Coup-torn Honduras eyes World Cup spot
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Living in a divided nation, Hondurans have dealt with months of protests and huge foreign aid losses as two leaders have struggled for control of their country since a June coup.
Saturday, however, may provide a respite when the national soccer team faces the United States. A victory would be a giant step toward qualifying the tiny Central American country for only its second World Cup.
In fact, if No. 42 Honduras beats the 11th-ranked United States and Costa Rica somehow loses at home against already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras would qualify for its first World Cup since 1982 in Spain.
"Soccer is pain relief," said former national team coach Ramon Maradiago. "It relaxes and distracts us. It pulls us out of bad feelings."
Recognizing the gravitas of the match, Honduras national team coach Reinaldo Rueda said it's going to be crucial for his players to "keep their heads cool."
"We are the dream team, but we don't believe it," said the Colombian coach, who has instilled greater discipline on the team.
The blue-and-white clad Honduras team is loaded with talented players, many of whom play for some of Europe's biggest clubs: Wilson Palacios (England's Tottenham); David Suazo (Italy's Inter Milan); and Maynor Figueroa and Hendry Thomas (England's Wigan).
"It will be something marvelous ... to achieve this feat and be part of it," Figueroa said. "I believe it will be something that will go down in the history books."
Soccer may accomplish what Honduran politicians cannot -- producing national unity.
Fans throughout history have dropped political fights to unite behind their teams, whether it's Hindu and Muslim cricket fanatics in India or Shia and Sunni soccer fans in Iraq. The Ivory Coast stopped a civil war long enough for everyone to cheer the national "Elephants" soccer team in its first World Cup appearance.
"I forget all the problems, political, economic and social, facing the country," said Maria Barahona, a housekeeper in Tegucigalpa.
This country has plenty of bad feelings to overcome.
President Manuel Zelaya was still in his pajamas when he was forced at gunpoint into a military truck and whisked by plane into forced exile in Costa Rica in a June 28 coup. He sneaked back into the country three months later and bolted into the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been trapped ever since.
Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, who took over as president after Zelaya was deposed, have been unable to agree on anything, and Hondurans have fallen into further division as they back the dueling leaders.
Back on the field, just three teams from the region get automatic berths for the tournament in South Africa next year.
Going into the final round of games on Saturday and Oct. 14, the United States (5-2-1) leads the standings with 16 points, followed by Mexico (5-3) with 15 and Honduras (4-3-1) with 13. Costa Rica (4-4) has 12, El Salvador (2-4-2) eight and Trinidad (1-5-2) five.
The No. 4 team in the standings still could advance. It will go to a home-and-home playoff in November with the No. 5 nation from South America, which is now two-time champion Argentina.
The U.S. Soccer Federation said Monday that American midfielder Clint Dempsey will miss Saturday's game because of a sprained right shoulder. Dempsey has had five goals during the qualifying stage for the tournament.
Honduras' team wasted an early lead when it lost to the United States 2-1 at Chicago's Soldier Field in a qualifier in June, then twice lost 2-0 to a young U.S. team the following month at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
More recently, the Catrachos have had to overcome recent curfews and airport closures -- and travel bans have made it hard for players who play with clubs around the world to practice together.
Despite the coup and suggestions the match might be moved, FIFA ruled the game will be played as planned at Honduras' Metropolitan Olympic Stadium, where the team is 8-0 in qualifying for next year's tournament.
The largest stadium in the country, the Olympic is a sea of blue and white for home games as 45,000 flag-waving, drum-beating, dancing fans whose deafening cheers (and occasional cups of tossed beer) pose a tough challenge for visiting teams.
Local soccer officials say the stadium itself could give them the edge, and they're not about to lose it.
"That match belongs to us and we won't allow anyone to trample over us and take the game elsewhere," Honduran federation secretary Alfredo Hawit said on La Prensa newspaper's Web site. "We played against Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago in the same climate of political crisis and nothing happened. We are going to defend tooth and nail (our right) to play this match in our country."