The six men’s national soccer teams still in the running to compete in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa within the North, Central American and Caribbean zone (CONCACAF) will kick off the hexagonal tournament, a nine-month round-robin, this Wednesday, Feb. 11.
Central American favorites face-off as Costa Rica welcome Honduras to the capital at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, north of San José, while the U.S. will host rival Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, and Trinidad and Tobago head for El Salvador.
La Sele, as the team is called (from “la selcción nacional”), has pulled a 180 after a difficult stretch last year. After suffering a 12-game winless streak, the team eked out a win in June against Grenada to send them to the next round. That’s when Rodrigo Kenton took the reins and proved to lead the turnaround the team so badly needed.
The team went on to win nine more consecutive games under Kenton, a former Saprissa player from Limón, on the Caribbean, including being the only team in CONCACAF to win all six games in the quadrangular round.
The streak ended last week, as Panama beat Costa Rica on penalty kicks in the final of the Central American Soccer (UNCAF) championship, but anticipation among fans is only building.
Wednesday’s match between Costa Rica, currently ranked 47th internationally by FIFA and Honduras, currently ranked 40th, will likely be one of La Sele’s most closely contested.
Star striker Bryan Ruiz, currently with the Belgian club Gent, will lead the charge for the Ticos, while the Hondurans, aiming to return to the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1982, will fix their hope on Europe-based star, David Suazo, on loan from Italy’s Inter Milan to Portuguese club, Benfica, to provide the goal threat.
Captain Walter Centeno and his Saprissa teammate, Celso Borges, who recently announced plans to transfer to Norway’s Fredrikstad, will lead the team in the midfield. Ruiz, Centeno and Borges are among the 26 players Kenton has called up for next week’s qualifying match, including eight players currently with clubs abroad, who will make up most of La Sele’s back line.
Midfielder Carlos Hernández will make the trip from Australia’s Melbourne Victory, popular striker Alvaro Saborío will come back from Switzerland’s FC Sion.
Rounding out Wednesday’s roster are goalkeepers Keylor Navas (Saprissa), Ricardo González (Herediano) and Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense).
Defenders: Roy Myrie (Gent, Belgium), Carlos Johnson (Bryne, Norway), Gilberto Martínez (Brescia, Italy Serie B), Júnior Díaz (Wisla Cracovia, Poland), Gonzalo Segares (Chicago Fire, U.S.), Michael Umaña (Liberia), Freddy Fernández and Roberto Segura (Pérez Zeledón).
Midfielders: Cristian Oviedo and Pablo Herrera (Alajuelense), Jorge Davies (Ramonense), Pablo Brenes (Brujas), Alvaro Sánchez (San Carlos) and Armando Alonso (Saprissa).
Forwards: Andy Furtado (Herediano), Victor Núñez and William Sunsing (Liberia) and Alejandro Alpízar (Saprissa). Costa Rica played in three World Cup finals in 1990, 2002 and 2006. Their best showing was in 1990, when they made it to the second round and, incidentally, Kenton was serving as an assistant coach under storied Mexican-Serb Bora Milutinovic.
Despite Costa Rica being ranked behind Honduras internationally, the 43 prior matchups between these two teams have been well-matched: Costa Rica has bested Honduras 16 times, lost to them 14 and tied 13, although La Sele has outscored the Tegucigalpa squad by 23 goals.
Jonathan Cortés, a local San José resident, can’t wait for the games to begin. “Anything could happen,” said Cortés. “There’s always surprises in soccer, and I have a feeling we could do it. Besides, Honduras hasn’t been playing well, and we have.”
The hexagonal round will continue through October 2009. As usual, Mexico and the US, ranked 26th and 22nd, respectively, are considered the favorites. But El Tri, currently helmed by the storied former English national team head coach, the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, faltered in the last phases of the previous round, losing to both Honduras and Jamaica and edging the latter only on goal differential to qualify for the hexagonal.
The top three teams from the hexagonal will win spots in the 2010 World Cup finals, while the fourth-place team will face off against fifth-place team from the South America tournament in a two-leg playoff for the hemisphere’s last ticket to South Africa.
Costa Rica has also secured a spot in the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup championship, to be played in the U.S. in July. They will join Panama, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua (see story, Nica Times, Page 2), along with Jamaica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. The Gold Cup, first played in 1991, has never been won by a Central American country.
Tico Times reporter Holly Sonneland contributed to this story.