Despite having appeared at its only World Cup in 2006 Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) holds a decent record at qualifying campaigns and barring controversial decisions both on and off the field, T&T may well have graced the stage of three World Cups. At least that the view held by decorated player and coach Everald “Gally” Cummings.
T&T began it venture into the World Cup arena in 1965 in a bid to qualify for the 1966 World Cup in England after not being a part of the previous seven qualifying campaigns. And Cummings, who had gotten a call for national duty at the tender age of 15, was not selected to the team that exited the competition in the first round.
His next call for national duty came two years later for the CONCACAF championships in Jamaica and at that time him, along with Warren Archibald, Leroy De Leon and Jan Steadman, were regarded as the best young players so during that tournament they were scouted by coaches from the North American Soccer League (NASL) and awarded professional contracts.
Cummings said that having gone on to play professionally with the Atlanta Chiefs in the United States (US) where he rubbed shoulders with a group of experienced footballers from Germany, England, Ireland and Israel, some of whom would have had a couple World Cup campaigns under their belts, he would return to T&T in 1968 for the FIFA World Cup Mexico 1970 preparations.
T&T did not do well at the campaign and Cummings is still upset over the fact that the then Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation sold its home rights to Haiti and Guatemala.
“We played both legs of our tie with Guatemala across there losing the first game 4-0 and securing a goalless draw in the return while against Haiti we split the tie with a win apiece.
“So as history would have it we came back home with our tail between our legs and the only difference is that the football association made some money from the sale of the rights but fans were denied the opportunity to see their team play at home."
He recounted that back then football had structure and there was always a national team in training which had a group of dynamic players so when the foreign-based players returned, it was the icing on the cake.
“Without the icing we still had a cake so we would come and fill spaces that were necessary but we had to come and play for our selection as it was not handed to us,” Cummings said, adding that although the locally based players knew they were good they had to prove it."
He recalled that in 1972 when Pele came with Santos Football Club of Brazil for a friendly against the national team as part of our Independence celebration it only had three professional players, of which he was one, in T&T’s lineup.
“As it turned out, the nucleus of the 1973 team that represented T&T in the World Cup campaign played against Santos in 1972 but we entered that campaign with a fair share of distractions."
Cummings said they were people who did not like the team while others felt they were not playing well enough, however, for the first time in the history of Trinidad and Tobago the team had a behavioural psychologist in Shirley Rudd-Ottley who played a vital role in that she took them to task and took out all the negatives.
“We were playing football, we were out there, we had discipline and we were patriotic because everything we did we did it for Trinidad and Tobago."
He said what people did not know was that their commitment to country and each other was greater than what was anticipated and when the team went to Haiti they were handed usual poor treatment in that they were placed on bad grounds to practice on.
“Our first game was against Honduras and we lost because we had butterflies in our stomachs from not having much match practice, in fact the only warm up game we had in those times was a North/South clash and that was to make money to send the team wherever it had to go.
“The other thing was that most of the players we came up against were training together for at least six months to a year while all that happened with us was the foreign-based players came home, they put the team together and based us at the Defence Force headquarters in Chaguaramas where we slept on some old mattresses.
“However, we had some strong people in management as well as among the players so we faced Guatemala next and beat them 1-0 where I scored the winner."
Cummings said their third match was against the host Haiti who scored first, however, they got the equalizer through Steve David, or so they thought.
“The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the centre-circle indicating the goal was good but the linesman stayed where he was with his flag raised. The referee went across and spoke with him then returned and took the ball and gave Haiti a goal kick instead."
He added that they were not fazed by the referee’s decision as they had a secret tactical weapon the Haitians knew nothing about.
“Winston Phillips, who played at the left-back position, had a long throw which he would send to David who would head it to the last post for someone coming in to score,” he continued, “So on one of his throws the Haitian goalkeeper ran out and missed the ball which struck him on his body and went into the back of the net.
“The referee, who was on spot, again signaled goal but then referred his decision to the linesman and the goal was disallowed as they said someone had pushed the goalkeeper. As far as I know a referee’s decision is final but here it was the referee kept overturning his decisions and going with those of his assistant.
“We began to think the actions of the referee and his assistants were quite strange but we continued with the game and I scored next, however, that too was disallowed.
“As it turned out we scored five goals but four of them were disallowed,” Cummings said.
He believes that if those goals were allowed to stand then T&T would have scored more because they would have served as a confidence booster.
He said after the game the team formed a huddle in the middle of the field and they were in tears, adding that Warren Archibald came up to him and said, “Gally boy, we can’t take this we have to go to Germany.”
“Even my coach from the NASL came to me and said, Everald, you guys were robbed.”
Cummings added that the players and coaches from Mexico and Guatemala encouraged them to lodge a protest but our administration at the time never did anything about it because in those days they were content with settling for being the most disciplined team instead of getting the trophy.
“There was no rejoicing in the Sylvio Cator Stadium as the Haitian people understood what they had just witnessed and were too ashamed to celebrate. They knew we had won the game.”
He said that following that match T&T went on to beat Mexico 4-0 in a match where he scored the first two goals and a result that ended the Mexican’s hope of going to Germany.
“It was only after we defeated Mexico that Haiti qualified so us whipping the Mexicans sent Haiti to the World Cup and I find that to be both amazing and unbelievable.
“I think the only sour spot coming out of the match was that FIFA accepted the decision of the officials but at the same time banned them for life,” he said, adding that he cannot understand how you could accept someone’s decision but then impose a sanction on them for the said decision."
Cummings believes had T&T gone to Germany in 1974 the level of local football would have been a lot higher today.
“We would have been able to negotiate more professional contract for our players, the TTFA and the players would have benefitted financially since FIFA awards teams a quota of money for qualifying and it would also have meant that we would not be going through the troubles we are going through now because our government would have had greater interest in the team with respect to sports and tourism.”
He said the outcome of that match has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players up to this day.
“As history has it we lost the game 2-1 but I don’t care what anybody says, it is my personal view that we qualified for that World Cup and was supposed to play in Germany but Haiti went in our place."
Cummings is of the firm belief that similar to their 1973 experience T&T’s Strike Squad qualification bid for the World Cup Italy 1990 also fell agonizingly short because of off-the-field wheeling and dealing.
He added that to him the ‘70s was the golden era of football as there were structures in place for both players and administrators.
“You had accountability and transparency in that the president of each football zone was a council member of the football association so that kept things in place and no single individual could have made a decision or decisions as we have witnessed in more recent times."
He pointed to the irony of T&T failing to go to the World Cup in Germany in 1974 but ended up there some 32 years later.
Cumming was also a member of the T&T squad who participated in the qualifiers for the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina.
Editor’s Note: Salvadorian referee Jose Roberto Henriquez and linesman James Higuet of Canada were subsequently banned for life by FIFA for the dubious events of that 1973 match against Haiti.