EVEN BEFORE THE World Cup kicks off today in Germany, Trinidad and Tobago has already scored its first goal: becoming the smallest nation ever to reach sports’ premier event.
Forget about sports. This is the islands’ greatest moment -- the country may be small, but it’s two rocks, not one, floating in the Caribbean Sea. Better than that time at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 when native son Hasely Crawford won the 100-meter dash to become the world’s fastest human. That was sweet, but it lasted a mere 10 seconds. Better than the announcement in 2001 that the nation’s most famous son, V.S. Naipaul, had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Many Trinbagonians, or Trinis as we affectionately call ourselves, burst with pride at the news, but others couldn’t care less because Naipaul had so often directed his world-famous sneer at his own birthplace.
For me, this World Cup heals a 23-year-old emotional wound. I was 11 years old when Trinidad only needed a tie against Haiti in 1973 to qualify for the last World Cup held in Germany. My friends and I excitedly partook of the giddy feeling of an entire nation united in a soccer craze. I can recall how, in the tropical rain, we would kick the carcass of a soccer ball between burned cane fields, pretending to be members of the Trinidad national team (although we really wanted to be Pele).
When the decisive game in Port-au-Prince came, the good news was that Trinidad scored five goals, Haiti two. The bad news was that Haiti won after the referee recalled four Trini goals.
Trinis were convinced that “Papa Doc” Duvalier had bribed the referees. FIFA, the world soccer body, probably felt so too, banning the officiating team for life. But that was little solace. Haiti went to West Germany, and Trinis were left with broken hearts that couldn’t be mended by all the rum shops in Port-of-Spain.
There was a chance for redemption in 1989. All “TnT” needed in a home game was a tie against the U.S. to advance to Italy. Things were going well -- until former UCLA star Paul Caligiuri kicked an entire nation in the stomach with a goal in the 31st minute.
But now we have made it, and the party is on. There is some introspection too. Superpowers can afford to be nonchalant about their team being in the event, but on the islands, there is a search for greater meaning. Maybe this team can bring the various races together. Maybe it will unite people to beat the crime spree. Maybe, just maybe....
Many Trinis at home and in Germany are taking bets on another sideshow: the chances that Trini fans will outfox the vaunted German police and get their steel drums and percussion instruments inside the stadium to cheer on their team. German authorities have set up a special cultural village for the panmen and percussion players, hoping that they would sap their energy outside the stadium. But with banners proclaiming “Small Country, Big Passion,” the Trinis say they want to spice up the German cities with Carnival-like parades, including soca, steel drums and their famous hip gyrations -- what we call “wining.”
Oktoberfest in Deutschland might never be the same.
Trinidad is the southernmost outpost of the Caribbean, resting seven miles off the Venezuelan coast, but being in the World Cup reinforces the national sense that Trinidad may as well be where the Ganges meets the Nile, to quote a popular calypsonian. Trinidad is the birthplace of calypso, steel drums and the Mother of All Carnivals.
THE ISLANDS’ predominant races, Indians and Africans, fused their rhythms to create soca, a new form of calypso. Hence the name of the TnT soccer team: Soca Warriors.
Calypsonians are pumping out Soca Warriors tunes that would fill several CDs.
“Tell dem we reach/Everybody reach/Go and tell yuh family/We going World Cup in Germany,” goes one ditty by the TnT Soca Boys.
Another by dance hall soca star Maximus Dan boasts: “I’m a Soca Warrior, win or lose I’m a fighter. I’m a Soca Warrior, come to shine my nationality brighter.”
Bookstores in Port-of-Spain have sold out of English-German dictionaries. The German embassy in Port-of- Spain reported it has issued several thousand visas to Trinis and are processing many more last-minute applications. Some Trinis have mortgaged their future to pay more than $6,000 to see the games in Germany.
Trinidad is the prohibitive underdog in a first-round group featuring Sweden, Paraguay and former colonial ruler England.
But one can hope, and hope boisterously, as I expect the local Trini posse to do when it gathers for matches at the Caribbean Treehouse restaurant in Inglewood. I will be there.