THREE times in the past three decades, mid-November has marked a significant moment in the history of Trinidad and Tobago football.
On November 19, 1989, tears flowed at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain as the Strike Squad missed out on qualification for the 1990 Italy World Cup after losing to the US 1-0. The Strike Squad needed at least a draw.
Sixteen years later, on November 16, 2005, there were tears again, but on this occasion tears of joy, after a header from Dennis Lawrence gave the Soca Warriors a 1-0 win over Bahrain which clinched a spot for this country at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It’s still the only time TT have qualified for the World Cup.
Fast-forward 14 years to November 18, 2019, and the Home of Football in Couva was opened in what could be described as a lavish opening.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, the Prime Minister, Concacaf president Victor Montagliani and then president of the TT Football Association (TTFA) David John-Williams were all there.
The facility which was the first of its kind in TT. The Home of Football, funded through FIFA’s Forward Programme, includes a 72-room hotel aimed to allow the TTFA to become self-sustainable. It is also intended to develop the next generation of TT’s footballers as it is equipped with multiple training fields.
FIFA pumped US$2.5 million into it, but it was a collaborative effort with the Government, Concacaf and the TTFA. The Government provided the land.
In the months before it opened the Home of Football was buzzing with site visits.
In January 2019, a team of UEFA officials visited to help guide the operations. The facility was opened just six days before the TTFA’s annual general meeting on November 24, 2019.
Despite the elaborate opening, John-Williams lost the elections to William Wallace.
Four months later, in March 2020, FIFA removed the TTFA and appointed a normalisation committee, led by businessman Robert Hadad, to run local football. The world governing body cited reasons why it took the decision to disband the local football association, naming a huge debt as one reason. Was the opening of the Home of Football a political move before the TTFA elections? When it opened, was FIFA already planning to disband the TTFA?
A wasted asset?
Since it opened, the Home of Football has been underutilised, for a number of reasons. A week after the opening, new TTFA president Wallace shut it down because approvals were still pending and the property had no insurance.
“We found out some of the approvals are not in place, for example, fire approvals. You can’t have people in a building without fire approval,” Wallace told Newsday in November 2019. Wallace was contacted for a comment but he declined. The building is now fit to use. Though deemed unfit at the time, it was able successfully to host the Caribbean Football Union Girls Under-14 Challenge series at the end of October 2019, just weeks before the official opening. Approximately 150 girls stayed there for the tournament.
Two weeks later, the Anguilla men’s senior football team stayed there for a match against the Soca Warriors on November 10.
When the normalisation committee took over in March 2020, the covid19 pandemic started to affect TT, bringing sport to a halt. The Home of Football was used during the pandemic, but not for footballers to battle on the field. It was used as a step-down facility for recovering patients. Hadad was happy that local football could do its part to battle the virus.
The original vision
The ribbon was cut on November 18, 2019 to open the Home of Football, but planning for a similar facility kicked off in 2015.
Brent Sancho, former minister of sport and youth affairs under the PP government, said former president of the TTFA Raymond Tim Kee approached him with the idea.
“A lot of people would not know that this idea and concept was under (the) deceased Raymond Tim Kee.”
Sancho said discussions were held and building the facility in Marabella was the target.
Shortly after preliminary talks were held the PNM won the general election in September 2015 and Sancho was no longer Minister of Sport.
In November, 2015 John-Williams replaced Tim Kee and a new vision was established.
“From where that (facility) was from inception and the idea for it to where it ended up being, I think that is where the travesty is in it. I don’t want to just look at it as the two-year anniversary of a deplorable building. I think we have to understand the entire context of what it is and where it came from,” Sancho said.
During the project, TTFA board members called on John-Williams and the TTFA executive to be open and transparent about the details of the project, including contracts.
“I think at the end of the day, for the TT Football Association to own something is extremely important and it goes well within FIFA’s aim, it goes well within football’s aim,” Sancho said.
