Trinidad & Tobago 2006 World Cup

On 16 November 2005, Trinidad and Tobago booked their ticket to their first ever World Cup finals appearance, seeing off a tricky Bahrain side away from home to create a small piece of history. This was a monumental achievement for the tiny twin-island nation, who became the smallest team to ever qualify for the FIFA World Cup (a record that was broken by Iceland in 2018). Such was the minute size and stature of the Caribbean side that they were instantly installed as everybody’s favourite other team at the World Cup, with perhaps the exception of those supporting England, Paraguay and Sweden.

Everybody loves a good underdog story, and the World Cup certainly needed one after the shameful antics of Togo in the run up to the tournament. While the West African debutants threatened to strike by not showing up to Germany in 2006, Trinidad and Tobago embraced the tournament. They knew in their heart of hearts that they weren’t going to win the World Cup; they were probably well aware that they would struggle to earn even a point in their three games. This didn’t deter them from showing up, bringing the type of stereotypical party atmosphere that one would expect of a team like this, and just giving it a go.

While the whole world seemed to be developing a soft spot for T&T, one nation in particular were fervent supporters of the Soca Warriors. Scotland were the number one supporters of Trinidad and Tobago for three reasons. Firstly, the most obvious reason. The island team were pitted in a group with England, the Auld Enemy. The Anyone But England mentality was rife. Secondly, several of the squad plied their trade in Scotland – six, to be precise. Marvin Andrews, Russell Latapy, Collin Samuel, Densill Theobald, Kevin Jack and Jason Scotland were the six men playing in Scotland’s top two divisions.

The final reason why the Tartan Army took Trinidad and Tobago into their hearts was on account of the final player mentioned of the six – Jason Scotland. The Scottish took delight at the novelty of a player with their nation in his name representing them on the big stage. The Tartan Army may not have qualified for Germany 2006, but Scotland would be at the World Cup, in a manner of speaking. The Jason Scotland Song was, while utterly dreadful, a chart hit for a week or two, and is certainly worth the three minute watch on YouTube.

For Trinidad and Tobago, the journey to the 2006 World Cup started in Santo Domingo, in front of a measly 2,500 fans. Over two legs they dismantled the Dominican Republic 6-0, progressing them to the third round of qualifying. This consisted of a four-team group, pitting them against Mexico, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. This group was something of a breeze for Trinidad and Tobago. Although they suffered two defeats to Mexico, they coasted past the two other island nations to progress to the next round..

The fourth round is the stage where T&T have fallen at over the last decade. In the 2006 campaign, however, they scraped by. In 10 games they lost five matches, but their home form saw three wins, with Guatemala, Mexico and Panama all coming away from Port of Spain empty handed. Their only draw also came at home, a goalless draw against Costa Rica, while a trip to Panama saw their only away victory.

They finished fourth in the group, setting up an inter-confederation playoff against Asian opponents Bahrain. A 1-1 draw in the Caribbean was certainly not the start that Leo Beenhakker’s men would have wanted, given the dire state of their away form. The away goal rule gave Bahrain the slight edge entering the second leg.

The game was hardly an example of tiki-taka football. It was an immensely hard-fought battle between two sides who were desperate to earn a place with the good and great of world football. Neither side had ever made it to the FIFA World Cup in their history, so the tense nature of the game was hardly a surprise.

After the half-time interval, Trinidad and Tobago started the brighter side, earning a corner kick on 49 minutes. Captain Dwight Yorke whipped the ball into the box, his set-piece finding the head of Dennis Lawrence. The 6ft 8in Wrexham centre back’s bullet header into the back of the net fired his nation ahead before resolutely he and his teammates defended for another 41 minutes to ensure the clean sheet.

The impact of Lawrence’s header was huge. He had made sure that for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2006 that he would swap the 10,000 capacity Racecourse Stadium in Wales for the newly built 50,000+ capacity stadiums in the Rhineland.

Naturally, the expectation was low for Trinidad and Tobago. They were a tiny nation with no previous World Cup experience and as such, there was no permutations of the draw that would see them look like a side capable of progressing out of the group stage. The draw pitted them against Sweden, Paraguay and England. It was tricky, but it certainly wasn’t mission impossible.

The build-up was certainly nothing to fill Trinidad and Tobago with confidence. They lost 2-1 to Wales, 3-1 to Slovenia and 3-0 to the Czech Republic. They only won one game in their build-up to the tournament: a bizarre friendly match against FC St Pauli. Even this wasn’t plain sailing, however, as they saw their own player, David Charles, sent off for a fight with an opponent towards the end of the match.

