Trinidad & Tobago: How a Small Caribbean Nation Overachieved At Their One and Only World Cup
Updated: Apr 14
Trinidad & Tobago, not the first name that springs to mind when thinking off nations who have qualified for the Fifa World Cup, in fact, I'm certain that it would be complete news to most casual football fans, the fact this tiny dual-island country, located in the Caribbean with just over 1.3m people even managed to get there in the first place. Since 2006 Trinidad & Tobago's Soca Warriors held the record for the smallest nation ever to qualify for the Fifa World Cup taking the rights off previous holders Northern Ireland. This was a stat which stood for 12 years until the most recent edition of the biggest sporting competition on earth, with tiny Iceland and their population of a mere 350,000 people, claiming this right for the future and one may argue possibly forever, deeming it an almost unbreakable record.
Still, Trinidad & Tobago proudly fall in at number 2 on this list, and we have to take it all the way back to 2005, to really put into perspective the incredible nature of what they were about to achieve. In this very year, the beginning of a footballing Renaissance began to unfold in front of the eyes of the Trinidadian fans, with many of them pinching themselves at the appointment of 3-time La Liga Winning manager Leo Beenhakker who guided Real Madrid to 3 consecutive titles from 1986-89. Dutch native Beenhakker also had 2 stints as manager of the Dutch national team in both 1985/86 and 1990 respectively, as a result of his success in the domestic Eredivisie league, winning 2 titles for Ajax which kickstarted his impressive resume.
Beenhakker as Real Madrid Manager, Source: ABC de Sevilla
Fast forward 15 years to the 31st March 2005 and Beenhakker found himself in a somewhat unusual situation. The famous Dutch coach was no stranger to managing outside of his comfort zone, landing jobs in Mexico, Turkey and Saudi Arabia alike, however, the islands of Trinidad & Tobago may have been the strangest of the lot. Now Trinidad & Tobago had never really been known for their footballing prowess. While possibly considered to be one of the better teams in the Caribbean, their previous footballing honours included a handful of Caribbean Cup titles which mostly occurred in the 90s winning 6 within this decade, and most notably their 2nd place finish at the 1973 CONCACAF Championship, the precursor to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where the national team also finished in a highly respectable 3rd in both 1989 and 2000 in this re-branded competition.
Nevertheless, the promised land of the Fifa World Cup had never been reached in this nation's history, in fact, only 3 previous Caribbean countries had ever managed to reach the actual finals, which were; Cuba in 1938, who didn't even have to qualify but entered by default due to disputes over the tournament being held in Europe once again which led numerous teams from the Americas to pull-out, Haiti who didn't make it past the group-stages in 1974, and similarly Jamaica in 1998, who could not make it past the First Round but dazzled audiences around the world with their outstanding kits and style of play, showcasing the rise of football in the Caribbean.
Jamaica, 1998 World Cup, Source: SoccerGator
While not completely out of the question, highlighted by Jamaica's achievements in 1998, the likelihood of this small dual-island nation reaching the finals may have seemed impossible, so when the CONCACAF qualification stages began for the 2006 World Cup to be held in Germany, many Trinidadians would not have grasped how things were about to play out.
2004 would be the year these qualification rounds for North, Central America and the Caribbean kicked off. Beenhakker had not taken charge yet and instead, we saw Trinidadian native Bertille St. Clair manage the side in the initial stages of this qualification run. Trinidad & Tobago entered in the CONCACAF Second Round due to their Fifa World Ranking at the time which thus, allowed them to receive a bye into this very round where they would meet the Dominican Republic. St. Clair had a fine selection of players to choose from including; veteran Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop who had guarded the nets for West Ham and Newcastle, Stern John who was becoming more-and-more known in England due to his goalscoring exploits, and most evidently Premiership and Champions League winner, Dwight Yorke who grabbed 123 Premier League goals for Aston Villa, Sunderland, Birmingham City Blackburn Rovers and famously Manchester United where he formed a formidable partnership with fellow 100-club member Andy Cole.
