supporters playing musical instruments (known as the “rhythm section”) amongst the noise of the Bahraini supporters.
Due to the importance of the occasion, the first half was tense and largely devoid of any action. Bahrain knew that a draw would be enough and once again set up to defend while Trinidad continuously attempted to find the goal that would give them qualification. The ball was regularly stuck in the midfield and the play itself was scrappy with misplaced passes and mistimed tackles the regular feature. Bahrain had a chance at the end of the first half when Trinidadian goalkeeper Kelvin Jack missed an attempt to clear but the Trinidadian defence cleared before Jack’s error could be punished. The teams went in at the break with Trinidad having played more attacking football but were lacking the ability to break down the strong defence, while Bahrain seemed more nervous playing in front of huge home support but still managed to put a resolute display.
The beginning of the second half suggested it would again be a case of Trinidadian attacks and Bahraini defence for the next 45 minutes. Four minutes into the second half, another thwarted Trinidadian attack resulted in a corner. Perhaps it was under instruction from the coach at half-time or perhaps just the sense that time was running out, but both Trinidadian centre-backs came forward for the corner. Dennis Lawrence, the tallest player on the pitch at 6’ 6”, rose highest to head in Dwight Yorke’s corner into the bottom right corner. It was described by the television commentator as “most important goal ever for Trinidad” and it was no exaggeration.
Jubilant scenes of celebration occurred on the pitch as well as all over Trinidad. Those who were able to hear a television would have been able to hear the few Trinidadian supporters over the silent and stunned Bahraini crowd.
Most of the second half still had to be played and Bahrain attempted to change their tactics to chase the goal they needed to have any chance of going to Germany. Trinidad, however, continued to attack and Ali Hasan in the Bahraini goal was called on several times to keep his team in the game. Tensions ran high and there were a few moments of confrontation amongst players as the half progressed. Kelvin Jack was again involved in a bizarre moment of goalkeeping when his was dispossessed while attempting a clearance. Ahmed Hasan put the ball in the back of the net but the whistle had already been blown by referee Oscar Ruiz. The Bahrainis protested the decision and the game degenerated into furious scenes of dissent culminating in defender Ali Baba being sent off for pushing the referee.
There was still time for Russell Latapy to hit the bar and for Kelvin Jack to atone for his earlier eccentricities by making an exceptional save in the dying moments of the game. After the whistle the Bahraini players again surrounded the referee but the Trinidadians took no part in the fracas. Like the rest of the country, they were too busy celebrating becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup.
The next day was declared a public holiday and the team was paraded across the country, just as in 1989, for the fans to see their footballing heroes. Unlike in 1989, there would be no disappointment. The potential opponents or probable results in Germany were largely ignored. It was enough for every Trinidadian fan to be able to say they saw Trinidad play at a World Cup.