Home of Football for sale?
Now the FIFA-appointed normalisation committee is considering selling the Home of Football to help reduce a huge debt of $98.5 million, which has increased over past administrations. It has an estimated value of $42.5 million.
Sancho does not think the Home of Football can be sold without dialogue with the TTFA membership.
“First of all, it is a very unfortunate statement (that they are thinking of selling it) and a surprising one as well. I am not an accountant and certainly not a legal expert, but I do know that within our constitution, these things have to pass by the membership, and from where I sit, as being a member, of course you would not want that to happen.”
Sancho, a member of TT’s 2006 World Cup team, said the problems in TT football are everyone’s problems.
“However, let me be very clear that at the end of the day the problems in football have been caused by football. There is no one in football should look at it and think it’s ‘their’ problem, or a ‘he’ problem or a ‘she’ problem.”
Sancho said the debt was caused by “horrific decisions” spanning several years.
The Home of Football is a crucial pillar in developing football in TT, he said.
“I do hope that the selling of the Home of Football is not an option, and other means and ways can be found to solve this problem (of debt).”
‘Most significant vision in TT football’
TTFA member Selby Browne is an advocate for the Home of Football.
“It’s the most significant vision and investment in the history of TT football,” Browne said.
Browne said in the 110-year history of the TTFA there has been no such asset or facility. He praised John-Williams for pursuing the venture of developing the facility.
Reflecting on what John-Williams had to endure, Browne said he was “severely criticised” over the project. But Browne said John-Williams aimed to create revenue for the TTFA, which was struggling financially.
“Before coming into office in November 2015 the total assets of the TTFA was approximately $180,000. At the AGM in November, 2019 the assets were estimated at $100 million.”
Browne recalled the opening of the Home of Football, which John-Williams worked to get off the ground.
“Two years ago that facility was opened by no less a person than the Prime Minister of TT, the president of FIFA and the president of the Concacaf. It demonstrated to all the membership that the full support of these three gentlemen was in place for the well-being and further development of the TTFA.”
Couva has become a hub for sport in TT, as multiple venues, many of international standard, have been built in the community. The National Cycling Velodrome, the National Aquatic Centre, the National Cricket Centre and the Home of Football, which includes the Ato Boldon Stadium, are all in walking distance.
Browne said all national athletes could stay at the Home of Football and train at any of the nearby facilities.
Revenue can also be earned through Carnival events.
“If people don’t understand the value of that property I wish them well…that is the sporting campus of TT. All national teams could come there and train.”
Asked how he feels that the Home of Football may be sold, Browne said, “If there is any decision to sell the Home of Football there are those of us among the membership of the TTFA who would purchase that property.”
When Newsday contacted John-Williams, he chose not to comment on the record.
In multiple interviews over the years, John-Williams has repeatedly spoken about ensuring the TTFA has assets.
In an interview on TV6 back in 2018, John-Williams said the TTFA has to “create a business model that is going to allow TT football to be self-sustainable.”
Newsday was not successful in contacting Dr Rowley or Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh for a comment. The health minister was contacted because the Home of Football was used in the battle against covid19 – one of the few times the facility was used. Deyalsingh was asked in a WhatsApp message what he thought of its quality .
On Monday, Newsday sent questions to FIFA about the Home of Football’s lack of use over the past two years. However, up to press time, FIFA had not responded to any of Newsday’s questions. The following are the questions sent to FIFA:
“As a contributor how does it feel to see the facility underutilised during the past two years? (I am aware the covid19 pandemic has greatly affected TT since March 2020).
“The normalisation committee (now in charge of TT football) is considering selling the Home of Football to help reduce the TT Football Association (TTFA) debt. Are you concerned that all the money FIFA invested will go to waste?”
Newsday also asked, “Do you hope that the TTFA will be able to use the facility in the future to become self-sufficient? How important is it for footballing nations to become self-sufficient and not depend on FIFA?”