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Tuesday, May 23, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: May 30, 6:56 PM UK
World Cup Soca

Alex Chick

Plenty of sides would have swapped their qualifying schedule for Trinidad and Tobago's.

The 'Soca Warriors' lost seven games on their way to fourth place in the CONCACAF region, and then played off against mighty Bahrain for a place in the finals.

Israel and Morocco, both of whom went unbeaten but failed to qualify, might reflect on the injustice of it all, but most neutrals will be delighted to see the Caribbeans at their first World Cup finals.

As shaky as they might have been at times, the team's achievement is remarkable for a country of just a million people that until recently was dominated by a different ball game altogether.

Cricketing heroes such as Brian Lara and Ian Bishop have been replaced by Dwight Yorke, Stern John and Dennis Lawrence, and the 'Soca Warriors' will be the only topic of conversation this summer on these two small islands off the northern coast of Venezuela.

Qualification has brought special redemption for Yorke and fellow veteran Russell Latapy. As youngsters, the two came a minute away from reaching Italia '90.

Trinidad and Tobago needed just a draw from their final qualifying game against the USA, but had their hearts broken by a last-ditch winner that sent the Americans to the World Cup. Sixteen years later they have finally secured a place on the biggest stage of all.

This campaign certainly brought a its fair share of ups and downs with those seven defeats over the course of two group stages coming against Mexico (three times), the USA (twice), Costa Rica and even Guatemala.

After a 1-1 draw at home in the playoff first leg, the unlikely figure of Wrexham defender Lawrence headed them into the finals with the only goal of the return fixture, clinching a 2-1 aggregate victory.

Team captain Yorke won the Australian title with Sydney FC in March, and has been in England since then, keeping his fitness up at his old club Manchester United.

He might have been training with Wayne Rooney, but the 34-year-old is unlikely to play like him, unless he has broken into Rooney's right foot and stolen his kryptonite (now there's a conspiracy theory).

That said, he still sees the game well and will play a pivotal 'quarterback' position, distributing the ball from midfield.

As a man whose eye for the ladies created as many headlines as his eye for goal, he might not seem an obvious skipper, but Yorke has taken on the responsibility with seriousness and dedication, and was virtually ever-present during qualifying.

Latapy is even longer in the tooth and, at 38, could be the oldest outfield player at the tournament.

He had actually quit international football before Yorke persuaded him to come out of retirement and rejuvenate an ailing campaign. Last year he was voted the Scottish First Division's player of the season, but it remains to be seen whether such an accolade necessarily guarantees success against world-class opponents.

With 15 of the 23 squad members based in Britain, you might think that England will know their adversaries inside-out on June 15th.

However, while the English stars represent Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, the Caribbeans ply their trade at footballing outposts such as Port Vale, Wrexham, and St. Johnstone. As England basked in the Algarve sun at their pre-tournament training camp, T & T shivered their way through a rainy week in Chester.

Only West Ham goalkeeper Shaka Hislop plays regularly in the Premiership, and he featured only fleetingly on the road to Germany.

Coach Leo Beenhakker must decide whether to keep faith with qualifying stalwart Kelvin Jack or make the unsentimental but probably sensible switch to Hislop who, at 37, is playing some of the best football of his career.

Bustling striker Stern John played in the Premiership for Birmingham City, but was never prolific. However, he plundered 12 goals in qualifying, more than anyone in the world except Mexico's Jared Borgetti.

Tearing Central American minnows to pieces is no guarantee that you will do the same to Sweden or England, but John's contribution will be crucial.

Meanwhile, the versatile Kenwyne Jones will be familiar with Southampton team-mate Alexander Ístlund of Sweden, and can renew acquaintances with England's former Saints Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott.

Among the other players to watch include attacking midfielder Chris Birchall, who should be easy to spot as he is the squad's only white player.

The Port Vale man is Staffordshire born and bred, but qualifies because his mother was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

He made his international debut in May last year after being wooed (in a football sense only) by Dennis Lawrence.

Midfielder Carlos Edwards is another important creative influence. Dwight Yorke has touted him for possible greatness, although considering he is 27 and still playing for Luton Town this seems unlikely.

Leo Beenhakker is a beneficiary of the 'hire a Dutchman' policy that has swept international football since Guus Hiddink took South Korea to the semi-finals in 2002.

He certainly boasts enough experience, having won six league titles across the continent with Real Madrid, Ajax and Feyenoord. He also led the Netherlands at Italia '90 and - perhaps most encouragingly of all for Trinidad and Tobago - took the similarly unfancied Saudi Arabians to the second round of USA '94.

The spring friendly campaign has brought some positive results, but victories against the Grenada Olympic Team, Iceland and Honduras will count for little when it comes to facing the cream of world football.

Even Peru seemed to have the measure of them in Port of Spain earlier in May, though a string of Jack saves and a superb Jones free-kick salvaged a 1-1 draw.

However, the heroics did little to placate Beenhakker, who was harshly critical of his team after the match.

The feisty 63-year-old's no-nonsense approach will help to focus a squad whose captain has already admitted he does not expect to get out of the group stage. Yorke's point of view might sound like common sense, but such a perspective could lead to meek surrender.

Only by actively targeting wins can they produce their best form, and they have every chance of frustrating a Paraguay team whose leading strikers are short of full fitness, or even England, whose 1-0 embarrassment against Northern Ireland illustrates the difficulties they encounter in breaking down supposedly lesser sides.

The famous victory against Bahrain last November sparked wild celebrations, and the carnival atmosphere is certain to continue as long as Trinidad and Tobago are in the tournament.

Fellow Caribbean nation Jamaica shocked Japan in their sole appearance in 1998, and with the wily Beenhakker in charge the Soca Warriors could yet supply some giantkilling feats of their own.

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