Honduras not to be underestimated
Honduras' relatively short World Cup history is marked by a series of heartbreaking home defeats, controversial calls and in one notable instance an outbreak of war. And for a time during 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying it looked as if all those forces would rear their ugly heads again. But just when it seemed Honduras had found another way to miss out on World Cup qualification, the CONCACAF Cinderella made it to the South Africa ball. Its unlikely fairy godmother was U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein.
Bornstein's goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium on the last day of qualifying gave the U.S. a 2-2 tie and flipped the final "Hexagonal" standings. If Costa Rica had held on for a 2-1 win, the Ticos would have advanced to South Africa. Instead, the tie handed a World Cup berth to Honduras, which beat archrival El Salvador 1-0. After losing at home to the U.S. four days earlier and seemingly blowing its shot at an automatic berth, Honduras gratefully accepted the lifeline provided by Bornstein & Co. An entire nation took the opportunity to dance in the streets. Streets that only a few weeks earlier had been under curfew after a June military coup.
Against the backdrop of political tension and turmoil, Reinaldo Rueda somehow kept his players focused on the World Cup prize. Perhaps even more impressively, the Colombia-born head coach rallied his team after losing to the U.S. 3-2 in that penultimate qualifying game. In the 1986 and 2002 qualifying tournaments Honduras lost home games to Canada and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively, that cost them World Cup berths. On those occasions, the defeats were totally unexpected. The U.S. loss featured a new twist: a blown early lead, followed by a missed penalty kick at the death that would have tied the game and salvaged a point. Veteran striker Carlos Pavon missed the penalty kick in the U.S. game, but quickly went from goat to hero when he scored the winning goal at El Salvador on the last day.
Thirty years ago, El Salvador had beaten Honduras in one of soccer's most contentious playoff games to reach its only World Cup finals. Honduras and El Salvador played three World Cup qualifying games in June 1969 that proved the tipping point in igniting long-standing border tensions between the countries into a four-day conflict that became known as the "Football War." Fortunately, no such tension surrounded the 2009 game. This time Honduras got the win and advanced to the finals for the second time.
The only previous World Cup appearance for Honduras was in 1982. It held host nation Spain to a 1-1 tie and also drew 1-1 with Northern Ireland. But a controversial penalty-kick goal two minutes from time saw Honduras lose 1-0 to Yugoslavia and exit the finals in the first round.
And in South Africa, Honduras will be difficult to break down again. The Wigan Athletic defender Maynor Figueroa anchors a defense that gave up the fewest goals (11) in the CONCACAF Hexagonal. Powerful midfield general Wilson Palacios is a rising star for Tottenham Hotspur in the EPL, and 2004 MLS MVP Amado Guevara and Torino's Julio de Leon provide the creative spark, while Wigan's Hendry Thomas handles the defensive midfield chores. And in Carlos Costly, David Suazo and Pavon, Honduras has a trio of experienced strikers who can put the ball away given room to maneuver.
Most pundits don't expect Honduras to maneuver past the first round in South Africa. But while standing on the field at the end of the El Salvador game, most Honduras players were thinking they would have to maneuver their way through a playoff to even get to the finals. And then the unexpected happened. Next June, Rueda and his players will be working very hard to make the unexpected happen again.
Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.