Shaka Hislop: Carnvival time - and the Trinnies are up for the party

Even Brian Lara has to take a back seat to World Cup fever. Nick Townsend talks to an old hand happy to be swept along
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The Independent Online

For one fervent day of national celebration last month, even the Prince of Port of Spain had to relinquish his throne briefly. Brian Lara, who seven months previously had brought the Queen's Park Oval to a feverish crescendo with his 27th Test century, before being bowled with his score on 196 by South Africa's Andre Nel, had to step down and salute his footballing cousins.

Reportedly "cheated" out of qualification in 1973, when no fewer than five seemingly good "goals" were disallowed by the El Salvador referee Jose Enrique in a crucial qualifier against Haiti - provoking inevitable talk of voodoo - and squandering another opportunity in 1989, when they were defeated 1-0 at home by the United States in another decider, the Soca Warriors finally secured their seat at the top table of world football's most prestigious bash. The southernmost of the Caribbean islands, Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of just over a million, form the smallest country to have achieved this distinction. It does not require much imagination to assume that the side coached by the Dutchman Leo Beenhakker will become many people's second-favourite team, especially in England, group opponents, where several players are based, including West Ham's goalkeeper Shaka Hislop.

"I'd like to think that's the case," says the veteran custodian, grinning broadly, when we meet at the Hammers' training ground. "That failure to qualify has been haunting us for too long. We've exorcised a few ghosts. Now it's going to be a celebration of our football. We'll bring something new. I don't mean just football-wise; we Trinnies will bring our culture to Germany and maybe make it that much more colourful."

It certainly will be on 15 June in Nuremberg when they play England in their second match in Group B. "I am buzzing," Hislop said after Friday's draw. "It was the one we really wanted because there are so many players over here."

It was a 1-0 victory in Bahrain, following a 1-1 home draw in the first leg of the play-off, that secured the reward which was seized upon as a moment for rejoicing. A public holiday was immediately declared by the prime minister, Patrick Manning. "The game itself was something else," Hislop recalls. "After Dennis Lawrence scored early in the second half the game started to get out of hand. The referee was being pushed and intimidated, and there were some very nasty tackles flying in. The fans started to tear the stadium to bits. They threw everything they could at the players and at our travelling fans.

"It became a very intimidating atmosphere. Fortunately, though, everybody got out relatively unscathed. And then we celebrated accordingly." He adds: "There was champagne popping, of course, although some of us had to be a little bit sensible because we were coming back here to play. The boys who went back to Trinidad made the most of it, including on the 14-hour flight back home, and when they arrived, people were lining the streets from the airport to the centre of the town. It's about 13 miles, and it took them around eight hours to get there. From what I understand, it really was breathtaking. I'm desperately sorry I missed it, but I had to come back. We had to play at Spurs on the Sunday."

Always the professional. His club manager, Alan Pardew, had actually given his blessing for Hislop to be part of the festivities. Instead, the West Ham No 2 goalkeeper flew back to his adopted home, and participated in a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane. Since then, he has reverted to understudying Roy Carroll. Yet, just as he is determined to wrest a regular first- choice place at his club, the 36-year-old is equally intent on recapturing the T & T goalkeeper's jersey from Dundee's Kelvin Jack.

"Kelvin came in over the summer when I was out injured, and he has firmly established himself. I have no arguments about that," Hislop insists. "It's been next to impossible for Beenhakker to leave him out. But that said, it's a dream come true for all of us and I'd love to play. And I've told Kelvin that. As much as I accept being No 2 for the time being, I'm going to continue to push him - and if I can, shift him. It wouldn't be fair to him or the team if I didn't."

Born in Hackney in London's East End but raised in Trinidad, the ever-genial Hislop arrived back in England via a football scholarship at university in the US, where he studied for a degree in mechanical engineering, and established his goalkeeping credentials as a cult figure in Reading's rearguard. He moved to Newcastle, West Ham and Portsmouth before returning to Upton Park in the summer, and was also eligible for England, playing for the Under-21s in a friendly against Sweden as an over-age player.

