JOHANNESBURG, South Africa– “Vamos Catrachos!” yelleds a Honduras football fan who, along with thousands of other supporters of his country’s team, flocked to the chilly Ellis Park stadium in central Johannesburg on Monday.
Despite a bravely-fought match against European champions Spain, Honduras went down 2-0 and their part in the tournament is likely to end June 25, in the Central American team’s final match against Switzerland.
But “Los Catrachos,” as the Honduran players are known, should indeed be proud of their performance. Honduras never seriously threatened to score in the match against Spain, but their solid defense and endless running kept the margin tight.
Spanish striker David Villa netted both goals for the Furia Roja, and it looked like Spain’s siege of the Honduran goal would lead to a blowout similar to Portugal’s extraordinary 7-0 victory over North Korea earlier that day. But a missed penalty kick and several blown scoring opportunities by Villa and Spanish forward Fernando Torres kept the game closer than it really was.
The impressive Honduran defense should also be given credit. They managed to concede only one goal in each half and this result may yet have a huge impact on the tournament.
With such a narrow win, Spain might only come in second in the group, which would set up a second round clash with Brazil – a match that most of the soccer world expected only to come in the final on July 11.
Before the match, Honduran fans were optimistic about their game against Spain.
Despite losing to Chile 1-0 in their opening match of the tournament, the team’s expansive and attacking style of play won them plaudits from fans and pundits alike – more than one journalist said that for the quality of the football, the Chile-Honduras was the best of the first round of matches.
“We will win 2-0,” predicted 12-year-old Marlon Duarte as he relaxed in the bar of the RandburgTowers hotel with his father. “Yes, I should be in school,” he admitted, “but my dad brought me here and we have had an amazing time.”
The fans arriving from all corners of the world have had nothing but good words to say about their hosts. “They’re very helpful people,” said Honduran Ricardo Estrada, sitting with the Duartes. “They help us find our way around, give us directions, find us taxis – great hospitality.”
In a city like Johannesburg – “ten times the size of Tegucigalpa,” chuckles Estrada – this is important. And despite this vast, sprawling African city’s reputation for violence and insecurity, crime hasn’t become an issue during the World Cup.
In the months and years leading up to the tournament, the Western press was full of stories skeptical about South Africa’s ability to stage such an event. But at each of the spectacular stadiums across the country, the media circus has been concentrating on the football a testament to the organizers’ success.
South Africa has long been a divided nation. Sixteen years after the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election, splits along racial and social lines are still obvious in this beautiful country.
But you’ll be hard pushed today to find a South African who hasn’t been steadfast in his or her support of “Bafana Bafana” – the national soccer team.
Children run around Soweto – the enormous township on the edge of Jo’burg and home to Nelson Mandela – dressed in brightly-colored soccer shirts, blowing constantly and loudly on their Vuvuzelas. After the host country bows out, they will lend their support to whichever team is in town and the party will go on. Football has been a unifying force.
And as the tournament has unified South Africa, many argue it has also unified Honduras.
“We are forgetting all the political troubles, the economic troubles we have,” says Ricardo Estrada. “Soccer unites us – and we will be a better country after this World Cup.”
There are some 3,000 Catracho fans in South Africa for this tournament, and their bicolor scarves aren’t hard to spot. Robert Downing – from San Pedro Sula – is grinning from ear to ear.
“It has been wonderful,” he says. “The South Africans are great hosts. Just being here and playing here after 28 years, it’s a wonderful experience.”
And he says it has helped relieve the problems back home – at least temporarily. “Everybody forgets about their problems,” Downing said. “It brings hope and brings family and friends together.”
But he sounds a cautionary note. “Our country has so many problems, so it won’t last too long,” he said. “We have to focus again and we will have to go back to work and back to reality.”
The reality on the field, in fact, is that Honduras is not yet out of the tournament, despite failing to score any goals in their first two matches.
Mathematically, Los Catrachos could still qualify for the second round – but that will require a miracle.
On June 25 they need to win by a wide margin against a Swiss team that beat Spain and has conceded only one goal in over 550 minutes of World Cup football. Honduras also needs Chile to beat Spain, something that looks unlikely after La Furia Roja’s performance on Monday.
But this tournament has already thrown up more than its fair share of surprises – so who’s to say Honduras won’t be the next?