Trinidad & Tobago (pictured) trains at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City, Panama, on January 7, 2016, in advance of its Copa America Centenario play-in match against Haiti. (Photo: Mexsport)
PANAMA CITY, Panama – It is hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since Trinidad & Tobago played in a match as important as its imminent one against Haiti.
On November 16, 2005, the Soca Warriors posted a 1-0 win over host Bahrain, to capture their Asian Football Confederation-CONCACAF Intercontinental Playoff, 2-1 on aggregate. That triumph earned them a place in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the nation’s greatest-ever footballing accomplishment.
T&T and the Haitians will battle for one of CONCACAF’s last two berths in the 2016 Copa America Centenario on Friday, when they meet at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
“Definitely,” responded Trinidad head coach Stephen Hart, when asked if Friday’s encounter is the nation’s most important since that fateful evening in Bahrain. “This is the oldest tournament in the world, you cannot put a price on it. What it means to the people of Trinidad & Tobago and to the country to be part of such a prestigious tournament would mean a lot to us and to the football…and to a country that definitely needs to smile a little bit.”
After a very respectable 2006 World Cup appearance that produced a scoreless draw with Sweden and a pair 2-0 losses to England and Paraguay, many observers thought that Trinidadian football would continue on an upward trajectory.
Only three runner-up finishes in Caribbean Cup tournaments (2007, 2012, 2014) have followed since then, but Hart is hoping that all changes soon.
“For us, it is extremely important that we do our best to qualify for the Copa because it will aid and assist us in our progress towards World Cup qualification,” the 55-year-old commented. “I don’t think we can pay or put a price on the experience we would get on playing in such a prestigious tournament (Copa America Centenario), so we’ll do our best to be a part of it.”
Haiti, however, stands in the way of that objective. Les Grenadiers are without standout forward Duckens Nazon, but T&T is also missing its star striker and captain, Kenwyne Jones.
“I think we are similar teams,” noted Hart. “Haiti has a lot of players with experience in Europe and abroad, not all of them are here, but we are in the same category. I think the game will be very close because we know each other so well.”
In their last meeting, Haiti registered a 2-0 win in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Hart wants his side’s 1W-1D-0L start in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup (2-1 away win v Guatemala, 0-0 home draw v USA) to provide a boost.
“The mood is good,” he finished. “Hopefully, yes, it (the unbeaten start to World Cup Qualifying) does translate over to the game tomorrow.”
If that happens, Trinidad & Tobago will celebrate like its 2005 all over again.