T&T, Saintfiet learn quickly on Nicaragua trip
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Trinidad & Tobago (pictured) gathers for a team photo prior to its international friendly against host Nicaragua on December 30, 2016, in Managua. (Photo courtesy of Real Esteli)

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – To term Tom Saintfiet’s introduction to Trinidad & Tobago football as a “whirlwind” is putting it mildly.

In slightly more than three weeks, the 43-year-old Belgian was named the Soca Warriors’ head coach, conducted a training camp, and then guided the squad through two international friendlies against host Nicaragua.

All of this behind the backdrop of a “do-or-die” three-team Caribbean playoff next month for the opportunity to remain in contention for a spot in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

This may seem overwhelming to some, but Saintiet is handling it all in stride.

“I think it’s very important and I am very happy that the Association could organize these matches in a short period of time,” he said Friday after his first win in charge, 3-1, over Nicaragua.  “People sometimes forget that I am only two and half, three weeks in Trinidad and that I saw only a few league matches and I had not a lot of time to select and to find the right players for the coming weeks.”

T&T will host the 2016/17 Scotiabank Caribbean Cup fifth-place playoff from January 4-8, 2017, at Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva.  Haiti and Suriname are the other participants.  Only one of the trio will face the fifth-place finisher from the Copa Centroamericana, which will also be contested next month, for the last berth in the 14th edition of the Gold Cup.

Saintfiet’s learning curve was steep and fast.  There was no time to waste, however, especially considering that the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup resumes in March.

 “This two-week training camp plus these two friendly matches helped me a lot to know which players are ready, which system is best and how we can be prepared for Suriname and Haiti,” commented the former Togo manager.  “I am a very happy coach that we use these days between Christmas and New Years to prepare our team because we have made a lot of steps forward.”

Although it wasn’t smooth sailing in Nicaragua, the two-match series was instructional.  The host won Tuesday’s opener thanks in large part to a wonder goal off the left foot of Daniel Cadena.  The 29-year-old forward also netted the first in Friday’s encounter, but the Caribbean power responded splendidly on strikes by Cornell Glen, Carlyle Mitchell and Aikim Andrews.

“As a coach you want to win every match and I was very disappointed after the first match that we lost 2-1,” Saintfiet finished.  “I felt the players deserve more for the effort. So it was very important I think in my mind and in the players mind to get a good result before we travel back.

“It was the last game of 2016 and if we could win this match we would be in a stronger psychological mood to start the competition against Suriname and Haiti.  And it think it was a very clear good performance not only tactically but also physically and mentally where we proved today that we could win this match and the result will help us naturally in the near future.  Sure today some players showed that they deserved to be on the national team.  I think some were a little bit out of selection for a long period and they wanted to prove something and I hope in the coming weeks they can continue that.”

As do all supporters of the Soca Warriors.