By Raffique Shah
November 28, 2022
As the football World Cup tournament kicked off last week, igniting a global epidemic of “football fever” which strikes once every four years, your humble scribe duly fell in line with the billion-plus people viewing via their local television networks.
Now, I must declare that I am no “football peong”, a fanatic who cannot miss a crucial game in any of the many league matches, especially those played in Europe, where giants of the sport, from owners of clubs who eat, drink and sleep football, to star players who are traded like commodities, many of them valued at millions of dollars, which tells me that this “beautiful sport” is more about money than sport, which I bear in mind as I watch the games.
But I thoroughly enjoy exciting football in which teams skilfully outplay their rivals, in which the stars mesmerise their opponents and fans alike with fancy foot-work—dribbling past contused defenders, sending goalkeepers grabbing at air—then scoring goals you remember for as long as you live. Then—there are the legends of your lifetime you watch perform, even if only on television. Trinidad and Tobago’s television coverage of sports did not come until the 1960s, we missed out on much of Pele’s performances, to use one example. But we got overdoses of Sir Stanley Matthews and other British “greats”.
I happened to be at Sandhurst in England in 1966 when England hosted the World Cup finals. The shining star that year was Eusébio, a Portuguese player who happened to be black and was seen as both successor and biggest rival to the great Pele. Of course I did not even try to get a ticket to any of the matches, so dim were the chances of getting closer to my heroes. But as I watched on television, I saw Pele targeted by some nasty white players, the pack led by Nobby Stiles of England.
Pele was injured so badly that he and Team Brazil failed to advance beyond the preliminary stages. Although Portugal with Eusébio at the forefront played extremely well, they too did not reach the finals. So against every principle for which I stood at the time, I supported Germany against England. More tears. Germany was trashed by England and supporters of the few non-white teams that made it to the finals were left in mourning.
Today, most World Cup teams, the exception being East Europe and Southeast Asia, are studded with black players, many of whom are stars in their own right. In 1966, African teams boycotted the finals because they had been excluded. In Qatar today, hardly a team, including the hosts, is without key black players. We have come a long way, baby. I am not supporting any team in this World Cup finals. I want to see good football and, from what I’ve seen up to last Friday, goalkeepers, not goal scorers, were the stars. I guess all of us who watch the matches expect to see many more goals as the finals continue. After all, we are spending hours in front of our televisions looking for excitement, hoping to see goals scored, not to be bored.
I guess this messaging I’m sending, to whoever reads it, must be universal as Qatar seeks to shine against all the odds it attracted, when it was given the right to host the finals.
Trinidad and Tobago’s interest in football at this stage is much more than the pathetic scoring of not making it past the preliminary rounds. When smaller islands and nations than ours can book their places early in the playoffs, what exactly is wrong or going adrift with T&T football?
I won’t even try to answer that question. And, we know those answers are not blowing in the wind. Probably we can start by pulling Jack Warner, one-time football czar, from whatever hole he may be hiding in—and rest assured it’s a luxurious one—and ask him some serious questions that people of this sports-loving nation want answers for.
For example, why does T&T Football not own the expansive facilities at Macoya or anywhere else in the country? Is the T&T Football Association still squatting in some substandard offices, much the way athletics and cricket are? All the properties “owned” by the major national sporting bodies in this country are generously provided by we the people through Government.
What is even more revolting is that in all the major international sporting governing bodies—cricket, football, athletics, swimming, cycling and so on—generous grants are given to the national franchises or local governing bodies. There is no excuse for major sporting organisations bringing out their begging bowls, looking more like charities than thriving institutions.
But having once been the secretary of the NAAA, I shall return to discuss this festering abscess after the World Cup finals.