Friday 21st July, 2006

 

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Beenhakker’s sin of omission

By Peter Taylor

Now that the euphoria is subsiding ever so slowly after the performance of the Soca Warriors in Germany, I for one feel constrained to express my disappointment over the treatment meted out to Russell Latapy by coach Leo Beenhakker.

The World Cup finals are, were and always will be about showcasing the great players of the world. This is the one stage where hitherto unknown countries and their respective players stand equal with the traditional greats and have a chance to etch their names in history.

Take Roger Milla, for example. Before the World Cup finals in 1990 in Italy, the Cameroon was not particularly known for its footballing prowess. But at the ripe old age of 38, Milla announced his arrival from oblivion and coupled with a dazzling display of skill and craft scored a memorable goal for his country against the mighty Argentina.

From thence onwards, Roger Milla has become a household name and he remains today one of the great ambassadors of the sport. His name will forever be mentioned along with the greats who made their mark on the world.

His contribution to Italia ’90 embodied the very ethos the World Cup, that is, hitherto unsung heroes could have the opportunity to endear themselves to the world.

Russell Latapy, a legend in his own time, is a national icon. He came out of retirement to inspire a struggling T&T team and it was his equaliser against Guatemala when he wrong-footed a defender that put us on course for an eventual 3-2 win and kept the nation’s hopes of qualification alive.

Every country has its great players and coaches are obliged to respect such players, whatever their eccentricities or idiosyncrasies.

George Best of Northern Ireland was a genius in his time, but was also given to a lifestyle more akin to a movie star from Hollywood. So, too, Paul Gascoigne of England. A gifted talent who only needed a few touches of the ball to stamp his class on a game, but who had an equal passion for the nightlife and its attendant implications.

But no coach dared leave them out of a team because they knew only too well the fear that such players instilled, and that their very aura and presence on the field were invaluable tools against the sternest of oppositions.

Latapy is one of the greatest if not the greatest midfielder this country has ever produced. It was his only and final opportunity to show the world what we at home already knew.

He, if no one else, deserved to play in the World Cup. He represented some famous clubs in Europe. FC Porto, Benfica to name but two. His name is revered anywhere he plays, and just the mention of his name conjures up a flood of emotion and admiration.

His only transgression, according to Beenhakker, is that he is not a ball winner.

Beenhakker achieved what no other coach was able to achieve and for this the nation owes him a debt of gratitude. But he lit the flame and then put it under a bushel. The brightest and most charismatic star in the Soca Warriors’ firmament was not allowed a chance to shine.

And so the world was robbed of seeing another great player of the modern era in full flight.

Had he been given a greater opportunity to showcase his talent, his name may well have been mentioned in the same breath with Zidane, Vieira, Figo and Del Piero for years to come.

“The Little Magician” earned the right to play in the World Cup. Had he not returned, the Soca Warriors may never have qualified. He is our Zidane, our Figo. The talisman whose craft and cunning are the stuff of which many a World Cup dream is made.

The world will never forget the full command of nerve with which Shaka Hislop held the Swedish powerhouse at bay for 93 odd minutes. Such composure was invaluable and only comes with playing the game at the highest level for a considerable period of time.

Were it not for a twist of fate, with Kelvin Jack deemed unfit only ten minutes before the encounter against the Swedes, Hislop too would have been consigned to the bench, perhaps without ever having had the chance to climax his outstanding career with a meaningful World Cup appearance.

Hislop’s commanding performance in that crucial opening game in Dortmund on June 10 created the belief in the T&T camp that it was now possible to march to Nuremberg on June 20 and meet the English as equals.

How much more would have Latapy’s presence against “the auld enemy” lifted our chances of victory from probable to very possible.

One coach opined that Beenhakker appeared to be more interested in preserving his own legacy than in forging an all-out victory for the Soca Warriors. That is to say, he seemed resolute in ensuring that the Soca Warriors played a defensive game to the extent that if they lost, the margin of defeat would not be great.

Upon reflection, and with the benefit of hindsight, this view gains currency when one considers the team selected to play against Paraguay. In a must-win game, Beenhakker elected to field another defensive team, again leaving the nation’s most charismatic, penetrative and attacking player on the bench.

I was among the supporters in the Kaiserslautern stadium against Paraguay, and I can attest that had it not been for chants of “Latapy, Latapy” by the T&T fans around the 65th minute, which chants Beenhakker could not ignore, the world may never have seen “The Magician” cast his spell, albeit only for 25 minutes. But for those 25 minutes, Latapy’s sun shone in all its splendid beauty and it set the world alight.

Immediately upon his entrance to a deafening roar, the genius began to weave his magic with captivating sweetness. Pores raised and tongues began to wag in various languages when, in a flash, he rifled a shot just over the Paraguayan bar and then raised his hands to his face in anguish.

If Beenhakker’s outstanding achievement was in ensuring this country’s qualification for Germany 2006, then his most glaring omission was in depriving the world an opportunity to see another one of the game’s geniuses who, in the twilight of his career, could have stamped his name in this the beautiful game, indeed the game of the century, for all time to come.

 

 

 

 

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