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Russell Latapy: Kicking the losing habit

Trinidad & Tobago's Russell Latapy, who is known as the little magician, has all the smoke and mirrors to banish bad memories and surprise England when they meet at the World Cup

Warning for England: Russell Latapy intends to come out smoking at the World Cup finals and, at the age of 37, to consign his reputation as the nearly man of Trinidad & Tobago to the ashtray of history.

Latapy is a diminutive, dreadlocked midfielder who plies his trade as player-coach to Falkirk. His dancing feet, twinkling eyes and weakness for Marlboro Lights have earned him iconic status in Scotland.

Now he aims to light up the global extravaganza in Germany, erasing the anguish of the day when T&T contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of the draw that would have taken him to the 1990 finals in Italy.

The events of 19 November 1989 are burned into the psyche of Latapy and his close friend Dwight Yorke. At a time when Theo Walcott was literally crawling around in nappies, they were the babies of the T&T team that required only a draw against the United States in Port of Spain in order to take their place among the best players on the planet.

It was to be the 90 minutes that saw football take off in the small islands where cricket was king. But they lost 1-0, an anticlimax Latapy attributes to their over-excitement at the prospect of performing in the World Cup. Amid the desolation, he consoled himself that there would be another chance in four years' time.

When a Caribbean country did make it, in 1998, it was Jamaica. It took T&T 16 long years, a failure which forced Latapy to work his way up through unglamorous settings in Portuguese and Scottish football instead of advertising his talent before the watching millions.

But this time, with a squad that draws heavily on British-based players and a coach, Leo Beenhakker, who has had charge of Real Madrid, Ajax and his native Netherlands during a 40-year career, he believes the Soca Warriors are equipped to give a respectable account of themselves.

The way they have tended to be written off as the Group B whipping boys, especially after losing 2-1 to what was almost a Wales Under-21 side in the Austrian city of Graz on Saturday, leaves him unfazed. In his experience - accumulated with Porto under the management of Bobby Robson, as well as with Hibernian and Rangers - being free from the burden of expectation that weighs upon England and, to a lesser extent, Sweden and Paraguay ought to prove beneficial.

"We're in a no-lose situation," said Latapy, who had produced a typically creative cameo role as a substitute against the Welsh in a game T&T should have won. "We're already the underdogs and it doesn't matter what happens. Losing in this friendly wasn't a setback at all. We want to peak for the World Cup finals, so we are working on our game tactically, as well as getting games under our belts.

"Of course we wanted to win, but our preparation is more important. It was a reminder that you can't give the ball away cheaply in international football. We want to impose ourselves on the finals and play our football. If we do that, and we get a bit of luck, anything could happen."

The word "fun" often slips into Latapy's vision of how he wants his country to play in Germany. He and Yorke, who is now 34, have been accused of being over-enthusiastic in their pursuit of a party; of extending the concept of carnival into too many late nights.

Yet as the senior partner puts it, you do not take part in a World Cup two months before your 38th birthday without having a strong work ethic. It was instilled him from the age of 12, when he would devote hours to practising his skills on the Queen's Park Savannah with his mentor, a coach called Jean Lillywhite, while his contemporaries were out doing what boys who are about to become teenagers do.

The sacrifice stood him in good stead. By 1994, the year of what might have been his second World Cup, he had arrived at Porto, where he endured another "nearly" moment as they faced Sampdoria in a shoot-out for a place in the Uefa Cup semi-finals. Walter Zenga saved his penalty to send the Italians through and increase Latapy's sense of fate working against him.

In fact, he won titles with Porto and Rangers, but in terms of international football, "The Little Magician", as Latapy is known in T&T circles, retired in 2001. Sporadic attempts to lure him back into the fold failed. Then, in August last year, Beenhakker asked Yorke, who had himself returned for a last stab at reaching the finals, to call his old friend.

The answer was 'no'. Latapy was increasingly involved in the Falkirk hierarchy, working with manager John "Yogi" Hughes. And besides, the chances of that elusive World Cup place had just been all but ended by another defeat by the US. It seemed a lot of pointless, tiring flying. Yorke begged him to give it two games. He eventually relented, in part, he explained with a nod to his interest in Rastafarian "righteousness", because he saw football as a potentially unifying force in a country that was suffering a wave of violence, crime and disharmony.

"Only Dwight could have persuaded me," he said. "It's not just the friendship. He understands the way I play football. We have grown up together and played together. I realised it was really a last opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream, not only for me, but for Dwight too."

In the first of his "last" games, the prodigal son scored a goal and made one for Stern John in the 3-2 defeat of Guatemala. The second was lost to Costa Rica, but Yorke talked him into staying for the closing group games. They beat Panama and Mexico to earn a play-off with Bahrain. A 2-1 aggregate triumph left Latapy in tears - and in the finals.

He has joked that he is "Dwight's guest player in the -national team", but Beenhakker is too shrewd to carry any passengers or token charismatics in his squad. Latapy's ability to unlock defences with a pass, or to skip by opponents in a congested area, are likely to be valuable, although probably as a substitute rather than a starter.

The 63-year-old Dutchman, famously, is a fellow smoker, prone to puffing on a cigar, so he was unlikely to try to curb Latapy's nicotine intake. Contrary to a rumour emanating from Falkirk, the Magician is not a 40-a-day man, or a chain-smoker like the former Croatia playmaker Robert Prosinecki. He says it is between five and 10 a day.

"I've played to Champions' League level and it never stopped me performing," he reasoned. "I have the same understanding with Leo that I had at every side I've played with. In a team situation, around training or whatever, I don't smoke in front of the lads."

Cigarettes and sport do not mix. But as he prepares for a date with England, knowing he will become a legend in Scotland as well as in Trinidad & Tobago if he can conjure an upset, it is clear that there is no fire without smoke for Russell Latapy.

Latapy's top two T&T team-mates

Dwight Yorke

The finest footballer the West Indies has produced made his name as a lethal striker with Aston Villa and Manchester United, where his goals helped to win the Treble of 1999. Then things went sour for Yorke. His sister died unexpectedly, his son was born with health problems, and his career tailed off with Blackburn and Birmingham. A move to Sydney FC let him start afresh, and Leo Beenhakker wooed him back into the Trinidad & Tobago set-up as captain. Now 34, he plays in the centre of midfield. Against Wales on Saturday he was the steadiest performer.

Stern John

No player will go into the World Cup with as good an international record as John's 65 goals. The Coventry striker's 12 in 20 qualifiers included the two that earned the key win over Mexico. His latest, against Wales, was a typical close-range finish by the 29-year-old kung-fu aficionado. John came to the attention of English clubs with Columbus Crew in the US, going on to score on his Nottingham Forest and Birmingham debuts. After a barren run at Coventry, he struggled on loan at Derby but returned in December to average a goal every other match for the Sky Blues.