Raphael was an Afro-Trinidadian residing in Coconut Drive in Morvant. It was an urban slum on the outskirts of the city of Port-of-Spain in Trinidad. He was seventeen years old and awaiting results for his final examinations. He was excited that in three days there would be a major soccer game between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. The venue of the game would be in Port-of-Spain. His elderly father often told him about the chance that Trinidad and Tobago had in 1973 to qualify for the World Cup. His father had seen the match on Trinidad and Tobago Television.
On Friday 17 November 1989 there was excitement throughout the country. Raphael decided to go with his friends to witness this historic game at the National Stadium. Special ‘Football Massive’ screens were placed in Skinner Park in San Fernando, Chaguanas Junior Secondary School and the Queen’s Park Oval. Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica were at the top of the standings. The other teams were United States, Guatemala and El Salvador. Trinidad and Tobago hoped to become the twenty-fourth and final nation to qualify for the 1990 World Cup soccer finals in Italy.
A fortnight ago Raphael and his friends purchased three tickets to sit in the covered stands. They arrived at 2 pm and the stadium was already filled even though the game would begin at 3.30 pm. There were cultural activities to entertain the massive crowd of 41,000 persons who were part of the nation’s ‘Road to Italy’ campaign. It was a ‘Day of Red’ as persons wore red jerseys, pants and bandanas. Others wore jerseys with numbers similar to that worn by the footballers of the Trinidad and Tobago team. Some waved national flags whilst others had their faces painted in red, white and black. Drumming emanated from around the stadium.
During the game there were vendors selling a variety of snacks and drinks. One vendor had coconut water in plastic bottles.
‘Mayaro Fresh. Coconut water!’
‘I’ll take three bottles,’ shouted Ravi. He waved a twenty dollar bill. He took the bottle and began to read the label. ‘Buh dis is ah new product. Lawd is five dollars dey charging meh for a lil bit of coconut water!’ He looked at the vendor. ‘Like dese coconuts come from China?’
The vendor smiled and took the picong in good spirit. He gave Ravi five dollars and departed. Trinidad and Tobago’s players had red jerseys and black pants. They were known as the ‘Strike Squad’ and when they walked onto the field the crowd erupted in applause.
The referee’s whistle initiated the battle of the gladiators. The left winger, Leonson Lewis, passed two defenders and made a cross for Russell Latapy but the ball was intercepted by Tab Ramos of the United States. The ball was in the United States half and Paul Caligiuri roughly tackled Dwight Yorke. The referee blew his whistle and awarded a free kick to Trinidad and Tobago. The crowd booed at the player who committed the foul against Dwight. Both Dwight and Russell were closely marked by United States defenders.
‘I feel that we have a chance to qualify for Italy because Hugo Perez not in de game,’ said Surendra. He began biting his fingernails.
Raphael nodded. ‘Yeah dat is true talk. He is a key player. But we have the Little Magician to help we. He real good at spraying passes all over the field. All we need is a draw to qualify but the United States in a must-win situation.’
Clayton Morris blasted a shot at the goal of his opponents. The stadium erupted in cheering and shouting. Tony Meola, the goalkeeper for the United States, dived to his left and deflected the ball away from the goal. Some spectators were on their feet. All eyes were on the ball. A country’s dreams and hopes rested on that one ball.
Ravi, an Indo-Trinidadian, was uninterested with the game. He was busy eating a hot dog and drinking coconut water. After completing the hot dog he carefully unwrapped a hamburger and began to greedily devour it. He would occasionally glance at the game but was more concerned with his food.
During the first half, the fans were eagerly following every move of their favorite players. Surendra was hoping that a goal could be scored by Dexter Francis, Kerry Jameson or Marvin Faustin. Dexter and Leonson were tightly marked by two players from the United States. Raphael believed that Brian Williams, sporting dreadlocks, was a solid defender who would frustrate any goal scoring opportunities of the United States. Kerry sent a long throw from the sideline to Dwight who trapped the ball and ran towards the goal. He received a rough tackle from a defender and fell on the ground. The crowd vocally expressed their disappointment.
Ravi completed the hamburger and strained his neck searching for another food vendor. Near to his feet were four empty Carib cups, cigarette butts and two empty coconut bottles. He looked at the persons standing and seated in the aisles. It was obvious that the stadium was overcrowded. He was worried about his safety but did not inform his friends.
Twenty five minutes had passed. It was a tense game. Both teams were evenly matched. Some persons were checking their wristwatches. Soon it would be half-time. Trinidad and Tobago’s goalkeeper waved and shouted at a defender.