Things got off to the best possible start for Trinidad & Tobago defeating the Dominican Republic 2-0 away from home and even topped this in the 2nd leg winning 4-0, and subsequently 6-0 on aggregate. The Soca Warriors had advanced to the 3rd round and this is where group stages came into play, with Trinidad & Tobago being placed with powerhouses Mexico, along with Saint Kitts and Nevis, and also Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in this 4-team round robin.
Mexico easily dominated the group finishing with 6 wins out of 6, rarely having to break a sweat, with their most testing game coming against the Trinidadians who were pipped by the noble scoreline of 3-1. However, both 1st and 2nd place advanced to the final round of qualification, the 'elite' stages you might call it, and this 2nd place finish belonged to, of course, Trinidad & Tobago! Putting their defeats to Mexico aside, confidently dispatching the two 'Saint' nations both home and away, and thus finishing the group with 4 wins, breezing into the next round. Having said that, this is where things got really tricky!
The Fourth Round, the defining stages where the 6 best teams from North, Central America and the Caribbean faced off to determine who would be the 3 teams on a plane to Germany next summer, and also who would have to face the dreaded playoff game in order to secure their place. We saw Trinidad & Tobago, Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama battle it out over 10 games, and it most certainly interesting to say the least.
From a Trinidadian perspective, things got off to the worse possible start with the side succumbing to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the United States, however, the straw that broke the camel's back as one might refer to it, came in the 2nd game a month later as Trinidad & Tobago were completely annihilated 5-1 by a Guatemalan side which many believed they could beat. The date? 26 March 2005, so with this defeat, and a 0-0 stalemate with Costa Rica just 4 days later, came the dismissal of Bertille St.Clair who made way for vastly experienced Beenhakker who was about to take the Soca Warriors to a new level. Nevertheless, one could not have said anything negative about St.Clair, who's management helped Trinidad reach this very stage, with the president of Trinidad & Tobago stating, '' We applaud the work that has been done over the years to bring us to this point and there is no gainsaying that our own Bertille St Clair must share in the honours. His initial input cannot be discounted and so we congratulate him and all the people of Tobago who stood behind his effort"
Beenhakker's first game in charge came in a 2-0 victory over Panama, with over 18,000 spectators packing into The Hasely Crawford Stadium in the country's capital Port of Spain, to witness a start of a new age of football in Trinidad & Tobago. The remainder of the group games gave mixed feelings to the Trinidadian fans, with the side losing on 3 occasions to eventual 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams (USA, Mexico & Costa Rica respectively), although crucial wins including a 3-2 thriller against Guatemala and 1-0 trump over Panama, left Trinidad & Tobago with 10 points with 1 sole game to go.
As stated previously, 4th place in this group would enter a playoff game with a nation from a different continent, Asia to be exact, with the possibility of gaining a backdoor entrance to next summer's finals. That being said, Trinidad & Tobago did not have this place secure, as Mexico, their old foe stood in the way. The reason this 4th place position was not secure was down to the fact that a more than capable Guatemala side was hot on the trail of Trinidad & Tobago, meaning if Trinidad were to lose to Mexico, and Guatemala beat Costa Rica, all the hard work of the past would be undone, and Trinidad would go crashing out.
23,000 fans filled the National Stadium to the brim, with the game being a sell-out. An early Trinidad & Tobago penalty miss left fans with their heads in their hands, and to add insult to injury, Mexico opened the scoring in the 38th minute with a phenomenal chip from Jaime Lozano. At the same time, this game was taking place, Guatemala in their crunch game had opened up a 3-0 lead over Costa Rica. Trinidad was crashing out! Step forward Stern John, who on the stroke of half-time tapped in from close range to grab his 11th in total from the qualifying stages, sending the fans into a fit of jubilation. A glimmer of hope! If Stern John was not already a hero in the eyes of the Trinidadian fans, he would be after the 69th minute, powering the game's winner into the left-hand top corner of the net leaving the Mexican goalkeeper Jesus Corona with no chance. The fans went berzerk, John had etched his name into the country's history books, as the side went on to defend like warriors, securing this eventual 2-1 victory, clinching their place in this CONCACAF vs AFC playoff game. Beenhakker's men were just two wins away from reaching sport's most prized competition.