"I was subsequently named in a senior England squad. But I made a decision then that I wanted to play for Trinidad," explains Hislop, whose thoughts are already attuned to a return to his homeland to help develop the game when he retires. "It was the right thing to do, although, from a professional standpoint, it was an absolutely ridiculous decision. But in my heart, it was the only one I could make."

He recognises that England's World Cup philosophy contrasts greatly to T & T's approach. While Sven Goran Eriksson is grateful that his team's seeding has kept the principal rivals at bay, Beenhakker's men relish the prospect of being grouped with football's big beasts. Not that they are prepared to bare their throats like defenceless gazelle.

"I remember when we failed to qualify in 1989 for Italia 90," says Hislop. "It hurt badly. It was a huge blow to everyone, our football, and the country. Now we've finally qualified, it's about enjoying the experience and putting the region's football on the map. Though I'm not going to put any money on us winning, I do feel confident that we will surprise a few people."

He adds: "We've progressed immensely over the past few months under Leo Beenhakker. We feel now that we can be a test for anyone. Before he came, we had one point from three games. T & T has always produced quite exciting flair performers, but we have lacked discipline. He's improved that and has us very well organised."

Certainly, the Soca Warriors will lack for nothing in experience. The playmaker and captain Russell Latapy, formerly at Porto with Sir Bobby Robson, is a veteran of that pre-1990 campaign; so too the former Manchester United man Dwight Yorke. But will that advantage be negated by those players' weary legs?

"Yes, it is an ageing team," accepts Hislop. "But we feel that we have enough young legs round the older players to do their running. Dwight won't mind me saying that he's lost a yard of pace over the years. But both he and Russell still have that quality, they still have that vision. Their touch is still as good as it's always been. Russell brings so much quality to our play, and other players who are maybe not so technically gifted respond to him."

Hislop adds: "We do have some good young players coming through, though. I'm thinking of Densill Theobald and Anthony Wolfe. Then we've seen the emergence of Aurtis Whitley, who's a little bit older. He really shone in our last three games. He has illustrated what Beenhakker has done to this team. He was very talented, but needed to inject that responsibility, that discipline, into his game. He's now looking a much better player. Our players know it's not all about showboating and dribbling and being stars of highlight films. It's about being sensible and expressing themselves at the right times."

The sense of anticipation back home, you suggest, will border on the frenzied. How will Trinidadians respond if their nation bows out ignominiously? "It's true there's a sense of expectancy in the Trinidad crowd, particularly when you're playing teams that they expect us to beat. A lot of times it's maybe a little bit unrealistic," says Hislop. "But I think that, back home, they know that everything we get out of this World Cup campaign will be a real bonus. "

He adds: "As much as it's about competitive football matches, it's about a sharing of cultures, getting to know each other and each others' games a little more intimately. For a lot of teams it's just getting on the stage itself."

After too many auditions, Hislop and his fellow Soca Warriors have won their prized part at last. We should prepare ourselves to enjoy the show.

Life & Times: From Hackney to Dortmund

NAME: Neil Shaka Hislop.

BORN: 22 February 1969, London.

POSITION: Goalkeeper.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 6in, 12st 2lb.

CLUB CAREER: Howard University (US) 1991-92; Reading 1992-95, 126 matches, Division One play-off final runners-up 1995; Newcastle (signed for £1.6m) 1995-98, 73 matches, Premier-ship runners-up 1996, '97, FA Cup runners-up 1998; West Ham (free transfer) 1998-2002, 132 matches, Intertoto Cup winners 1999; Portsmouth (free) 2002-05, 100 matches, Division One champions 2003; West Ham (free) July 2005-present, 6 matches.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: 1 cap for England Under-21s; 7 caps for Trinidad & Tobago since 1998.