Around the corner they came, pedalling gently like vicars or spinsters from an Ealing comedy rather than a group of international sportsmen who take on England tomorrow. As befits a team coached by a Dutchman, Leo Beenhakker, Trinidad & Tobago made the journey from hotel to training ground yesterday on a fleet of bicycles.
They were accompanied by two German cycle police officers, each in an all-in-one Lycra outfit complete with holster and gun. On Monday Beenhakker, 63, had joined his players in the ride. Somehow, although many critics would like to see his England counterpart on his bike, it is hard to imagine Sven Goran Eriksson following suit.
But then the two nations could scarcely be further apart in terms of size, footballing traditions, resources and expectations. Whereas the England squad's every move is dissected by the media, the "Soca Warriors" have enjoyed a relaxed regime since arriving at their rural retreat near Rotenburg ("Red Castle") in northern Germany.
Last Saturday, with their line-up sprinkled with players from the lower echelons of English and Scottish football, they emerged to establish a red fortress in Dortmund, frustrating Sweden on their debut at the finals. Here the build-up to England began in earnest, though the laughter that rang out around the tiny municipal stadium showed that Beenhakker likes work to be enjoyable.
When a friendly dispute broke out over how many passes had been completed in a one-touch competition between two sets of players, the former Real Madrid, Ajax, Netherlands and Mexico coach pottered over like a benevolent uncle. "What's the excitement for? Who's causing trouble?" he asked, beaming from beneath a cap. "I kick him out."
Another routine involved players chasing each other. Stern John quickly caught Dwight Yorke and the pair dissolved into giggles. Yet it would be a mistake to typecast T&T as happy-go-lucky makeweights. To hear a Beenhakker aide, Mario Been, roaring "keep it on the ground" as a pass flew two feet above the grass was to understand the technical standards, rooted in the Dutch philosophy of football, that underpin this most romantic of World Cup adventures.
Later, Beenhakker met the press in Rotenburg's museum, a renovated medieval farmhouse. Surrounded by rusty tools of toil, he revealed that it was his free-spirited streak that drew him to a small, failing team like T&T. It also made him feel he would not have wanted to manage England even if the opportunity to succeed Eriksson had been offered to him. "Ninety per cent of my life is football and the rest is private. I'm not interested in having that 10 per cent scrutinised," he said. "But I don't feel sorry for Sven. Criticism and pressure are part of the job and it was his decision. You know that will happen when you go to England. Some people have the courage to say no to such offers. I'm one. In that way, I admire [Luiz Felipe] Scolari."
But why take over a side that looked to have lost its chance of qualifying? "Why not? I went to Port of Spain, sat in a room for 24 hours to watch DVDs of all our group opponents. When you can see a small possibility of getting to the World Cup, you have to take it. I don't just love working with big players and famous teams. I love the game."
Beenhakker's ardour has survived winter nights at Falkirk and Wrexham, assessing his scattered charges. "The interesting part is picking a guy from a League Two game and translating it into international football. You can compensate [a lack of] talent with passion, courage and good preparation. That's why I never understood why people in England wrote off the so-called smaller teams in the group. It's a mistake... Everyone has learnt how to organise and prepare teams physically and mentally. You see the big countries struggle. That's why it's a real 'world championship'."
In Nuremberg, he argued, the pressure will all be on England. "Seven or eight teams have a realistic ambition to win the World Cup. They are one of them. We're in the 24 who are here to play well, try to get good results and go as far as we can. We want to win; we don't have to win.
"On paper, England have much more talent than us, but we recognise that and plan for it. While we respect our opponents, you shouldn't overestimate them. England scored seven against Jamaica and Paraguay, and five were from set pieces. That's part of the game, but it means they're struggling to create chances and beat opponents from open play."
Even without his only left-footed player, the suspended Avery John, Beenhakker was laid-back about formulating a "solution" to counter England. "It's not a problem," he shrugged. He added that he had disabused his players of any notions about "coming here with the Olympic ideal that taking part was more important than winning".
Even so, after the battle with Sweden he told them he did not want to see them for 24 hours; to relax with their families. "I had a fresh, hungry team when they came back. I'm not working with children. These are professionals. They know what they can do."
Caribbeans at the World Cup
Qualified thanks to a dubious win against Trinidad. Lost all three group games, including 7-0 to Poland.
High point: Emmanuel Sanon's 46th-minute goal against Italy ended Dino Zoff's record 1,143 goalless minutes.
The Reggae Boyz failed to progress from their group but had a 2-1 win against Japan to write home about.
High point: Robbie Earle's headed goal against Croatia - when Jamaican football came of age.Reuse content