…and The Fallout From The Foreign-based Fixation
By ASHFORD JACKMAN
It was inevitable, given the state of everything football in T&T, that events off the field would overshadow play on it. The State of Emergency continues, so the Pro League, weakened by club withdrawals, is being played among a mere six, and without the defending champions Defence Force. The Football Federation is in a state of bankruptcy, says its erstwhile president, so the Soca Warriors of 2006 who won them in court have not been paid. The national team is in a state, so we are struggling to get past the preliminary stage of qualifying for Brasil 2014; and there is no stated policy on transfers abroad, so most of the top players are unavailable for national team practice, playing as they are in other states.
Quickly realising that the game was descending into a state of irrelevance, the TTFF and associates have contrived to keep the game in the spotlight, by means of a developing story that could rival the twists and turns of any World Cup thriller. A secretly shot video of a meeting of Caribbean Football Union heads has been circulated on the Internet and on television. It carries the voice of the former CFU head, Jack Warner, advising delegates about gifts from Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari whose bid to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president ended in Bin Hammam’s excommunication, and Warner’s sudden resignation from all things FIFA.
Say what you want about Mr. Warner, there’s no escaping the fact that he is a very resourceful individual; no one from a region as relatively insignificant as the Caribbean rises to become a senior executive in the European-dominated and controlled world football authority without being clever and quick on his feet. It is why, his promises of a “tsunami” notwithstanding, people suspected the game was up when Warner resigned all his posts; nimble Jack, after a ride of some 28 years at the top, had seen the writing on the wall and was quick to bail out before the crash.
Mr. Warner has not denied that the voice on the video is his own, simply claiming that the clip was “doctored.” Several of his CFU lieutenants have received sanctions coming out of the FIFA investigations into the so-called “Cash for Votes” fiasco; and now that FIFA has announced that he too is to be investigated, Jack’s long time ally, Oliver Camps, just months after cruising into yet another term in office, has quit as the TTFF president.
People say it was bound to happen, even if no one could have anticipated the pace of developments. Just six months after the scandal broke, Jack’s house of cards appears to have caved in, and it’s every man for himself, or so it would seem.
What effect the end of the Warner/Camps partnership would have on this country’s football can only be the subject of conjecture at this point; but another recent off-the-field incident has opened a public discussion that may provide some significant clues.
Ironically, the fire was lit by the latest instalment in the TTFF’s formula for instant success- Otto Pfister, foreign national coach number eleven (if my math is correct) in the last 20 years. Pfister was feeling the heat after T&T suffered an embarrassing loss to Bermuda, and even though the team won its next game, four-nil over Barbados, the elderly German opened a useful can of worms with his outburst at the post-match conference.
Pfister’s grouse centred on what he saw as the uncaring and haphazard rapid-fire transfers of local players to obscure clubs and leagues abroad, and the effects of that trend on the present qualifying campaign. But his accusations provoked a wider-reaching debate.
Suddenly, concerns are being raised about the fundamental requirements for building and maintaining a source of talent- a developmental plan. Larry Romany, the TT Pro League commissioner, reacting on TV6’s Morning Edition to Pfister’s tirade, lamented the fact that there is no “integration” between the levels of primary school, secondary school, club, national and international football. And there is “no clear philosophy” he adds, on how primary and secondary school football is developed.
But he is not alone. Keith Look Loy, who until recently was the national Technical Advisor, had said of the same station: “Because of the political culture of the TTFF, because of the administrative culture of the TTFF, progress on the technical side has reached a point beyond which it cannot go.”
Had either of these gentlemen read any of my articles on the state of football in this publication since the failed USA 1994 qualifying campaign, they would have known of these problems long before now. Whether they knew or not, the hurried departure of Mr. Warner has certainly emboldened a tidal wave of dissenting voices that hitherto had been deafeningly silent.
The first signs of a changing tide actually began to appear following the first two qualifiers in September, when several club managers, coaches and owners were openly critical of Pfister, his selections and his tactics. In all my years of covering the sport, this has never happened before. Francisco Maturana, Ian Porterfield, Leo Beenhakker, you name it, no one tied to football dared to publicly question the modus operandi of the men brought here by Special Advisor Jack Warner. It was okay to go after Bertille St. Clair, Stuart Charles-Fevrier or Russell Latapy, the local “temps” drafted in to fill the void in-between qualifying campaigns; but one simply did not challenge the foreigners.
