Paradise Pulse
 
Driven to Succeed Leonson Lewis' Road to Italy 1990
  Roger Ramgoolam
FEATURES
September 2014

When I first interviewed Leonson Lewis in April 2014, I was struck at how much the 48 year old still looked like the professional footballer he was in 1990. His physique was muscular and taut, his manner intense and his gaze unwavering. It required no great stretch of the imagination to see him just as he is now, still languidly striding on the football pitch in one moment only to magically explode with pace into his opponent’s penalty area the very next moment.

 

Lewis speaks earnestly and passionately about his football career. He is both eloquent and animated. At times he is the veritable ‘livewire’ yet his manner is unfailingly genial and accommodating.  We are comfortably seated in his Mosket Drive condo. Lewis’s wife Leanne is close by. Lewis has repeatedly credited Leanne as being his “better half”.  He even seems reassured by her presence as he occasionally glances over his shoulder in her direction. In turn, she offers the occasional comment or anecdote which assists him in jogging his memory.

 

It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Sunday November 19th 1989 yet Leonson Lewis still vividly recalls that day that in his own words “nearly was”. Lewis’ November 19th began at 6.00 am when he awoke at the national team’s Forest Reserve camp in Fyzabad and saw through his window hordes of people waving red, white and black national flags. This sight, while uplifting, turned out to be only the beginning of a day that was to become an emotional “thrill ride”.

 

The church service which the team attended later that morning was definitely atypical. Lewis wryly remembers the veritable throng of excited well-wishers outside the church who constantly pushed and elbowed each other just to catch a glimpse of their footballing heroes. He also recalls that an aunt, never a great football fan, but who on this day was present at the church, kept on hugging him and screaming “Leonson” at her nephew. Ironically, this service which was meant to settle the players’ minds had the opposite effect. In the end, it only served to unsettle Lewis and his teammates.

Leonson Lewis in action

When the team eventually arrived at the National Stadium, yet more throngs of excited fans awaited them. The team only got to their dressing room after they were forced to push, shove and almost fight their way through the excited fans. The presence of security personnel seemed to do little to ease the players’ progress. The end product of this emotionally charged beginning to the day was a team that was mentally drained. For his own part Lewis stated that he was an emotional wreck.  In spite of this less than ideal start to the day, Lewis never doubted that his team would win the game. He insisted that it was never part of the team’s mental make up to lose.

 

When Lewis trotted onto the pitch to face the Americans, he realised that the pitch and weather conditions were far from ideal. The previous month, the team had trained in overcast conditions on damp pitches with a view to simulating anticipated game conditions. The actual day was hot and humid, and the pitch was disappointingly dry and bumpy. Lewis made no attempt to hide the frustration in his voice when he insisted that it was ‘lack of professionalism on the part of the authorities’ which caused the pitch to be left unwatered. To his mind, this was something which caused the team to lose valuable home advantage. He is convinced that had the Americans been the home team, everything possible would have been done to secure their advantage.

 

The National Team affectionately dubbed the “Strike Squad” started confidently, buoyed by their own indefatigable self-belief, not to mention the support of many thousands of fans in the National Stadium. Paul Caligiuri’s 31st minute “freak goal”, according to Lewis, “threw the team off”, but he still believed that the Trinidad and Tobago team would score. It was not to be.  Lewis ruefully recalls the missed scoring chances. There was one where another player could have passed to him and put him in a potential ‘one on one’ with the American keeper. Instead his teammate chose to shoot and the chance was lost. Another chance came from his own right boot which deflected off a defender, and could have “gone anywhere”.

Lewis on the ball while playing for the Strike Squad during the 1989 World Cup qualifying campaign.

 

Tragically for Lewis, his team and the entire nation, the few chances which were created did not bring the precious equalizing goal. At the final whistle, Lewis would be overwhelmed with what he described as “the worst feeling in the world”, a feeling he describes as one of “what if?” The defeat of November 19th was so indelibly impressed on his psyche that for years after, Lewis literally could hardly bear to look at himself in a mirror. The painful memories of that day were only finally succoured with the Soca Warriors’ qualification for the 2006 World Cup.

Lewis (centre) with his wife Leanne (left) and daughter Lyasha (right) in a recent photo

 

Nearly 25 years on, Lewis’ Strike Squad days are not over. The team still plays for charity events and also West Indies Players Association events (such as “Balls of Fire”) which assist the Pearl and Bunty Lara foundation. Lewis always looks forward to these reunions both as an opportunity to catch up as well as to advancing the underlying charitable cause. His sporting passion these days, however, is reserved for the golf course and reducing his handicap as much as he can. This notwithstanding, he still retains his passion for his “everything” in his life: his golf, his coaching and his family. His footballing dreams may not have been realised on November 19th 1989, but I am convinced that Leonson Lewis still embodies the drive to succeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By: Roger Ramgoolam | FEATURES | September 2014


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