Ravi left his seat and returned with two packs of Broadway cigarettes, a large cup of Coca-Cola and a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He opened the box and licked his lips. He bit into a drumstick that was covered in ketchup and mustard. He stopped chewing and took two gulps of his drink.
A teenager passed near the group of friends. ‘Walls! Flavorite! Walls! Flavorite!’
Ravi’s mouth was filled with food and he quickly raised his arm. His began to wave his hand. He was as eager as a student who knew the answer to a difficult question.
The vendor spotted him and approached the group. ‘What ice-cream yuh want? Walls? Flavorite?’
Ravi swallowed and looked at Surendra and Raphael. ‘Allyuh want anything?’
Raphael and Surendra shook their heads. They were absorbed in the game.
‘Give me a Walls and a vanilla Flavorite.’ Ravi stuck a messy hand in his shirt pocket and gave a ten dollar bill to the boy. ‘Keep the change. Yuh have any Cornetto cones?’
The vendor checked his container. ‘No. Buh it have a woman selling some by de scoreboard.’
‘If yuh bounce her up, tell her to pass dis way na. Good boy.’
‘Ok.’ The vendor continued walking and began his familiar chant. ‘Walls, Flavorite! Walls! Flavorite!’
Ravi began to chew faster. He wanted to complete the meal so he could eat the two ice cream cones which were quickly melting.
Surendra jokingly advised, ‘Aye doh eat like de food running away or is yuh larse meal. Take yuh time, nobody will take yuh food.’
Ravi smiled and continued chewing. He found it was difficult to eat and view the game.
In the thirty-first minute, the United States scored a goal. The sea of jubilant, red supporters suddenly ebbed away. The few supporters of the Americans waved their flags and clapped.
The goal was a mystery. Paul Caligiuri fired a powerful shot at the goal. It was a left-footer about twenty metres from the goal. The airborne ball curled and dipped. The goalkeeper, Michael Maurice looked upwards and was partially blinded by the sun. Also, the Trinidad and Tobago defenders who were near Caligiuri, partly blocked the view of Maurice. The ball struck the back of the net. This meant the hopes of an entire nation were at the back of that net. The net was a hangman’s noose which was now around the neck of a nation.
Raphael stared at the ball bouncing between the goalposts. He felt weak. The ball reminded him of a helpless fish caught in a net. It was a thrashing fish that would never be free, a fish destined for the cooking pot.
An enthusiastic Tab Ramos grabbed the ball from the net and carried it to the half-line. The player was not merely carrying a ball. The United States player was taking away the promise of the Strike Squad and the dreams of a country. Michael Maurice had a disappointed look. History would not be kind to him.
Raphael looked at the diverse crowd. He joined others to complete the Mexican wave which was circling the stadium. He looked at the ball being kicked around.
Men and women of different ethnic groups, cultures, classes and religions were united. One ball and eleven men had united a country. One football game did more than all the politicians in uniting Trinidad and Tobago.
During the interval, Surendra decided to buy corn soup. He was distressed that the score was 1-0. The atmosphere was tense. Surendra could sense the change. The rhythm of the drums had changed. He slowly passed the long line at the KFC outlet and saw Ravi at the counter.
Ravi clutched a slice of pizza and two hamburgers. There was a beer bottle in his back pocket. He shouted at the serving assistant, ‘Look na, do meh favour and give me a big thigh or drumstick. I eh want no wing. Yuh know ah is ah meat mouth.’ He paid the cashier and moved to the side where he began to squirt ketchup and pepper on his fries and chicken. He departed and looked for a vendor selling hotdogs.
Surendra had a plastic container filled with corn soup. Upon returning to his seat, he saw Ravi with fries dangling from the corner of his mouth.
‘Man, yuh could ah buy some corn soup for meh!’ said Ravi. He swallowed. ‘Yuh know it is meh favourite.’
Surendra laughed. ‘Here take this bag of popcorn.’
Ravi eagerly accepted the brown bag. He carefully placed it on his lap. ‘Yuh could ah buy a bigger bag. Dis lil bag go finish soon.’ He spotted a woman with a cooler. ‘Marm wha’ yuh selling dere?’
‘Bake and buljol.’
‘Doh make joke! Bring two for meh.’ He smiled and began to dribble. ‘Yuh know how long I eh eat dat!’ He accepted the food and carefully balanced it on his lap. ‘If yuh see anyone selling shark and bake tell dem to pass here.’
Surendra glanced at the back page of the Trinidad Guardian. The headline of the sports article was ‘90 minutes from Glory.’ It would certainly be the longest ninety minutes in this nation’s history. The newspaper pledged $11,280 to the football team for every goal they scored. Members of the public also pledged money for goals scored by the team.