Pfister’s only sin is to have entered at the worst of times- just before Warner’s unplanned exit from FIFA’s corridors of power. So when the German made the accusation that players like Denzil Theobald, Marvin Phillip and Hughton Hector were being handled “like animals”, several football bigwigs found their voices and exposed the contradiction between his words and his actions.
Like those before him, the German has so far displayed a clear preference for foreign-based players. He appointed as captain Stoke City’s Kenwyne Jones, a striker with no history as a leader on the field; there have been places in the squad for Stern John, Anthony Warner, Keon Daniel, Lester Peltier, Darryl Roberts and Osei Telesford, anyone with a history of playing abroad, regardless of form or current status. There has been scant room at the inn for the locals who have been in training under him at home.
So Caledonia AIA coach Jamal Shabazz was absolutely in his right to say (on that Morning Edition) that “Pfister does not use Pro League players…. so Marvin Phillip decided to go Vancouver and become a foreign-based player.” Pro League CEO Dexter Skeene was also on the ball: “You talk about Theobald and Hector- these guys were on the bench when they were here. It’s only when these guys go away and they somehow become ‘foreign-based’ then you select them. So that’s what they understand as well.”
On that same show, David John-Williams shot down Pfister’s concern about the availability of the players. The W-Connection boss said Pfister had told the Pro League coaches that under him, a player must be playing for a club in order to stand any chance of gaining national selection. But Darryl Roberts, John-Williams noted, out of contract for six months, was not only recalled but on the starting eleven from the first qualifier. He forgot to mention Stern John, who belatedly joined North-East Stars.
Year in, year out, on these pages, I have challenged this policy. It is good to have such men, directly involved in the sport, finally speak out about what the likes of Araujo, Porterfield, Beenhakker and Maturana have doing for the past two decades.
Look Loy, of course, has had nothing to say on that matter; he was one of the principals involved in the selection of the national coach, if indeed we are to believe there was a selection process.
We owe a great debt, then, to Pfister; his tirade before the TV cameras coming at a time when men in the know are not glancing nervously over their shoulders. Who would have expected the real issues of Trinidad and Tobago’s football to have ever been given a public hearing? But when it rained, it poured. Minutes after Romany and Skeene left the show, David John-Williams was on, defending his own club. He dismissed Pfister as being “not well informed”, reminding viewers that Clyde Leon was no longer a W-Connection player. John-Williams made it clear he had played no part in Leon’s brief stint in Colombia, and he’d played no role in Leon’s trip to Vietnam, save to point enquiring “agents” to the unemployed defensive midfielder.
But when host Fazeer Mohammed pressed him on whether profit influences the constant transfer of players abroad, the W-Connection boss may have inadvertently opened up another issue. “Without the foreign transfers,” he said, “it’s difficult for the league to survive, because obviously we don’t have the community fields, we don’t have the crowds, (and) we don’t have the corporate sponsorship.”
Pressed further about which took precedence- the clubs or the national team during a qualifying campaign, he was blunt: “The priority, obviously, is always the national team, because… the players get exposure from the national team, and it’s important that they play for the national team. It makes the foreign transfers easier.”
Expanding further, John-Williams added that the clubs feel the heat when the national team performs poorly. “If we lose to Guyana (in the upcoming qualifiers),” he said, “it will affect our ability to transfer players.” He claimed that T&T’s poor results and its failure to secure friendly matches against quality opposition have left the country outside of FIFA’s top 70 for the past three to four years. This, he contended, is why our club players today can secure contracts only in the minor countries, while Jamaican and American players are in the major leagues of Europe.
But John-Williams then addressed the players’ mindset: “The aspiration is to go outside and earn a better life for himself because the truth is, you cannot make money in Trinidad and Tobago football, unless corporate Trinidad comes and supports it more, (and) the club owners have extremely deep pockets; you can’t make money in professional football in Trinidad. Here (T&T) is a stepping stone.”
So the clubs need the transfer fees and the players aspire to the higher wages available abroad; but to be transferred, they must gain exposure on a successful national team. Surely, put in context, this raises cause for another debate: isn’t it a case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs? Isn’t that one of the very problems that Pfister was driving at?
There should never be any doubt that the players, the clubs, the league and the national team are inter-dependent. What the reaction to Otto Pfister’s outburst has done is open up a very healthy debate on the purpose and future of the TT Pro League. The scenario of a country’s football platform having to constantly replace failing clubs, with the practice of player transfers abroad continuing unabated, thus diluting the very product that gave them employment in the first place, can only undermine the health of the game, and by extension, the national team. And as I have said so many times before, a country’s football is judged primarily by the fortunes of its national team. This issue cannot- must not- be allowed to fade into oblivion.