TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Ranked as the weakest team in their grouping and considered one the biggest underdogs in the tournament, the Honduran National Soccer Team, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t feel too much pressure for victory in the World Cup tournament in South Africa later this month.
But circumstances in Honduras are anything but normal these days.
While some players on the team are trying to curb expectations, the Hondurans – perhaps more than any other team in the tournament – will feel the weight of their nation resting on their shoulders when they take the field for their opening match against Chile on June 16.
Los Catrachos, as the Honduran team is known, are playing for far more than just football glory. In many ways, the team represents the greatest source of immediate hope and optimism availible in this deeply divided nation.
“I don’t think any other country going to the World Cup this year is as proud of their team as Honduras is right now,” said former national team coach José de la Paz Herrera, better known as “Chelato.”
The former coach led Honduras to its only other World Cup appearance in 1982. “If the team advances to the second or third round, it would be total craziness here,” he said.
Chelato acknowledges that a strong showing from Honduras “wouldn’t resolve all our problems,” but he says it “would help us forget them for a moment and be cause for great happiness and celebration. And the people need that right now.”
Just the fact that Honduras qualified for the World Cup in such spectacular fashion last Oct. 15 – by beating El Salvador 1-0 while the United States netted a last second goal against Costa Rica to knock the Ticos out of the tournament – is viewed by some as an act of divine intervention during the darkest hours following last year’s military coup.
“I think God gave us this World Cup qualification because who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t gotten it,” Chelato said. “This helped to mitigate the pain of division in this country.”
He added, “It was much more than just a qualification; it helped to resolve the social problems that we have more than ever in this country. At that moment the entire country was unified – but of course it was only a fleeting moment.”
While the healing powers of soccer are limited, Chelato insists that “the national soccer team is the great unifier in this country right now.”
Former President and head of the Honduran Soccer Federation, Rafael Callejas, agrees. “Nothing unifies the country more than soccer,” he said.
Callejas said he thinks Honduras’ participation in the world’s most popular celebration of sport will help the country improve its international image and will be a “positive step” towards rejoining the world community.
Can Los Catrachos Do It?
Although Honduras (ranked 38th in the world by FIFA) is considered the weakest team in Group H, which includes Switzerland (24), Chile (18) and Spain (2), there are some who think Los Catrachos could surprise the world by advancing to the second round.
The key to doing that, Chelato says, is to defeat Chile in the opening match. Although Chile is considered a very mature and tactically strong team under the leadership of coach Marcelo Bielsa, Honduras has beaten Chile before. So they know it can be done.
“The best chance we have is against Chile; it’s the team we know the best,” Chelato said. “But if we lose against Chile, it will get very difficult because the next game is against Spain, and they are the best. And if we lose that one, we’re already out.”
However, the former coach said, if Honduras stings Chile in the opener, and doesn’t get blown out against Spain, Los Catrachos could potentially advance to the second round with a draw in their third match against Switzerland.
Chelato’s team came very close to qualifying for the second round of the tournament in 1982. Unfortunately, a couple of controversial penalties against Honduras stood between them and glory. In the 1982 opener against Spain, Honduras was winning until the Spanish team was awarded a penalty kick at the end of the game, tying the game 1-1. Honduras then tied Northern Ireland in the second match, but lost to Yugoslavia 0-1 on an dubious penalty kick.
With a final record of 0-1-2, Honduras was sent packing, but given a heroes’ welcome upon returning to Tegucigalpa. “We didn’t play like a small team, no one played scared,” Chelato remembers. “Our team played with full plumage.”
Now, 28 years later, Chelato hopes Honduras can spread its feathers again.
Making The Cut
Soccer has made significant strides in Honduras since the team’s last World Cup appearance.
In 1982, only two of the players on the Honduran team had experience playing on international clubs – veteran striker Gilberto Yearwood, who was playing in the Spanish league at the time, and little-known striker Porfirio Betancourt, who had won accolades playing at the U.S. collegiate level. The rest of the team was a group of local boys that Chelato groomed into a soccer machine.
Today, however, Honduras has six veteran footballers who play in the European League, and one rising star from the United States, a Honduran-U.S. dual citizen who plays in the U.S.’ Major League Soccer. While the team has more players with international experience, Chelato wonders if the parts will outweigh the whole.
The veteran coach, who now heads Belize’s National Soccer Team, notes that several of the Honduran footballers picked for the World Cup squad were not part of the team’s qualifying effort last year.
Meanwhile, several other young players who helped the team make the tournament were left off the roaster. And in the case of Roger Espinoza, the young star for the MLS Kansas City Wizards, he “hasn’t even broken a sweat in a Honduran uniform,” Chelato said.
The former coach hopes Honduras’ current coach, Colombian-born Reinaldo Rueda, hasn’t hurt the team’s morale by mixing up the formula that got Los Catrachos to the World Cup to begin with.
“Morale is the basis for success – Napoleon Bonaparte said that,” Chelato mused. “The changes to the team will make it hard to get that chemistry back.”
The veteran players will need to step up and assume a quick leadership role if the team hopes to get in grove before the tournament starts, Chelato said. And he thinks the best man for the job is veteran striker David Suazo, who plays for Genoa.
Meanwhile, at the team’s training camp in Austria this week, Suazo showed promising signs that he’s ready to assume that leadership role.
“Spain is the best team in the world, that’s clear. But it would be a lie to say that we can’t beat Spain,” Suazos told the Austria Press Agency. “Anything can happen.”