Tuesday, June 20, 2006

End of the Road
By Ben Valentine

Sometimes it’s hard to keep perspective.

Unfortunately we are creatures of emotion, and the latest one is often the greatest. As a result, the tendency is to overlook the general picture and focus on what is presented directly in front of us.

Today Trinidad and Tobago went out of the World Cup after falling to Paraguay 2-0. And despite the fact I’d have signed for this two years ago, it’s still tough to take.

I, like most fans of the team, went in with tempered expectations, which were probably unfairly raised after the draw against Sweden. We all figured the team would be behind the eight ball after that game; instead they sat in second place and very much in it. It was inevitable; though we all knew better, the dream was alive.

England was a tough loss but one that wasn’t unexpected. The English controlled the play for much of it, though Aaron Lennon was the real difference maker in that one. Once Steven Gerrard punched in the second goal in that one, it was going to be hard to come back if Sweden got a win against Paraguay. A disallowed goal later, Trinidad was down three points and negative two in goal differential.

At that point, the dream should have been over. To make up all of that in one game, especially when England had nothing to play for against Sweden, was going to be hard. Still, they were alive. The Soca Warriors, going into their last game had a shot a qualifying. They’d need to be at the top of their game and a little lucky, but it was still possible.

And how could anyone be upset with that?

Then the own goal. Brent Sancho accidentally put in a shot that was going wide. Down 1-0, despite England going up on Sweden, meant the Soca Warriors had to score two goals when they had failed to score any so far. The tension mounted. Suddenly Chris Birchall giving balls away in the midfield was becoming frustrating. The lack of creativity was evident. Lackluster long ball after long ball. The only player who looked like he could create on offense was ironically enough, right back Carlos Edwards. Cornell Glen, who had an excellent World Cup himself, was also a factor early. But after a clean tackle, Glen landed awkwardly on his knee. All hope of his return was squashed when one saw the replay; when a player’s eyes are as big as the ball itself after an injury, you know they’re done. So, now down a goal and their second best player in the tournament, the Warriors went into the half.

In the second half, Trinidad controlled the play. Edwards was all over the right side, controlling it defensively and turning the play offensive whenever he got the chance. He created Trinidad’s best scoring opportunities of the game; at one point sending a through ball that Stern John and Evans Wise, in for Glen, couldn’t get on the end of.

Mainstay Russell Latapy came on for his first action of the World Cup midway through the second half. In this game it wasn’t a matter of if, but when he would enter. Latapy, 37, has been in the Trini midfield for ages now. Only the cruelest of managers would deny him action on the grandest stage and Leo Beenhakker was not that. And to his credit, Latapy came on and became the second best Soca Warrior, creating chances whenever he touched the ball. He did not hesitate to fire away either, but could not find the back of the net.

Then came in Nelson Cuevas who sent one past Kelvin Jack, in for Shaka Hislop, for Paraguay’s first actual goal of the tournament.

2-0. The dream was over.

As the seconds ticked down, the camera panned the Soca Warriors supporters. It seemed to be a far cry from the “gracious in defeat” comment that was made in the early minutes of that first match against Sweden a week and a half ago. There were no smiles, no cheers. Those were not the expressions of people who were “glad to be here.” They were the expressions of supporters who believed their team could do the unthinkable and qualify, and whose hopes had now been dashed. There will be little partying tonight to celebrate, what by all accounts was a good result for this World Cup, a point in a difficult group. Instead we will lament what could have been… had they just held a couple more minutes against England or not put one in against themselves against Paraguay. And the players will eventually leave with their heads up high. But tonight will not be that night.

One player who should be proud is the aforementioned Edwards. While Shaka Hislop stole the show against Sweden, the 27 year old Edwards was the Soca Warriors best position player in that game, and was their best man overall against England. Today he was the best player on the pitch for both squads. He was difficult to beat on defense, and at times made Paraguay’s defense look silly on the right side. Why Trinidad didn’t do more to get him the ball, I have no idea. But without question if there was one player who showed himself to be an international caliber player on this stage, it was Carlos Edwards.

For what was most likely the first and only World Cup for Dwight Yorke, Latapy and Hislop, mixed emotions run through yet again. After the disappointment in the CONCACAF finals in 2001, there is no question they’d have given anything just to represent the red and black in the World Cup. But once you’ve tasted the fruits of success, you always want more. Nothing will ever compare to that feeling they must have had after Sweden. While we fans often think of ourselves, it means the most to the ones who play the game. Those three must have wondered “what could be”, when they drew arguably the best team in the group. Now, the dream is over.

But as my dad often says to me; “Kid, somebody’s got to lose.”

And for 31 of these teams, that is what they’re going to have to tell themselves. In the end, no matter what your expectations were, not winning is always tough. I don’t care if it’s Trinidad and Tobago, England or the United States. Even if the US somehow manages to make it out of this round, beats Brazil and makes a miracle run to the final, if they don’t win it all, they will feel a strong sense of disappointment. After all, at some point every one looks at themselves and says “why not us?” If you don’t believe you can win, then you don’t play.

So for now, the loss will sting. Eventually however, the players and their fans will look back and remember the good moments; Stern John’s late goals against Guatemala, his goals against Mexico, Dennis Lawrence’s goal which sent them to the Cup and of course, Shaka Hislop’s saves against Sweden that got the country it’s first ever World Cup point. There were a lot of things to smile upon looking back. It’s all a matter of perspective. For example, on July 10th, millions of people in one country will be celebrating a World Cup victory. But for the fans of the Soca Warriors and everyone else:

The dream will begin again.


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