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Mexico, Source: La Prensa
It would be Bahrain who stood in there way, a team who also entered this game by the skin of their teeth, narrowly prevailing over Uzbekistan on FIFA's away-goal rule. Without any disrespect intended for their opposition, Trinidad & Tobago firmly believed they could beat the men from the Persian Gulf. The 1st leg took place in the Port of Spain, which was again another sell-out. Salman Isa Ghuloom got the first goal of the game for Bahrain in the 72nd minute before it was almost immediately cancelled out by Trinidad's Chris Birchall who qualified to represent the side due to his Trinidadian-born mother. He may have stuck out like a sore thumb and as Dwight Yorke exclaimed, ''At the time he joined the team he was the odd guy out but we all welcome him with open arms and he's been very much a key player to our team. He's come in and done a fantastic job and has become an influential player'', and this was most certainly the case, as Birchall's outstanding volley left Trinidad & Tobago with much hope heading into the 2nd leg in very unknown Bahranian territory.
Chris Birchall Goal vs. Bahrain
Bahrain away, not your average away day! A stalemate in the first half meant Trinidad had to push for a goal in the second. They came out all guns blazing, and just after the break in the 48th minute, Dwight Yorke's inch-perfect corner was met by 6'7 Wrexham defender Dennis Lawrence who rose like a salmon before heading past the Bahranian keeper. He had just changed the whole dynamic of the tie and Trinidad & Tobago were 40 minutes away from reaching the World Cup Finals for the first time in their history. A startling defence performance from Lawrence and his compatriots got Trinidad over the line and that was that. 3 rounds of games, 2 group-stages, 2 managers and a playoff, Trinidad & Tobago had just become only the 4th ever Caribbean nation to qualify for the World Cup Finals proper, and with what determination they did it!
It was not long until June 2006 rolled around, and the finals kicked off. Trinidad & Tobago had set up camp in Dortmund, the site of their first game, where they were to play a Sweden side laced with talents such as tallymen Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, in Borussia Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park. It was a glorious day, with the sun beating down on this fantastic stadium, something the Trinidadians would have been used to, and most certainly what the Swedes were not. In the warm-up, Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Kelvin Jack had slightly niggled a previous calf injury he was nursing before the finals began and therefore 37-year-old Shaka Hislop, who himself thought he wasn't even going to be the sides back-up goalie was called upon to guard the nets for the Caribbean side. A possible setback already?
Amazingly, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Soca Warriors, as Hislop put in a display which many would regard as the best of his career. The first-half saw Sweden have the majority of the chances and this was no shock. Trinidad & Tobago had come into the game as underdogs, with many feeling they would not pick-up a win throughout the whole group stages, as they entered the competition as 2000-1 underdogs.
A 4th minute Henrik Larsson free-kick flashed past the post and the warning signs were there from the offset, however, Beenhakker's side showed the kind of determination they did in qualifying, putting it up to the Swedes, with slick play and ferocious tackling, showing them that they were to be no pushovers. Hislop got down well to save a trademark Ibrahimovic volley, and the minnows had held Sweden to a first-half stalemate.
Dwight Yorke (Trinidad & Tobago) battles with Henrik Larsson (Sweden), Source: ABC.net
Speaking of this ferocious tackling, Trinidad & Tobago left-back Avery John, who's name had already been added to the book in the first half, picking up a 15th-minute yellow, received his 2nd of the game just 1 minute after the break with a high challenge, and so, Trinidad had to play the entirety of the second half with 10-men. Another setback to say the least. But again, strangely enough, this sending off seemed to somewhat fuel Trinidad's fire, giving them the motivation to work even harder.
