It was November 1981 and the stage was all set for Mexico to secure their berth at the 1982 FIFA World Cup™. Given the country's historical ties to the host nation, Spain, qualification and a proud display at the finals were more important than ever. Even after an irregular campaign in the 'hexagonal' final qualifying stage, a victory away to Honduras in their final game was all that stood between El Tricolor and a place among the world's elite.
Led by a young Hugo Sanchez, Mexico were in fiercely determined mood when they took to the field in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa. Yet despite dominating the game from start to finish, the visitors could find no way past the locals' formidable rearguard. Having secured a historic first participation at football's premier event in their previous game, Los Catrachos took enormous pride in preventing one of their traditional rivals from joining them there.
22 November 1981, Estadio Nacional, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Honduras 0-0 Mexico
Honduras: Arzu; Gutierrez, Costly, Villegas, Bulnes; Maradiaga, Bernardes, Zelaya; Figueroa, Urquia (Junior '69), Caballero (Murillo '81)
Coach: Jose de la Paz
Mexico: Castrejon; Trejo, Alvarez, Quirarte, Lopez; Lopez Zarza (Boy '70), Vargas, Mendizabal, Manzo; Castro, Sanchez. Coach: Raul Cardenas
Honduras came into the tie with qualification for Spain 1982 already assured. Guided by Jose de la Paz, or Chelato Ucles as he is more popularly known, Honduras made the most of their position of hosts for that year's 'hexagonal,' winning their first three games and drawing their fourth (0-0 with El Salvador) to secure one of the region's two berths. As such, the Central Americans had very little to prove when they ran out against the pre-draw favourites.
However, Raul Cardenas' side had been struggling to justify that very mantle. After an emphatic rout of Cuba (4-0) in their opening game, Los Aztecas suffered a shock reverse at home to El Salvador (1-0), before recording successive 1-1 draws with Canada and Haiti. Consequently, they needed to win in Honduras in their final outing to pip El Salvador to a place in Spain.
As expected, Mexico took the game to their hosts from the off in search of victory. With the mercurial Manuel Manzo orchestrating the play and Sanchez leading the line up front, the visitors quickly laid siege to Julio Cesar Arzu's goal.
Yet for all their pressure, El Tri were unable to carve out a single clear-cut opportunity in a scoreless first half. The visitors then spurned a wonderful opening shortly after the break, when a poor pass from Gutierrez put Sanchez through on goal. Yet with all the time in the world and just Arzu to beat, the then Atletico Madrid striker rushed his shot and sent it wide.
The miss was a body blow for Mexico, who were looking increasingly desperate despite having the lion's share of possession. Roared on by a passionate home crowd sensing an historic opportunity to eliminate their arch-rivals, Honduras dug in for the final onslaught. With the seconds ticking away, Hugol had another chance to break the deadlock, only to see his audacious overhead kick fly wide of Arzu's goal. It was to be the last throw of the dice for the Mexican players, who wept openly at full time and were lambasted by their national media on returning home.
No one individual dominated the match; instead the result owed everything to the collective effort and resolve of Honduras. And though that side contained some of the country's finest players, they shattered Mexico's dreams even without defender Gilberto Yearwood, who would be one of their stars at Spain 1982.
"Mexico played very badly and that's why they didn't qualify. The team were well below their best and lacked intelligence. If they'd played at even 50 per cent of their capacity, they'd have easily qualified," Mexican FA President Rafael del Castillo rues his country's failure.
"It's really sad what's happened. This elimination shows that our football is in bad shape at every level," Mexico striker Hugo Sanchez.
What happened next...
Honduras went on to enjoy an historic adventure at Spain 1982, where, belying their debutant status, they drew first with the hosts and then Northern Ireland. Needing only to draw in their final group game against Yugoslavia to make the next round, Los Catrachos lost 1-0 thanks to a penalty that is still bitterly disputed today by their fans
For their part, Mexico made amends for the disappointment four years later when, as FIFA World Cup hosts, they enjoyed a best-ever sixth-place finish in the competition. However, for the individuals involved in that night-to-forget in Tegucigalpa, only three - Sanchez, Boy and Quirarte - would survive to grace the finals of Mexico 1986.