In Honduras, soccer defines life
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Speaking to longtime Honduran national team forward Tyson Nunez, you get the sense that if it were possible for one person to explain how much the World Cup means to the Central American country, he would be the man to do it.
"It's a lifelong dream turned to reality," Nunez said. "A dream we thought might never be realized."
Nunez has played a key role for the Honduran national team for the better part of two decades. In the 36-year-old's weathered gaze lies a glimpse at the struggle validated when Honduras qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1982. His words capture much of the nation's World Cup odyssey, but it is unfair to expect just one man to explain the full importance of soccer to Honduras. In fact, it's impossible. Capturing the essence of the game for this nation of over 7 million requires a much broader perspective.
To begin, it helps to first experience a taste of life in the small, relatively impoverished country. Soccer is an integral part of everyday life in Honduras, from the cradle to the grave. Soccer fields are everywhere, from the industrial streets of San Pedro Sula to the beaches of the Caribbean coast to the dusty hillsides on the Salvadoran border. Old men whose legs have seen better days constantly watch the game they once played, each with his own memories from long years observing match after match, including the game's showcase event -- in which Honduras has seldom played a role.
As every Honduran will tell you, though, there was that one time, nearly three decades ago, when Honduras stepped boldly onto the international stage. The upstart Catrachos performed surprisingly well in their first and only World Cup, tying two games, including one with host Spain, before bowing out in the first round. That summer of 1982 has never been forgotten, and to this day it is a common subject of discussion throughout the nation.
"That tells you how big soccer is in Honduras -- people still talk about '82," said national team midfielder Roger Espinoza. "I wasn't even born then, but they talk about how we tied Spain in the World Cup. They talk about how Honduras played really well."
Espinoza, like many Hondurans, grew up with only the stories to cling to. So he can help explain. For the entire lifetime of most of Honduras' current team, it has been this way. Every four years brought a new World Cup qualifying cycle, renewed talk of 1982, and new hope. Honduras, ever the talented side, always lacked that last little something that might put it over the top. Cycle after cycle, the Catrachos came close. Time and time again, the team found new ways to disappoint a nation that longed to return to the world stage.
In 2001, Honduras came closer than ever. Late in that year, led by Nunez and strike partner Carlos Pavon, the nation hovered on the brink of exuberance. After a shocking win over the U.S. in Washington, D.C., Honduras needed only a home victory in the next-to-last qualifying game over winless Trinidad and Tobago to make the World Cup. But they fell 1-0, hitting the woodwork an incredible six times in the process. A loss in Mexico then confirmed a country's worst fears -- they had fallen short once again. Four more years of anxiety for a nation that had resigned itself to waiting. The story of the Honduran national team. The story of Honduras.
As the 2010 World Cup approached, Honduras once again found itself closer than ever. But another home loss against the U.S. in the second-to-last home qualifier, in which Pavon missed a late penalty that would have come close to sealing a World Cup ticket, had fans remembering 2001, and convinced the team would fall just short yet again. It seemed the national destiny, after all, to have its dreams shattered in the cruelest of fashions.
Then finally, mercifully even, the miracle happened.
"To this day I get e-mail messages saying thank you for the goal, without you we wouldn't be in the World Cup," said U.S. national team defender Jonathan Bornstein by phone from California. "For the people of Honduras, the World Cup is their lives."
In a twist of fate on Oct. 14, the Hondurans got the bit of luck they had waited for all those years. With the Hondurans on the field thousands of miles away in El Salvador, Bornstein scored a goal in extra time to tie Costa Rica on the final day of qualifying. The goal was virtually meaningless for the already-qualified Americans, but it edged Honduras into third place in the hexagonal. After 28 years, to the glorious relief of a battle-tired nation, Honduras had qualified for its second World Cup.
Bornstein's goal immediately became a defining moment in Honduran history, and the American will forever hold a unique place in Honduran folklore. Just that recognition goes a long way toward explaining what the World Cup means to the nation.
"He's a hero in Honduras," said the American ambassador in Honduras, Hugo Llorens, via telephone from his embassy in Tegucigalpa. Part of the ambassador's job is to understand the Honduran mentality. Without a doubt, he can help to explain. "If [Bornstein] came here, he would be treated like a king. He has contributed to strengthening U.S.-Honduran relations."
Bornstein's story demonstrates precisely how soccer permeates life in Honduras. The national team transcends sport, as results filter down into all layers of society, lifting or dimming the spirits of the people, and defining the national psyche. Honduras spent much of last year in turmoil, after the June ouster of former president Mel Zelaya, so there was no time more adequate to qualify for a World Cup.
"Honduras is a country where soccer is really important," said ambassador Llorens. "It's something that unifies the country. Coming off of a crisis, the fact that the Honduran national team qualified for the World Cup is an enormous issue. It's a unifying force."
Qualifying matches brought together Hondurans on both sides of the political debate. Much of the nation was able to forget the political turmoil as the team moved ever closer to South Africa, and a sense of normalcy began to return to a troubled land.
"Everyone was on lockdown, but the president allowed everyone to go out when the games were played," Espinoza said. "Since Honduras won, it changed the mentality of the government. Winning means a lot to the people, plus with the crisis that was going on in Honduras, that made it even better, and everyone's happy. Soccer changes the country. When it's going well, people are happy."
Hondurans are indeed happy with the national team. Qualifying for the World Cup validates the nation's struggles across socioeconomic and political spheres. Participation in the World Cup brings with it a sense of inclusion for the country, satisfaction in being a recognized part of the world for a few months at least, and ambition to grow further.
"In 1982, they went to the World Cup, but they never won a game," Espinoza said. "Just winning a game this time would accomplish so many things. It changes the perspective of the world, and people view Honduras totally different."
To think a game could change the way a nation views itself may seem an exaggeration, but then there are all these people -- people who understand the importance of the game in this small country -- who say otherwise. Beyond a doubt, to say World Cup soccer defines life in Honduras is in many ways to speak the truth. It's easy enough to believe once you find the right people to explain.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at email@example.com.