By RON FANFAIR
In a bold move, Trinidad & Tobago’s soccer hierarchy has entrusted 40-year-old player/coach, Russell Latapy, with the job of steering his country to a second straight World Cup finals appearance in South Africa in 2010.
Latapy replaces Colombian Francisco “Pacho” Maturana who, along with his technical staff, resigned following a meeting with T & T Soccer Federation’s special adviser, Austin “Jack” Warner. Warner had summoned Maturana to a special meeting earlier this week.
The T & T soccer federation claims the Colombian offered to quit because of philosophical differences.
In the 31 matches since Maturana was named head coach in February 2008, the Soca Warriors has won 16, drawn nine and lost six games, including a World Cup qualifier at home to Bermuda. During that period, the team failed to qualify for the Gold Cup tournament in the United States this summer and is currently lying at the bottom of the table with two points from three matches in the final round of qualifiers in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Associations of Football’s (CONCACAF) six-team – hexagonal – competition.
The top three teams advance to the World Cup while the fourth-place team, and the fifth-place team in the South American qualifying competition, square off in a home and away series for a place in the finals.
Prominent Caribbean sports journalist, Joseph “Reds” Perreira, said he’s not surprised that Maturana is out as the T & T coach.
“Once I saw that he was having an emergency meeting with Warner, I knew that was the end for him,” Perreira told Share Online from his home in St. Lucia. “Even though Warner is the special adviser, you have to realize that, in fact, he’s the de facto president of the twin-island republic’s soccer federation. “You could see this coming because the coach was not getting the required results.”
What surprises Perreira is the interim appointment of 40-year-old Latapy to succeed Maturana who has a degree in dentistry.
“Russell has the experience as a player, but it’s left to be seen whether he can weld the Soca Warriors squad together and make them play as a cohesive unit,” said Perreira, who played first division soccer for Georgetown Football Club as a goalkeeper. He also coached Guyana’s Under-23 side in the 1960s. “Dwight Yorke is a shadow of himself and the team needs goal scorers. It’s going to be interesting to see the impact the new coach will have….”
The first-time head coach was the player/coach with Scottish premier league side, Falkirk, where he spent the past six seasons before joining the T& T national team’s technical staff. Latapy last appeared for the Soca Warriors on March 28 against Honduras.
For Latapy to be an effective coach, he has to step aside as a player, says T & T-born, Toronto-based soccer aficionado and administrator, Aldwyn McGill – who was in Germany with the team in 2006 when it made its first World Cup appearance.
“By doing this, he will show the players that he’s fully concentrating on his coaching duties,” McGill said. “It will also say to them that he’s not hanging around as an aging player and trying to play just 15 minutes each game when he comes off the bench which is about the maximum amount of time he could possibly contribute at the international level at this stage of his career. He will gain the respect of the players if he just coaches.
“When he was named to the coaching staff, I figured they were preparing him to assume the role of a head coach. However, I did not anticipate him taking over so soon.
“What he does in the remainder of the regional World Cup qualifying tournament could very well determine whether he gets the job fulltime.”
McGill suggests that Maturana’s inability to communicate effectively with the players led to his downfall.
“Francisco is a nice and very mild-mannered guy,” he said. “There was, however, a language problem because he’s not fluent in English. Things that he might have wanted to communicate to the players might have got lost in translation and that did not help, especially in tense moments on the field when you are trying to deal directly with emotional players.”
Latapy’s first match at the helm will be at home against Costa Rica on June 6. Four days later, the Soca Warriors will meet host country, Mexico, which also fired head coach and former England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, after the country’s 3-1 loss to Honduras and replaced him with Javier Aguirre who coached Mexico in the 2002 World Cup finals which were jointly hosted by Korea and Japan.
T & T has just two points from three matches after blowing a 2-0 half-time lead to El Salvador which scored twice in the final 11 minutes to secure a 2-2 draw at home. The Soca Warriors drew 1-1 with Honduras and lost 3-0 to the United States in Maturana’s last game as head coach earlier this month.
Interestingly, T & T was in a similar position at the bottom of the table after three matches in the final round of the regional World Cup qualifying competition four years ago when Tobagonian head coach, Bertille St. Clair, was fired after 35 matches. The U.S. and Guatemala had defeated the Caribbean side 2-1 and 5-1 respectively while Costa Rica held on for a goalless draw.
On the recommendation of then T & T player and assistant coach, David Nakhid, Warner recruited Dutchman Leo Beenhakker to coach the team which resulted in it winning five of its last nine games to become the second English-speaking Caribbean team – Jamaica was the first in 1998 – to advance to the World Cup finals.