Hislop again was the star of the show in the second half, putting in a man of the match display, saving numerous times from Swedish substitute Marcus Allback, with the pick of the bunch coming in the 79th minute, tremendously saving Allback's effort as he was through on goal. With Trinidad & Tobago hitting the crossbar in the 58th minute with a powerful Cornell Glen strike, it is no doubt that Sweden rode their luck at times also. A shoutout has to be given to Trinidad's Carlos Edwards also, undoubtedly their best outfield player, the Luton Town man put in a remarkable performance at right midfield, somewhat embarrassing his opposition counterpart and Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg. One might have wondered which one was the Premier League player at times.
And so, the final whistle blew and the cameras panned immediately to Beenhakker who was seen clapping the fantastic support of the Trinidadian fans who never lost hope and backed their team throughout the whole 90 minutes. They certainly admired him back, as Trinidad & Tobago had just pulled off a shock upset, holding the 14th ranked nation in the world Sweden, in what is still deemed as the greatest day in their national team's history. They had silenced Swedish pundits and so-called experts who believed the only outcome would be a Swedish win, as yet again the perseverance of the Soca Warriors shined through.
Up-next England, a game which poised players from the likes of Port-Vale, Wrexham and Luton Town against world-beaters from Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal to name a few. Expectedly, England who was one of the favourites to go on to win the World Cup, boasting players such as a young Wayne Rooney and Ballon D'or winner Michael Owen along with many others, went on to win the game 2-0 in Nuremberg, but much media attention focused on another highly respectable showing from the Trinidadians.
0-0 stalemate at half-time for the 2nd game in a row, many could not believe their eyes as another upset, one which was potentially bigger than the last, was on the cards. 2 great chances from Stern John, one in particular in first-half stoppage time which needed to be cleared off the line by John Terry showed Trinidad & Tobago really meant business and were not just here to take part. Their fighting spirit was admirable. A crushing blow was dealt by the Three Lions and in particular, Peter Crouch, who in the 83rd minute who towered above Trinidadian defender Brent Sancho in dubious fashion, with many deeming Crouch to have impeded his marker in the process. Sancho went on to say after that it was, ''Bodily Assault''. In fact, Crouch has even been titled 'The Most Hated Man in Trinidad & Tobago' since the incident took place. However, the goal stood and Trinidad's hard work had been undone. Steven Gerrard delivered the final nail in the coffin, with his 90th-minute stunner from outside the box on his weaker left foot, leaving Trinidadian players and fans with an utter sense of disappointment.
Crouch's Goal, Trinidad & Tobago vs. England, Source: Dreamteamfc.com
Trinidad & Tobago headed into the final group game, with 1 point so far and poised 3rd in the group, ahead of Paraguay the team they were to face in this all-important showdown. England led the group with 6 points and had booked their place in the last 16, with Sweden just behind them on 4 points after a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Paraguay. Trinidad was left hoping for a Swedish defeat and of course, a much needed win their own game against this South American opposition.
Paraguay dominated from the start. The team which Trinidad & Tobago had the chance of beating, turned out to be their most difficult opposition, which again highlighted the unpredictability of the World Cup, as Paraguay never let up throughout the whole game, applying much pressure to this solid Trinidadian defence. An own-goal by Brent Sancho in the 25th minute left the many Trinidadians who had made the lengthy journey to Kaiserslautern fear for the worst. Just before the final-whistle Paraguayan substitute, Nelson Cuevas cooly converted a 1-on-1 chance, and with that came the end of Trinidad & Tobago's incredible World Cup journey.
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Paraguay, Source: BBC News
Their voyage is something no Trinidadian will ever forget, capturing the attention of the whole 1.3m population throughout those 3 group games, and the team's performance is something which can be looked back on with admiration and respect. Beenhakker installed a never say die attitude into these players from his years of managerial experience and had them playing like a top-international side, with Hislop stating how Beenhakker added, ''Professionalism and a real organisation to the team,...'' The 2006 World Cup was a whirlwind for these players, reaching heights many thought could not be reached. It was a Golden Age for football on this small dual-island, making not only their country proud, but the whole of the Caribbean in general, whilst at the same time garnering millions of fans from across the globe on the greatest stage of them all...The Fifa World Cup!