The sweat of clarity – Football in Trinidad & Tobago

Football in Trinidad and Tobago has a long history of popular following in the country. Only Guyana and Haiti have older established football federations than the TTFF, established in 1910. With the decline of the West Indies cricket team, it would be possible to claim that football has surpassed cricket in popularity for the younger generation even after the advent of T20 cricket.

Cricket practice at the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve training establishment at Staubles Bay, September 1944.

In the North and East of Trinidad, as well as Tobago, football as the preferred sport has been long entrenched. However, no region or any other division possible amongst the population of the islands has kind of relevance at the grassroots level.

The game is widely followed and played with a level of organization and regularity that is rarely present in many other sectors of life in the country.

There has been a regular informal Sunday evening pickup football game (every informal football game in Trinidad and Tobago, is referred to as a “sweat”) in the village where my grandparents live since my father was a young child. Despite vast changes, from independence to mass migration to spiralling crime levels, this Sunday game continues to exist despite an ever-evolving roster of participants. Without formal organization, it simply requires everyone to get their gear and go to the field. It continues as it has been doing and will likely continue until there is no one left in the village to play, which may be soon enough as rural villages in Trinidad have an increasingly elderly population.

This may not seem a particularly remarkable occurrence. Across the world there should be hundreds or thousands of games that occur on weekends with minimal organization. But in Trinidad, reliability is not the norm. Spontaneous organization resulting in long term reliability is almost unheard of. Frequently, it is the opposite in that broken plans are instead common. Traffic can turn an expected twenty-minute drive into a two hour one. Flooding and landslides are common in some areas and criminality can lead to areas being off limit lest one wishes to drive to a location but be forced to walk back home due to widespread stealing of cars for sales of their spare parts. On a larger scale the country remains at the mercy of falling oil prices, both in terms of the effect on its economy and the resultant effect of the economy of Venezuela, its closest neighbour and main source of refugees of whom the country is ill-equipped to process or integrate. 

I played football regularly in university. I had played before, both formally and informally, in high school and had always been terrible. Usually I was one of the worst players on the field. I had liked football. I still like football. But before university it was always just something to do. It was never something I gave much thought to in terms of how it made me feel. It was sport and at this time in my life sport existed only as action and not as a subject of reflection. If I gave any thought to football at all it would have been to consider the sport that was being played on television at the highest level. But games I played in myself I did not consider worthy of any kind of contemplation. 

In university, for me like for many others, quite a lot of things changed very rapidly. I went from being a good student to someone who could barely pass a class. My lectures in engineering would have been equally incomprehensible had they been delivered in Latin or via Morse code. By my second year it had started to seem like the only reason I was going to university was to play football. I had nothing approaching the ability required to play for the university team so instead I played every form available to me. From futsal and concrete football on pitches bookended by basketball hoops to pickup games played in the grass between faculty buildings. I also joined the university’s free-registration open league where it was the first time many of my team-mates had played on a full-sized field before and it showed (we lost 14-0 once). 

The quality of my play did not improve, though my fitness will likely never touch the heights of this period again. The games varied in importance, but none were ever very important, and it is unlikely anyone who played remembers much of what happened. But though the results were not important, playing football was crucial to me. Football was, and remains, the only place where it is possible to be outside of my own mind for an extended period of time. Thinking about tracking the run of an attacking player, getting in position to play a first-time pass or looking for gaps in the defence that need covering leaves no time or mental energy for other considerations. An informal game usually lasted around two hours with frequent individual pauses for water but never with the whole team going off at the same time. The game was continuous and though one did not run the entire time it was impossible to switch off. On the field I did not think about the group projects that needed to be done or the uncertainty of ever completing my degree.

Finishing university was by some measure the most difficult thing I have ever done. Any task I’ve been faced with since then, I’ve been able to relegate it to not being worthy of worry with the thought that it cannot be more difficult than being a bad mathematics student (I had naively thought myself to be a good student) in a mechanical engineering course. After finishing university, I had little expectations other than starting to work and try to get some return on my school years.

I had no idea how to begin. I was an engineer, nominally. I had a degree that said so. But I had no idea how to get a job as an engineer. I applied widely but got no responses and anyway I was terrified of the idea of actually working in this field. Meanwhile, the global recession meant that jobs were scarce and relied heavily on networking. Free tertiary education means qualified people are not hard to find in Trinidad and Tobago. The supply of engineers was much greater than the demand, even in a country whose economy was dominated by the oil and gas sector and with a small population of around 1.3 million.  I spent almost a year with nothing at all to do but wait to play football in the evenings. 

