With emotion swirling around the Intercol finals at the Ato Boldon stadium in Couva on Tuesday, it was perhaps fitting that the abiding memory will be the beaming smile of Alexcia Ali after scoring the hat-trick that secured the girls trophy for Pleasantville. At the final whistle, Ali was flattened by a teammate jumping on her in delirious celebration. Pulled to her feet by captain Jasandra “Mama” Joseph, it was clear that nothing will wipe that smile off her face for weeks.
Elsewhere, there were tears. Signal Hill had flown over from Tobago determined to honour the memory of their former teammate Abiela Adams, murdered last year aged just 15. They gave their all, but the difference between the two sides was the brilliance, quick-thinking and goal-poaching of Ali. In his post-match interview, Pleasantville coach Joel Maloney broke down as he dedicated the win to his father who died last week.
Later, in another thrilling penalty shoot-out, Naparima Boys secured the double over a disconsolate San Juan North, who went ahead on spot-kicks after the boys final ended goalless, only to lose agonisingly in sudden death.
The dramatic scenes were broadcast live on Sportsmax throughout the region, as the deal to televise TT’s Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) rounded off its fourth season. That deal, the brainchild of former SSFL president Anthony Creed, has provided a platform and the players have risen to the challenge sensationally.
With corporate sponsorship, high standards of refereeing, nice grounds and vast improvements in coaching, the live broadcasts have given young players a glimpse of what professional football might be like. But what happens next for these players needs to be urgently addressed. There are footballers in TT’s school leagues good enough to be playing at European clubs. But without creating opportunities for their development the likelihood of achieving those dreams is low.
Ali told me her ambition was to win a sport scholarship to a university abroad. It’s a wise plan to remain in academia, but if a contract at Arsenal or Chelsea came up it would be too good to pass up.
“That door hasn’t really been opened,” says Wired 868’s Lasana Liburd. “[It needs] someone to break the seal.
“Dwight Yorke played his first game for Trinidad when he was ten. He said he scored and the scoreboard lit up and he just wanted to keep scoring goals.”
Yorke had played 40 games for his country before signing for Aston Villa at 17.
“There are players who are just as talented, but at 16 they’re now playing their first games. Sometimes they train for a year and don’t play a single international. These guys are criminally underdeveloped.”
I contacted Arsenal FC to clarify what options are available at Premier League clubs. Their spokesperson told me non-EU players must play many times for their senior national team to get a UK work permit.
This stresses even further the importance of fast-track development for young players.
Currently, Liburd says, there is no under-12’s national set-up. In Europe, players start aged six. This year the under-15 girls missed a tournament because of a visa screw-up. And without funding, poorer parents struggle to send their children to training.
Alexcia Ali confirmed as much when I asked if she plays for the national side.
“I used to when I was younger, but due to how far training is I couldn’t make it.”
Imagine a country’s hottest young talent dropping out of the national team because we can’t provide the money to get her from Penal to Couva.
According to Liburd, a similar fate befell Quinn Rodney, an electrifying winger for Shiva Boys.
We build new stadiums but neglect the footballers who play in them.
Rodney and his teammates Judah Garcia and Tyrel “Pappy” Emmanuel ought to be playing at Borussia Dortmund, yet this year they didn’t even play in the SSFL top flight because Shiva were relegated for administrative failings.
Aaliyah Prince, the driving force of TT’s Under-17s futsal side at the 2018 Youth Olympics, ought to be playing in the Women’s Premier League in England. The Morvant teen left school and plays for TT’s senior national team but currently has no regular club side.
We can’t let these talents go to waste when we can plainly see the immense sporting gifts that exist.
Early in the Intercol final, a delicious backheel from Ali nearly supplied an assist. In the second-half, she got on the end of a cross, chested it past the keeper and lashed home from six yards. Her second was a delightful lob from the edge of the area. The third was hit with such force that the keeper’s attempted save merely slowed its progress over the line.
Women in TT do not have a Pro-League option and the Pro-League men have seen average salaries halved to as low as $3,000 a month.
Creed has done his bit to kickstart the game, insisting on coaches acquiring UEFA licences, but he wants to go further and have three licensed coaches in every school.
I asked him if the Soca Warriors feat of 2006 could ever be repeated.
“Not until sport is on the national agenda will we qualify for another World Cup,” he responded, laying out the seriousness of the task ahead.
SSFL All Stars North XI v South XI matches take place today at Mannie Ramjohn Stadium, 1.30 pm Girls, 3 pm Boys.