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Odd couple aims to restore T&T football

The coaching team on the Trinidad and Tobago football sqaud 'Soca Warriors' consists of an unlikely pair. Lasana Liburd reports on the reconciliating forces that sport can entail.
20 December 2012

The Soca Warriors' coaching pair hopes 'to bring stability into Trinidad and Tobago’s football'. Photo: Soca Warrior fans singing (c) Wired868.com
The Soca Warriors' coaching pair hopes 'to bring stability into Trinidad and Tobago’s football'. Photo: Soca Warrior fans singing (c) Wired868.com 

Sport is filled with overblown jargon that tries to oversell its importance like “group of death”, “do or die” and “dressing room feud.”

But what you are about to read is no cliché.

If Trinidad and Tobago football coaches Hutson “Barber” Charles and Jamaal Shabazz ran into each other between 27 July and 1 August 1990, one of the two might not be alive today.

Shabazz was 26-years-old when he stormed the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament with 113 colleagues from the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen religious group on 27 July and took the Prime Minister and most of his Cabinet hostage.

Charles, then 24-years-old, was one of hundreds of soldiers who swarmed into the capital of Port of Spain; determined to restore order by any means necessary.

The Muslimeen surrendered on 1 August and, after a two-year imprisonment, Shabazz and his gang were freed after a controversial amnesty was upheld by the London-based Privy Council.

Today, the two men are working as joint head coaches of the “Soca Warriors” national football team in an effort to lift the Caribbean’s one-time premier nation that has lost its moorings over the last six years after a string of publicised scandals involve its controversial former administrator and FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.

After Warner
An international bribery scandal involving ex-Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohamed Bin Hammam was the last rites for the controversial Trinidadian administrator. But, when the dust settled after his disgraceful exit, there was not a cent to be found in the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation’s (TTFF) accounts.

Warner’s influence in the local government ensured that the TTFF, whose general secretary Richard Groden provided damning testimony to FIFA investigators against Warner, was cut adrift financially. The TTFF also lost its annual FIFA US$250,000 subvention due to a Haitian aid scandal that also involved Warner and did not even have the funds to participate at the 2012 Caribbean Cup tournament.

Only a public campaign persuaded the local Sport Ministry to offer the financial support necessary so as to avoid a default from the Caribbean’s most successful team.

Best available and affordable coches
Jamaal Shabazz Photo (c) wired868.comIt is in these chaotic conditions that new TTFF president Raymond Tim Kee searched for the best available and affordable coaching candidates and came up with the idea of partnering the 49-year-old Shabazz (pictured right, photo (c) wired868.com), who is still a Jamaat member, with the 47-year-old Charles, who is a Warrant Officer in the Defence Force.

Charles insisted that there is no lingering resentment between the pair.

“It wasn’t right (what the Jamaat did) but you cannot change what happened in the past,” he said. “They went through their thought processes since then and I think you just have to let bygones be bygones.”

While Shabazz claimed that the players, some of whom were not even born during the attempted coup, see the lighter side of the six-day war.

“The players say: coach, a Muslim/army combination could never fail,” said Shabazz, with a chuckle.

Trinidad and Tobago prides itself on being a diverse, multi-cultural society where Africans, Indians, Syrians, Chinese and European immigrants live in harmony on the most southern islands of the Caribbean, just off the Venezuelan coast. But racial tension does exist beneath the surface, arguably provoked by local politicians.

The ruling People’s Partnership government initially declared itself as a rainbow coalition but a series of gaffes along tribal lines has made a sham of its stated intentions.

Soldier and former insurrectionist united by patriotism
It is in this climate of mistrust that Charles and Shabazz were thrown together like a contrived sitcom couple or bizarre reality television show. Two men who could have once killed each other put in charge of a neglected, underperforming football team on a tiny Caribbean nation.

And, as a bonus, neither man has veto over decision making. Just let them thrash it out.

