With the world on pause, reflection is inevitable, even for footballers.
Radanfah Abu Bakr is a Trinidad and Tobago defender now based in India. He has played professionally in Belgium, Estonia, Indonesia, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, England and here at home with Caledonia AIA. He was educated at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain and Kingston University in London. He holds a BA in Business Management.
With the Indian league season over and football on lockdown, Bakr took some time to reflect on the past and contemplate the future.
Bakr expressed his views in a column for Pushing Limits, the blog of Shaun Fuentes, media officer of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association.
At age 33, Abu Bakr still has a strong appetite to train and compete.
“Admittedly, though, ‘life after football’ is a lot closer than I might want to acknowledge,” he said.
“I am still undecided as to which path I will take after retirement but my preferences definitely lean towards an endeavour that is sport related—management, administration, coaching perhaps,” he said.
“I believe that the vast and varied experiences that I’ve accrued throughout my travels would serve me well in those capacities. I’m also keen to give back and rectify some of the issues that I had to endure as a player, that can all too often limit the potential of T&T’s footballers and athletes in general.”
Bakr said his experiences with the national team trump anything he has done at club level.
“Don’t get me wrong, my club experiences have been amazing but it’s just a totally different vibe,” he explained, “It’s a massive responsibility but the sense of pride you feel when representing your country is incomparable.”
Bakr made his debut for Trinidad and Tobago on July 30, 2008, coming on as a substitute in a friendly against Haiti. Another substitute appearance followed two weeks later in a friendly against El Salvador. He would have to wait until June 2009 for his next international, making his first start and competitive appearance in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico, losing 2–1.
“In 2009, my competitive debut and first start for the senior team was a true baptism of fire. Russell Latapy gave me the nod at age 22 in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in front of over 80,000 spectators at the legendary Azteca stadium. The noise inside that cauldron was deafening. A teammate a mere five metres away couldn’t hear you even if you were screaming at the top of your lungs,” he said.
“The experience became even more surreal when we conceded within the first minute, without even touching the ball! My dream of playing for the senior team had almost instantaneously turned into a nightmare. Certainly not the most auspicious beginning. Thankfully, we acquitted ourselves admirably thereafter and managed to equalise. In the end we were unfortunate to eventually go down, 2-1.”
Bakr played in a further four 2010 World Cup qualifiers but a foot stress fracture injury saw him lose his place in the side after that. Even after recovery, it took him another three years to get back on the national team while other circumstances have seen him in and out of it.
“My pace, or lack thereof, was often cited as a flaw,” Bakr said. “I improved other aspects of my game to compensate but still knew I had to get quicker. At six-foot-four, this is hard work but work that I was willing to put in, in order to cut it at international level. My skipping rope and ladder became my best friends, staples in my extra individual sessions.”
Always his own strongest critic, Bakr said his goal was to always keep improving.
“I try to never compare myself with others but rather, with who I was the day before. Football is not an office job; you’re always on display and people will have their opinions,” he said. “I think, for me, it was always important to filter out the relevant messages from the irrelevant ones.”
He recalled that a pair of decent performances away to Romania and Estonia earned him a place in the newly appointed Stephen Hart’s 2013 Gold Cup Squad.
“With most coaches, you have a fair idea of who would be playing based on how the training sessions were set up, but Stephen Hart always left you guessing,” Bakr said of the coach, whom he rated highly.
“He always insisted that once he selected you for his squad you were good enough to play on the starting XI, but you would have to earn it. Everyone was there on merit. No one was there just to make up the numbers.”
A 2-0 win over Honduras in a key Gold Cup match saw T&T into the quarter-finals and also sparked a period of relative success under Hart that hadn’t been seen since the glory of the 2006 World Cup qualification.
“I became a fixture in the team thereafter as we built a solid unit that grew into one of the most respected and feared teams in the Concacaf. We were eventually edged out 1-0 in the quarterfinal by Mexico and at the same stage two years later, this time to Panama, in a heart-breaking penalty shootout.
“Sandwiched between that, was a Caribbean Cup runners-up finish. Among those results were two unforgettable draws against Mexico, 4-4 at the 2015 Gold Cup and 3-3 in a friendly, a couple months later.”
The team had huge success, getting all the way to the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying. However, the team’s fortunes plummeted and they finished bottom of the Hex (hexagonal.
“By the time we had finished bottom of the Hex, I had already been unceremoniously phased out along with several other previously key senior players. I have rarely felt so confident about something in football, so it still irks me to think about how the opportunity to qualify for that World Cup evaporated in the manner in which it did. The less said about that, the better, I suppose.”
Bakr said his family had been his backbone and strength in times of weakness.
“I’m not sure if or how I would’ve negotiated that challenging period without the backing of my family. Indeed, my career might not have materialised if it wasn’t for them.
“Anyone who claims to have been a regular at football matches in which I played will acknowledge that there was a tactically reserved section in the stands for my family members, both for club and especially for national team matches. My parents provided every support imaginable. It wasn’t unconditional, though. There was an academic standard that had to be maintained in order for me to be allowed to continue to play.
“‘There is life after football,’ my dad always insisted,” he said.
“The discipline that my parents instilled to prioritise and establish balance in my pursuits was critical in my personal and professional development. My dad and I still frequently have lengthy discussions about the game, both the on-field happenings and the politics off of it.”