We played three times every week on a field inside a hospital. I would find even more games to occupy myself with. On Sundays, during the scorching afternoon sun, I found myself in Central Trinidad at the high school many of my friends had attended. On other days I would go back to university or go to the beach to volunteer myself for whatever game I could find being played at that moment. Meanwhile, the economy got worse and many people I knew migrated. When I finally got my first job there was nothing to do and it mostly involved waiting at the office to go home. The crime situation got worse and the government imposed a curfew. We started playing football in the daylight hours, straight after work. I would come home minutes before the curfew began, argue with my worried mother and soak my muddy clothes in the outdoor sink in readiness to do the same thing again the next day or the day after. 

I remember little from this period except being worried all the time. It seemed everyone was worried. I worried about the state of the country and my career. Worried about getting old and doing the same job for my whole life. A job that I didn’t enjoy. These were common sources of disquiet for people in their early twenties. It was not something I knew then. Then, I only knew I started getting migraines for the first time in my life. That I felt so tense I would vomit even before I had eaten. And that the more time I spent on the field, the less I would spend feeling stressed.

Central F.C. of Trinidad and Tobago starting line-up vs. Defense Force F.C. in a TT Pro League Match, Nov 9 2012

 It has been hypothesized before, by Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov, that people learn much about themselves in the struggle of a football match. Of course, these two are talking more about the unique position of the goalkeeper which offers more time for reflection and is the only position to allow unbroken stretches of thought on off-field matters., On the field I may have learnt something about myself but I would never know what it was without reflecting upon it later. That I was selfish in attack but selfless in defence or that my vision for passes exceeded by execution of them were things I realized after the game. Once on the field, I only played. 

I went to the field not to learn nor to forget but only to try to have a short period of time where there was minimal connection to what had gone before or would come after. Everything was about the moment I was in. Martin Amis has said the pressure at any moment in football is higher than any sport because one goal is often the margin of winning. It might be this, coupled with the largely uninterrupted play and the need for frequent communication and positional awareness (especially in defence), that makes football so unique. 

In football, even the best players touch the ball for a fraction of the entirety of their time on the field. Yet, one is so attuned to the game that when playing, the relevance of what action is being taken is processed after the moment. The perfect through ball to the striker whose run is only glimpsed from the corner of the eye is likely vaguely considered as an action but the detail of how hard to hit the ball, whether in the air and with backspin, is all intuitive. This combination of needing to stay in every moment as these moments are continuously equally relevant excluding the possibility of switching off makes football easily suited to be a mental refuge. This is not why football exists and it’s not why we play. But as far as side effects go, it’s not a bad one to have. 

 I didn’t know this is what I was doing. I only knew that I wanted to play football and I wanted to play football all the time. It’s still not clear if I made a subconscious decision to avoid thinking by playing football. I would like to think so, but things are rarely as straightforward as this. After a considerable gap in time, I can certainly say these pauses were necessary and likely critical in managing my mental state at the time. Football was there as a marker of normalcy and reliability when both my life and the state of the country had a significant measure of turbulence. It has become almost cliché to say football is a type of salvation, so I will avoid this. But football certainly was quiet. A necessary silence, through the shouts on the field and the sounds of footfalls on mud and concrete punctuated by the bounce of the ball. The silence of a mind focused on one thing at a time, without noise. 

***

At this point with much of the world under quarantine or associated social restrictions due to Covid19, the refuge of football is no longer available. With the associated uncertainty about the future, once again linked to the volatility of the financial markets, and the isolation and solitude of the early months of 2020, it is a period where many are extremely anxious. For the first time in recent history, there is no sport being played at the highest level, and it is this fact as much as any medical report, that really brought the immediate relevance and understanding of the uniquely critical moment that is underway (at least for myself).

Spring of this year has not yet brought a return to the parks and concrete pitches of the city I live in. Digital discussions of nostalgia about football heroes and memories flourish but they do not serve to create the craved mental silence. At this time where unease abounds  and the default mental state is one of worry, the possibility to play does not seem like a luxury or a pastime, as it has seemed in the past few years but once again a necessity as it had been after graduation. While much of life seems as though it is on pause, a return to normalcy cannot be complete until a return to the pitch is possible.

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Shastri Sookdeo

S.R. Sookdeo was born in Toronto and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. He is often found discussing the impact of football on identity.