Both teams returned to the field. The local team briefly found their rhythm but lacked constructive play. The creativity of previous matches was absent in this crucial game. The crowd was anxious. Superblue’s calypso ‘Dribble Dong Dey’ was being played. Today it would be the Road March in the country’s unofficial Carnival. Fans with red and black painted on their faces looked despondent. They seemed like Caribbean versions of minstrels. The whistles and shouts of support continued but lacked lustre when compared to the confident voices in the first half.
The Trinidad and Tobago team could not break the solid defence of the United States. Dwight and Russell could not shake off their markers. Captain Clayton Morris needed to make a tactical change. The introduction of two substitutes- Hutson Charles and Maurice Alibey, offered a glimmer of hope to the fans. Hutson took a corner kick that went over the line and slammed into the side of the net. The net was calling for the ball. The Trinidad and Tobago team desperately needed a playmaker to create opportunities for a goal.
After ninety minutes, nervous faces glanced at their watches and the referee. A few more minutes of extra play had been added to the game. This was extra time due to stoppages during play. The drums begged for a goal. The clapping urged the local players to dominate ball possession. The whistles pleaded for a draw. The back of the net would never be found.
At 5.15 pm the final whistle of the referee signalled the end of the short dream. The referee had become the hangman and released the trapdoor. Thousands were in shock. The equaliser never came from the Trinidad and Tobago team. Fans and players were crying. Some of the players were lying on the football field and either holding their heads or covering their faces. The end of the game meant the beginning of a nightmare- accepting the reality that Trinidad and Tobago was not going to Italy for the World Cup. It was a repeat of 1973 but on a grander scale. The grim dignitaries stared in disbelief. The vendors with their pockets overflowing with money were disappointed. Even the referee and linesmen seemed disappointed. The joyous World Cup fever had become a deadly plague. Only Ravi felt the day was a success.
Surendra looked at the lonely, disobedient ball on the field. Nobody cared about the ball which commanded the attention of tens of thousands of eyes for ninety minutes. Eleven heroes had been judged guilty. Eleven gods had failed their devotees who were in purgatory awaiting salvation. They could not get the one point needed to qualify. Eleven disciples who were worshipped by thousands had now failed miserably to cross the last hurdle in the long journey to Italy. They stumbled on the final step to paradise.
One goal had silenced the drums that were beating since the days of slavery and indentureship. One goal had taken the winds from the national flags. One goal silenced thousands of whistles. It was a day that tiny Trinidad and Tobago stood still. The local players made a burdensome lap of honor around the stadium’s ground. Some of the heartbroken fans clapped and cheered. It was a charade but it was their elegy and consolation prize. Nobody offered sympathy.
Outside the stadium a few football fans were jumping and partying as if Trinidad and Tobago was victorious. Surendra looked at them in disbelief. He felt a sense of pity for these pathetic individuals who were celebrating amidst a grave loss. Only deranged persons would display this euphoria.
The next day was the national hangover. Persons drunk with enthusiasm and disappointment did not want to face the reality. It was a national holiday. A holiday in hell. Raphael dragged himself from the bed and went to the bathroom. He flushed the toilet and washed his face. He unlocked the front door and walked to the nearby parlour. The neighbourhood was still asleep. He purchased a newspaper and headed home.
He saw water near the refrigerator. He opened it and noticed some of the food was defrosting. He did not want to spend money on repairs. Two months ago one of the burners of the stove was not working. Yesterday the burner suddenly began working. He hoped the refrigerator would also repair itself.
The phone rang. He reluctantly answered it and heard crying. It was a woman’s voice. He expected to hear Surendra or Ravi.
‘Raf is Margaret….’
‘Morning.’ He did not feel like speaking to anyone.
‘Is Ravi. He had a heart attack larse night and ah call de ambulance and dey carry he to de Port-of-Spain Hospital.’ She loudly blew her nose.
Raphael was surprised. He momentarily forgot about the defeat in the football game. ‘What ward?’
Margaret paused. ‘Ward 29. It must be de game yesterday. He was too excited.’
‘Okay don’t worry. You geh some rest. Ah going this morning to visit him. Thanks.’
He replaced the phone on the receiver. He cursed and scratched his head. Raphael was in no mood to make a trip to the hospital. He looked at the headlines on the back of the Trinidad Guardian – “What Went Wrong.” He was in no mood to read about the loss he witnessed. He should have stayed at home and view the tragedy on television. Yesterday he witnessed the crucifixion of an entire nation. The day for celebration was a day of mourning and regret. On the night of Sunday 19 November 1989, God was not a Trinidadian.
Jerome Teelucksingh is from Trinidad and Tobago. His work has appeared in The Journal of Caribbean Literature and Poui.