Monday, October 17, 2005

Soca-ing It Up
By Ben Valentine

Author's Note: This was written at midnight on Thursday morning, October 13th, hours after the Mexico v. Trinidad game, while in my hospital bed.

I don’t know what to say.

When I started this “catalog” of Trinidad and Tobago’s quest for the World Cup finals I was at best mildly optimistic they could be the fourth best team in the CONCACAF. Needless to say my hopes dwindled quite a bit after their opening game loss at home to the U.S., a vicious 5-1 dismantling at the hands of their biggest opponent for the spot in Guatemala and the firing of their coach afterwards. So now after what amounts to an incredible month, culminating in the tonight’s win over Mexico, I’m speechless.

Trinidad will get the chance to play Bahrain for the right to go to Germany this summer.

My first column after the U.S./ Trinidad game was way back in February. Since then I’ve graduated college, stumbled around looking for a job and been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. In fact, I watched the game in a hospital bed as a result of a nasty flare up of my illness. So yeah, a lot has changed.

But the game against Mexico was THE game. I had marked it down months ago. I realized there was a decent chance the Soca Warriors would need something out of this game to qualify. I knew they had played Mexico well in the past. I realized the Mexicans would probably have wrapped up their spot in Germany by this point, so they might not play everyone. Oh and every Mexican game is televised on Spanish TV, guaranteeing I would be able to watch what amounted to the biggest soccer game Trinidad had ever played. (Spanish TV can be a godsend sometimes) So naturally, Wednesday at 8 P.M, I was ready to go. As if in my case, I had any place else to be.

Early on, the boys in red came out flying. You could tell they knew how close they were to something here, and wanted it more than Mexico did. My very nice nurse, Mary Knoll Tauro even joked they were winning as she fixed up my NG tube, temporarily rendering me unaware of the events. (What’s an NG tube you ask? Let’s just say it goes in through your nose and isn’t comfortable). The 26 year old Filipino nurse isn’t a soccer fan, but got the sense of how into the game I was. It was easy to, as I swayed up, down and around with every bit of action. The explanation of my dad being from Trinidad originally helped clarify that as well, but hey a little visualization never hurt anyone.

(A side note: Mary was so nice by the way, she came to see me a few days later on her shift to say hello and check up on me even though she wasn’t assigned to me.)

Well visualization aside, what Trinidad needed was goals. And they got their chance. Roughly around the thirtieth minute, Stern John was ripped down in the Mexican box, thus giving the Soca Warriors a penalty. A Penalty! A chance to go up 1-0. John had been Trinidad’s best player in the CONCACAF finals, especially lately. It was he who miraculously scored two goals in two minutes to give Trinidad their essential 3-2 win over Guatemala a month back, when all appeared lost in the waning moments. It he again who just a few days before scored the only goal in their road win over Panama, a win which, coupled with Mexico’s win over Guatemala Saturday which had given the Warriors this chance to control their destiny.

But the kick was saved by Jesus Corona. The air went out of the sails and the next thing I knew, Trinidad’s goalkeeper Kelvin Jack was stumbling backwards after a Jaime Lozano shot which seemed to float forever into the top right corner of the net. Jack had been injured on a play earlier after a Mexican player walked in about ten yards off sides and not been called. He had made the save but severely banged his knee in the collision. It clearly had affected him on the goal. And the Warriors were down.

But they weren’t out.

After the goal, the inspired play returned. The crowd, undaunted in Port of Spain, the Trinidadian capital, got back into it. Then after a wicked low shot beat the Corona off the post, John powered home the rebound. It was tied. Sure he was offside, but the refs missed it. (And it wasn’t as blatant as the Mexican one anyway).

42 minutes in, it was tied again. We had a game as I pumped my fist. It stayed that way as the first half ended.

Unfortunately, Guatemala was destroying Costa Rica 3-0. Essentially guaranteed three points, I wasn’t sure if a tie would be good enough for Trinidad anymore given their terrible goal differential. I called Zach, hoping he could put me through to Sportszilla soccer- expert T-Bone Mussa. No luck- they had an intramural basketball game. Nonetheless there was a second half to be played. No sense in counting your chickens before they’re hatched.

The half started. Mexico had a big chance early. But Shaka Hislop, fresh off the bench replacing the injured Jack, made the save of the night, making a diving stop of a header from five feet in and covering the rebound. About ten or so minutes later, the ball came to Stern John, who picked it up and got space as he approached the Mexico box. He let loose a rocket…

Putting the missed penalty behind himself and a nation of people.

I cheered, pumped my fist again and rocked the hospital bed. If I had been home, I’d have run around the house too. They had the lead. THEY HAD THE LEAD!!!

“I told you they were winning,” Mary said with a smile as she came into check on me and my elderly “roommate.”

Yes, now they were. But Mexico wasn’t done. For the next ten minutes, they controlled the play. It looked as though my boys in red were content to sit back and play conservatively. It frustrated me once again and hope started to falter. They couldn’t get away with this against Mexico. Sure it wasn’t the best Mexico had to offer, but they were still better than Trinidad. This strategy couldn’t work… could it?

Suddenly the play evened out. A ball trickled through. A weak shot made it through to the man of the hour. Back to the goal some five feet way, he put a clever back heel on net. Somehow the Mexican defender slid in and saved it off the post. So close--- they were through if that ball had crossed the line.

The man of the hour, match and night.

But the seconds ticked down. Twenty two minutes had become 12. Twelve had become 10. Ten had become five… then five two! Trinidad gained control of the play again. Mexico reverted into “We have nothing to play for mode.” Two became one and finally one became none.

Scrambling I reached for the phone to call my dad. Unfortunately, I also didn’t have his cell phone number. I called home, but my with my sister tying up the phone line, it took repeated attempts to get through. Upon getting the number, it still took two times to get through to him. My old man was well aware of the result already; a co worker had informed him when the Warriors went up 2-1. He had watched the rest of the way.

“When he told me, I told him my son must be happy,” my dad told me. “And from what I watched, it was a great game.”

I couldn't say otherwise, but what we really agreed on our disbelief over the result. When he visited me earlier in the day, I asked him point blank, did he think they’d even get the tie?

“Sorry kid, I think they’ll play hard, but I don’t think they’ll get,” he had said. I had to agree. It was Mexico after all.

But they did do it. “I can’t believe it,” he said to me over the phone.

“Neither can I,” was my response.

Trinidad has never been to a World Cup final. They still haven’t. Two games against Bahrain on the 12th and 16th of November still stand in their way. Coincidentally, my dad’s birthday is November 18th. It would be some party wouldn’t it?

But all I can say tonight, as I lie here, writing down my thoughts in a hospital bed, using the most archaic way possible, a pen and paper, is I don’t believe it. Oh and fourth place NEVER felt so good!

Feel the pride baby!

“Did you get in touch with your dad?” Mary asked me afterwards.

“I did,” I responded.

“How about your friends?” she asked.

“Yep,” I nodded, having talked to both Zach and T-Bone at length.

“Well congratulations,” Mary said. “I’m glad they won the game.” I laughed.

“So am I.”

It had been a half hour of celebration and reflection. Now it was time to write. One of my greatest sports memories couldn’t wait any longer to be recorded.

Keyboard and computer screen be damned.


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