World Cup 2010 profile – Honduras – Unfancied Catrachos hope to spring a few surprises

For a country torn apart by political instability following a coup in June 2009, football is one of the few phenomena capable of uniting the near-seven million population of Honduras. Football is by far the most popular sport in the Central American country, and so passionate are the people about the beautiful game that crowd trouble in a World Cup qualifier between Honduras and El Salvador in June 1969 erupted into a full-scale war between the two nations, during which around 3000 people were killed. Given the ongoing political strife, along with problems such as poverty and unemployment, it is not surprising that investment in football is not a priority in Honduras. However, numerous charities have identified the game as an opportunity to offer youngsters a better life, and football development has progressed as a result. FIFA’s Goal project has led to the construction of a new training centre and the laying of five grass pitches. In spite of a lack of investment, there are an estimated 227 registered football clubs, comprised of 61,300 registered players.

The top-flight of the Honduran national league consists of 10 teams, the most successful of which is Olimpia, who play in the capital Tegucigalpa. Olimpia remain the only Honduran team to have lifted the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, but it is 22 years since their last success in the competition. Their bitter rivals are Marathon, who share their stadium, the 45 000-seater Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, with the national team, who turned it into something of a fortress during their successful 2010 qualifying campaign. Although attendances for domestic fixtures fluctuate wildly, with even the big clubs often struggling to attract gates of more than 4000, the national side averaged crowds of 33 000 during qualifying – more than both Spain and Italy. Around 65% of players selected in the most recent Honduran squad play their club football domestically, with the remainder spread throughout the European and North American leagues.

Los Catrachos currently stand 40th in FIFA’s World Rankings. The team finished third in the CONCACAF qualifying section, behind perennial qualifiers USA and Mexico, to snatch the final automatic qualifying spot from Costa Rica on goal difference. This is the strongest Honduras side since the mighty Gold Cup winning team of 1981, which went on to qualify for Spain ’82 – the nation’s only previous World Cup finals appearance. In spite of their first round exit, Honduras gave a good account of themselves at that tournament, drawing with Northern Ireland and their Spanish hosts. Finding themselves in the Latin-flavoured Group H for the 2010 finals, Honduras will fancy their chances of sneaking into the last 16. European Champions Spain are clear favourites, and so los Catrachos will likely battle it out with Chile for second place.

Premier League fans will be familiar with the trio of Wilson Palacios of Tottenham, and Maynor Figeuroa and Hendry Thomas, both of Wigan. Palacios, the most expensive Honduran footballer in history at £12m, has played a huge part in Tottenham’s renaissance under Harry Redknapp by adding some much-needed bite to the Cockerels’ midfield. Perhaps the most exciting player in the squad, however, is Inter striker David Suazo. The powerful, unorthodox forward, currently on loan at Genoa, spent eight successful seasons at Cagliari, scoring 95 goals in 255 games and earning the prestigious Best Foreign Player award from Italian journalists in 2006. Suazo’s form sparked a bidding war between the Milan clubs which was won by the Nerazzurri with a bid of £9.4m. The striker struggled with injuries at Inter however, and was soon farmed out on loan to Benfica and then this season to Genoa, where there are signs that he is starting to recapture his explosive form at just the right time for Honduras.

No man has been more influential in the rise of Honduras as a force in Central American football than Coach Reinaldo Rueda. The 52-year-old Colombian has revolutionised the Honduran national team. Anderlecht’s defender Victor Bernardez attributes all of the team’s success to Rueda: “Before him, no national Coach paid attention to the players in the way that he does.” Rueda, a former university professor, made his name by coaching the Colombian U-17 and U-20 teams to success before taking Colombia’s senior team from rock bottom of the 2006 CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group to a respectable sixth place and a Copa America semi-final. Rueda favours a 4-4-2 formation, and his philosophy is similar to that of Fabio Capello, in that he selects the right players to fit his system, rather than trying to crowbar his best 11 players into the team at all costs. The result has been a well-disciplined, tough-tackling unit with plenty of attacking flair. Don’t rule out los Catrachos springing a few surprises in South Africa.

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