This time, the United States needs only a tie in its final World Cup qualifying match in Trinidad.
This time, home-standing Trinidad & Tobago (with only one win in nine qualifying matches) isn’t nearly the threat it was in 1989, when a T&T victory or tie would have sent the Trinboganians to the 1990 Italy-based World Cup instead of the Yanks.
This time, the atmosphere can’t possibly match the frenzy in Port of Spain 28 years ago, when all residents of the dual-island Caribbean nation appeared to be dressed in red; when the week leading up to the game was a wild party of Calypso and reggae music in the streets—“jump-ups,” they were called; when the passionate locals giddily chanted, “We goin’!” and “Bum dem!” (“Burn them” visitors.)
It might have been intimidating to our small group of American reporters if it hadn’t been so downright entertaining and spirited. And good-natured. Amid the cries of “Search and destroy!” smiling T&T natives greeted us—we were easy to spot—with wishes of good luck or teased us with calls of “Yankee Doodle went to town.” Followed by, “Where is your red?”
Red, the national color, was on sale everywhere. Caps, shirts, underwear, scarfs. Schoolchildren had replaced their standard uniforms (some red, but many of other hues) with all red. Songs from Trinidadian Calypso singer Blue Boy’s latest album, all related to the World Cup effort, were booming throughout the capital city: “Journey” and “Football Dance” and “Goal!” and “Trinidad Boys, Tobago Boys” and “Road to Italy,” with the lyric, “When the Yankees come to the stadium/We’re going to beat them like bongos.”
T&T’s team was called “Strike Squad” and prided itself on “Kaisoca”—Calypso soccer—a flowing, fast-paced, dynamic style that seemed superior to the mechanical, defensive methods of a U.S. squad severely limited in international experience.
That was seven years before the first legitimate U.S. professional league, MLS, debuted. The Yanks had not been to the World Cup in 40 years, and their mostly bland play through the ’89 qualifying process had their federation officials worried that the commitment to place the 1994 World Cup in the United States could be rescinded if the team failed to earn a berth in Italy.
So our little knot of U.S. scribblers was mostly of the belief that the Trinboganians, who clearly cared more about international soccer than the typical American, would have their wishes fulfilled. They chanted, “T&T, we want a goal. On the roooooad, on the rooooad, on the rooooad…..to It-a-ly.” During pre-game festivities, one T&T fan marched around the stadium with a sign, “Even Bush”—George H.W. Bush still was in the White House then—“supports T&T.”
We stayed at the famous “upside-down hotel,” built into the side of a steep hill, with the lobby entered from the top of the hill and the elevators going down. The 10th floor is at the bottom. Everything was just disorienting enough to be memorable.
The game was played on a Sunday afternoon. That morning, we U.S. reporters—there couldn’t have been more than six or seven of us—were invited to have breakfast at the hilltop mansion of then-U.S. ambassador Charles Gargano. He politely welcomed the representatives of such big-time publications as the New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. But it was me, from little old Newsday on Long Island, who got the long-lost friendship treatment. Because Gargano had made his fortune in construction on Long Island, and his son recently had built a site in my village of Babylon.
(A few years later, Gargano was in some hot water for iffy campaign contributions, but I can assure everyone that I never saw the man again).
Anyway, from Gargano’s perch above the city, we could look down on the National Stadium, already overflowing with more than 30,000 red-clad spectators more than five hours before kickoff. Among my fellow journalists then was the Times’ esteemed George Vecsey, who noted in his 2014 book, “Eight World Cups,” that then-T&T soccer federation honcho Jack Warner had had 45,000 tickets printed, creating a dangerous overcrowding situation.
Somehow, everything turned out all right, in spite of the Trinboganians’ crushing disappointment when the U.S. conjured an unlikely 1-0 victory. The Yanks’ decisive goal, a looping 30-yard left-footer by Paul Caligiuri in the 30th minute, arguably is one of the two most historic shots in American soccer history. (Joe Gaetjens’ 1950 World Cup goal that shocked England is the other.)
The exact time of the score could be questioned. Because there was no scoreboard clock, my wristwatch served as “official” timer for our handful of scribes. More remarkable than the U.S. victory—and the Yanks’ sudden efficiency after months of bumbling around—was the grand reaction of the T&T crowd.
It sent the American players off the field to warm applause (and more Calypso music). It called the weeping T&T players back for a final lap around the stadium with chants of “We want Strike Squad.” Following a chaotic round of interviews in the sweaty, cramped, celebratory U.S. lockerroom, several of us reporters walked back to our hotel just after sundown and were repeatedly called to by locals along the way.
“Hey, Yankee.” Uhhhh, yes? “Congratulations!”
This time, I won’t be there. But it couldn’t match 1989, anyway.