Deck Is Stacked Against Honduras
We've seen that movie before. Tiny country from a Central American or Caribbean nation surprisingly qualifies for the World Cup. There's dancing in the streets.
Then the fun ends.
Few teams fare worse at the World Cup than representatives from Concacaf, the mouthful of a name that refers to the governing body for North, Central American and Caribbean soccer. (Mexico, and to a lesser extent the U.S., are the exceptions.) Like No. 16 seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament, teams from Trinidad and Tobago and the like go home early, usually humbled.
On Wednesday, Honduras plays its first World Cup match since 1982, against Chile. Although Chile finished second in South American qualifying, it hasn't won a World Cup match since 1962 and is worried about the health of star striker Humberto Suazo.
In October, when Honduras clinched its World Cup berth, thousands poured into the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital. Just imagine if Los Catrachos pull off a slight upset. "If Honduras wins, it will be madness," said Marco Aguilar, a sportswriter for Diario Diez, a Honduran daily.
The Honduran government—which endured a coup last year that resulted in President Manuel Zelaya's exile—is allowing workers to arrive late Wednesday so they can watch the match. "Everyone will just be cheering for one nation, one country," says Anthony Guerrero, a treasurer at the Honduran consulate in New York. "It's pretty cool."
Ultimately, though, reality will strike. Honduras is the lowest-ranked team in Group H and 38th in the FIFA rankings. The team has been playing miserably lately, losing 3-0 to Romania in its last warm up and tying Azerbaijan and Belarus before that. The Hondurans have injury issues too—play-making midfielder Julio Cesar de Leon was ruled out of the World Cup Tuesday with a torn right leg muscle. Coach Reinaldo Rueda won't be in the dugout for the opener, punishment for misbehaving in a qualifier. "We hope there's no crisis," says Mr. Rueda.
Small populations, thin talent pools and mediocre competition plague the Central American and Caribbean teams in Concacaf. Few players on the small-country rosters play for top club teams. Honduras has just five players who compete in one of the big five European leagues.
It shows in the numbers. In 34 World Cup matches, Concacaf teams besides Mexico and the U.S. have won five and drawn five. They've scored 25 goals while allowing 90. Only Costa Rica in 1990 and Cuba in 1938 survived the opening rounds. Concacaf teams also account for some of the most outrageous defeats in history. In Haiti's only World Cup appearance, in 1974, it took a 7-0 shellacking from Poland.
In 1982, both Honduras and archrival El Salvador qualified for the World Cup. (The two nations in 1969 engaged in a four-day armed conflict known as the Football War, after a match between the two exacerbated political tensions over illegal immigration.) Honduras earned a draw in two of its three matches but still finished last in its group. El Salvador was less successful, giving up 10 goals in its opening match to a Hungarian team that failed to advance.
Lately, there has been improvement. Jamaica beat Japan, 2-1, in 1998. The Costa Ricans missed out on advancing in 2002 only because of goal differential. And in 2006, Trinidad and Tobago tied Sweden and held England scoreless for more 80 minutes before losing.
In politically destabilized Honduras, there's almost no way to lose. "Even if we lose," Mr. Guerrero says, "it's still the experience of being one nation and putting politics aside."