The consensus from football fans was that Tim Kee had lost his marbles.
Three weeks later, Charles and Shabazz might not be finishing each other’s sentences but they are definitely singing from the same hymn sheet. And the “Soca Warriors” have qualified for the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time in six years and finished second to Cuba in the Caribbean competition.

Soldier and former insurrectionist united by patriotism.

“My goal in accepting this was to bring stability into Trinidad and Tobago’s football,” said Shabazz, who took Guyana to unprecedented heights in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers but quit for an interim post in his homeland. “Football is so important for the country and one just has to check back to 1989, 2006 and 1973 (World Cup campaigns) to see that.”

Hutson “Barber” Charles. Photo (c) Allan V. Crane/Wired868.comCharles (pictured right, photo (c) Allan V. Crane/Wired868.com) was a classy midfielder in the 1989 “Strike Squad” national football team that came within a point of the Italy 1990 World Cup. He sees the 2012 Caribbean Cup as the first step in making the “red, white and black” relevant in CONCACAF once more.

“What we achieved here is so important in giving the public a reason to come back and support our football,” said Charles. “We are trying to rebuild the image of Trinidad and Tobago’s football and give the fans something they can hold on to.”

More in common than football
In truth, Charles and Shabazz have more in common than football. They grew up in the same poor Morvant/Laventille neighbourhood and played together at youth level for the Caledonia AIA team.

Shabazz, always an avid thinker, was a player/coach while Charles was the team’s starlet.

“We were friends before the coup,” said Charles, “and we remain friends.”

And what if their paths had crossed in that hot July of 1990?

“That period was like something I could never have dreamed of,” said Charles, who had to abandon a Caribbean Cup game to rush to the army base in Teteron. “But I was a soldier with a responsibility to my country. I didn’t study about who was on the other side; it was just country first.

“If it came to it, I would have done my job.”

Thankfully, both men have a different assignment now.

Shabazz, an engaging person with notable motivational prowess, has a UEFA ‘B’ and FIFA coaching instructor’s license and solid coaching experience at club and international level.

Charles, unlike Shabazz, carries the authority of a player who shone at international level during a period when the country was laden with notable talents like Dwight Yorke (Manchester United), Russell Latapy (Porto), David Nakhid (Grasshopper), Stern John (Birmingham City) and Jerren Nixon (FC Zurich).

The 32-year-old Derek King, a former local Coach of the Year and once promising national defender whose career was curtailed by injury, completes the think tank as assistant coach.

At Caribbean Cup fixtures, Charles announced the team and gave general remarks about the game ahead. Shabazz then discussed their tactical approach while King closed with instructions on set pieces.

At halftime, Shabazz spoke first and Charles got the last word.

Earlier, in what they jokingly refer to as the “Football Partnership”, the players would giggle and nudge each other as the coaches tried to each have a meaningful input without stepping on the other’s toes. But the success of the approach has converted the dressing room; and themselves.

Each accustomed to having his own way as a former head coach, they now form a three-man panel that tests each other’s ideas first.

“There is little room for spontaneity but I think that is making us better,” said Shabazz. “Sometimes, the three of us get off the bench during the game. And the fourth official is having a time with us: ‘One person, please’.”

The Warriors, at present, could easily have a sign on its bench that reads “Under Construction.” 

At the Caribbean Cup, there was little of the attacking swagger once synonymous with the two-island republic. But the likes of captain and custodian Jan-Michael Williams, defender Seon Power and midfielder Densill Theobald showed the value of less glamorous attributes like resilience, tactical discipline and sacrifice.

The three wise men lead by example.

“I think the staff has to demonstrate the maturity and teamwork we want to see from the first team,” said Shabazz. “We know the players watch us closely to see our interaction. But they are now starting to see the benefits of this.
“Why must we limited by tradition? Why can we not be as innovative as we are being now?”

If a soldier and insurrectionist can put aside their differences and work together as equal partners for their country, then why can leaders in more meaningful industries not do likewise?

Can Trinidad and Tobago’s beleaguered People’s Partnership learn from the selfless, collective approach demonstrated by the Football Partnership?

For once, the comparison between sport and society is not empty rhetoric.

 
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