Trinidad and Tobago kicked off their first ever World Cup match in front of 62,000 people in Dortmund’s packed stadium, facing a Sweden side that included Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg. This was a frightening front line and the game was seen by many as a demolition job for the Swedes. The game was hard fought, and a real backs-to-the-wall job for the Caribbeans. Leo Beenhakker had his side well drilled, however, and his side managed to secure a very credible 0-0 draw.

Getting a point against such respectable opposition would have been impressive in any circumstances, yet T&T managed to earn their point despite playing the entire second half with a man less. Midfielder Avery John was sent off early in the second half after an ill-advised lunge on Christian Wilhelmsson saw a second yellow card brandished.

This could, and probably should, have been the opening of the floodgates. A man down against significantly better, more experienced opposition should have seen Trinidad and Tobago hit for several. They survived though. Not only this, but they attacked. Few could have criticised Leo Beenhakker for sacrificing a striker for a defender. It may have been wise to take off Dwight Yorke. Yorke may have been the sides best player, but his ageing legs were not suited to a 10-man job. Beenhakker instead opted to take off Dundee United striker Collin Samuel, replacing him with another striker, Cornell Glen. Their pluckiness shocked the Swedes. Sweden were still the dominant side, but they couldn’t crack down the gritty Trinidadian defence.

The full-time whistle sounded in Dortmund, paving the way for one of the biggest parties the islands of Trinidad and Tobago had ever had. They didn’t win, they didn’t even score, but they defied the odds to earn a marvellous point. Above all, they had done themselves proud. The party wasn’t to last long, however. England’s Golden Generation were up next…

The opening 80 or so minutes were fantastic for the North American contingent. They were up against it, as was to be expected, but they managed to keep the ball out, forcing England to try from distance more often than not. They even had a handful of attempts on goal to really get manager Sven Goran Eriksson sweating. Then, 83 minutes into the game, a dreadlock debacle broke the deadlock.

Peter Crouch, the 6ft 7in Englishman leapt high in the air, using the back of 6ft 1in Trinidadian defender Brent Sancho to reach a high cross, using the centre-backs dreaded hair to gain an advantage. This was a harsh lesson to learn for the World Cup debutants – the game isn’t fair. It should have been blown as a foul, yet the referee blew his whistle to indicate that the goal stood. A wonderful strike from Steven Gerrard from distance deep into stoppage time made it 2-0 and the game was over. Trinidad and Tobago were out of the FIFA World Cup.

They had given a good account of themselves to the world, their spirited approach and resolute defence endearing them to the public in spite of their evident lack of attacking prowess. They had attained an unexpected point against Sweden and were little under 10 minutes away from humbling England, who were a genuine title contender going into the tournament.

They had one final game to play, against already eliminated Paraguay. This game was overshadowed during the tournament as the dual-game format on match-day three meant
that the eyes of the world were fixated on England’s pulsating 2-2 draw with the Swedes. This was an underwhelming way to bow out of Germany for the Trinidadians. A Brent Sancho own goal gave Paraguay the lead 25 minutes in, while a late Nelson Cuevas finish condemned the Soca Warriors to the most unwelcome of records.

The aftermath of the tournament was not pretty for Trinidad and Tobago, who saw 13 players retire from international football, including Brent Sancho, Jason Scotland and Dwight Yorke. Some players, such as Yorke and Russell Latapy, retired due to age, they had actually come out of retirement just to play in the tournament. Some of the younger members retired in protest against the Trinidadian Football Association. The FA had promised the players 50% of revenue gained from the World Cup and caused a fracas when this wasn’t delivered. Brent Sancho claimed that he was blacklisted from the team, forcing him to retire, which he believed derailed his career massively.

Jack Warner was the man at the centre of this storm. It came as no surprise when in 2011, five years after the finals in Germany, that the players were eventually granted the justice they deserved. This may have lined the pockets of the players, but it wrecked the chances of 2010 World Cup qualification.

Rather than building on their successful qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup, the retirement of over half the squad meant that the team essentially had to start again, assembling a relatively inexperienced squad that simply couldn’t gel together. They finished bottom of the final qualifying round in 2010 with only one win to heir name and have failed to qualify for the last two World Cups.

Maybe it is better that Trinidad and Tobago didn’t qualify for another World Cup, and maybe it is for the best that the money debacle came out after the tournament, out of the public eye. For most of the world, Trinidad and Tobago were a point of joy, of fun. They were the Soca Warriors, the plucky underdogs who grafted a draw against Sweden and came within 10 minutes of doing the same against England. They brought a real energy to the World Cup. While some teams, like their conference rivals Honduras, routinely qualify for the World Cup and offer nothing but turgid long ball football and kicking the opponent with no real game plan, Trinidad and Tobago set up with a strategy, masterminded by the wonderful Leo Beenhakker. They may have crashed out after two games and goalless, but they left Germany with a point, a worldwide fanbase and a lot of happy memories.