On December 4, 1973, our football team played in a World Cup qualifying match against Haiti. In that year, our region, CONCACAF organised a Final Qualifying Round of six countries, all matches played in one tournament, in Haiti, not a “home and away” system as we have now.
Our team put the ball past the Haitian goalkeeper four times. Haiti scored twice. But we “lost” the match 1-2. The referee and one linesman were banned by FIFA, but the result stood. Haiti went to the World Cup West Germany 1974. Our Steve David scored the most goals in the tournament and Gally Cummings was the outstanding player. Our coach was Englishman Kevin Verity, assisted by local coaches Edgar Vidale and Ken Henry.
On November 19, 1989, in FIFA's very last qualifying match for Italia 1990, our team, the “Strike Squad” played against the USA. A draw was all we needed to secure our place in Italy. After a poor run of qualifying matches for Argentina '78, Spain '82 and Mexico'86, we were once again poised to take our tiny nation to the World Cup! Gally Cummings was now our coach, assisted by Neville Chance and Ken Henry. From the late 1970s, through the 1980s we had invested in youth football, playing in CONCACAF Under 17 and Under 19 tournaments.
On that day, playing at home, needing only a draw, we lost 0-1. Late in the game, what seemed a clear penalty when Philbert Jones was felled in the USA penalty area, was denied by the Argentine referee. This referee was a late substitution for the previously appointed Venezuelan referee. FIFA wanted a “more experienced referee” for this important match. Why was this match more important than any other? FIFA had already awarded the 1994 World Cup to the USA, a non-soccer-playing country by any standard. A loss or a draw for the USA against T&T would have denied them a place in Italia 90, and a “credential” for hosting 1994. I merely state the facts, you are free to draw your own conclusions.
Notwithstanding our continued youth development and our Under 19 team qualifying for FIFA U-20 World Cup 1991 in Portugal, we went into another slump after 1989, with poor results for 1994, 1998 (Jamaica went to France!) and 2002.
On November 16, 2005, the T&T “Soca Warriors” reached a qualifying home-and-away playoff against Bahrain. We had drawn 1-1 with Bahrain in our Hasely Crawford Stadium a few days earlier. Our coach was Dutchman Leo Beenhacker, and our captain was Dwight Yorke. Late in the game, Yorke went out to the left wing to take a corner kick for our Warriors. The kick came in high, just outside the six-yard box. Would it float over everyone out to the sideline? It could! Except for “Tallest”! Dennis “Tallest” Lawrence, tall (naturally!) and slim, our central defender had come forward for the corner, rose even taller, and headed into the Bahrain goal! One- nil and we had qualified for Germany 2006, a journey intended for 1974 but frustrated by a referee. We would be the smallest country ever to qualify and for and play in a FIFA World Cup.
I have mentioned very few names, players, coaches, administrators, who played or have been otherwise involved in the development and disappointments of the 33 years spanning Haiti to Bahrain. Very few played or served on two of these occasions. Only one has had the honour to have served on all three qualifying matches, all three qualifying campaigns, and more.
Oliver “Ollie” Camps was the team manager (administrative, not technical) of our team for West Germany '74. He endured the indignity of the cheating in Haiti and was part of us rising to subsequently beat Mexico 4-0 there. Ollie came back to manage Gally Cummings' “Strike Squad” in 1988, beating Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala before that loss to the USA in 1989.
Ollie's management of our football teams provided the foundation for him to serve as TTFA president, a position to which he was elected around 1994. As president, he took us to Bahrain and then to Germany, for our first, and only World Cup appearance! Under his presidency several local footballers earned professional contracts in North America, Europe, and Asia. Under his presidency our little country successfully hosted the 2001 Under 17 World Cup Finals for men and the 2010 Under 17 World Cup Finals for women. He retired in 2012.
Oliver Camps passed away on New Year's Day. He leaves a legacy unmatched in local football administration. And sadly for us, that legacy is set to remain unmatched. Might we ever have another close encounter, far less a day of qualification? But that is another story, maybe for another time.
Rest in Peace, Red Ollie!