Honduras may not have managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup(tm) since 1982 but, having come agonisingly close in 2002, they are hopeful that they will soon re-appear in the world's showcase competition. There is a long way to go of course, but their emphatic win over Costa Rica last August suggest they are on the right track. This is reflected in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, where they have just jumped 12 places to break in to the top 50.
There were mixed feelings in Honduras at the end of June. Players and fans were pleased to have negotiated the preliminary qualifying round with a comfortable victory over the Dutch Antilles 6-1 (1-2, 4-0), but all were then stunned by the decision of legendary manager Bora Milutinovic to resign in the wake of what he perceived as intolerable criticism. "The statements by the coaches, officials and the Honduras media make it impossible for me to continue working here," said the Serbian.
Bora's replacement was 41 year-old Raúl Martínez Sambulá, a former Honduras international with little management experience and just two months to get the team ready for the crucial qualifier with Costa Rica. "We are coming to Costa Rica to play our brand of football and try to win the match," he said before the big game, "I know what to expect from the Costa Ricans so I'm concentrating entirely on our own game." The players went into the match in upbeat mood, with, for example, David Suazo declaring, "we're going to beat them, I'm certain of that. They may say they are favourites, but they're going to have a hard job proving that on the pitch. Obviously it will be a tough game, but we're going to show them what we're made of."
It is not always a good idea to trumpet such triumphant thoughts before a game, but, on 18 August last, the Honduras players lived up to their words. In front of 17,000 fervent Ticos fans, the Hondurans pulled off a remarkable, and quite emphatic, 5-2 win. David Suazo, Amado Guevara, Julio Cesar de Leon, Ivan Guerrero and Saul Martinez grabbed a goal each.
The win triggered ecstatic scene all over Honduras, with the country's president saying, "I am proud of the national team. The whole Honduran people, who are represented by this team, are delighted."
Not only did the victory allow them to continue their 2006 dreams, but it also gave the Hondurans sweet revenge from some sobering recent defeats at the hands of the Ticos, whom they had not beaten since a UNCAF match on 16 March 1999. It was the Costa Ricans who shattered the Hondurans bid to reach the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan by claiming their first away win over Honduras in 44 years with a 3-2 triumph in Tegucigalpa.
Costa Rica no longer the bête noir
Since that loss, Costa Rica had become the bête noir of Honduras. But the bitter memories have all been wiped away now. What is more, last August's win gave the Hondurans an impressive points haul in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, since the Ticos had been perched 31 places higher than them, in 28th. The fact that it was a competitive match rather than a friendly increased the points total, as did the impressive size of the victory. All in all, Honduras soared 12 places up to 47th, the highest they had been since January 2004.
Honduras are an unabashedly attack-minded team, but they have also made great strides in terms of tactics in recent years. Bora Milutinovic certainly contributed to that learning process during his short spell in charge, but so too has the experience of the handful of players who ply their trade abroad. More and more Hondurans are playing for clubs in the likes of Mexico, Uruguay, the United States and even Italy, where Suazo (Cagliari) De Leon (Reggina), Carlos Pavon (Napoli) and Samuel Caballero (Udinese) are all acquitting themselves well.
So Honduras are slowly but surely on the march. Following their win over Costa Rica, Sambulá men travelled to Canada and earned a 1-1 draw before coming home and fighting out a 2-2 draw with Guatemala. Not especially encouraging results perhaps, but nor do they give cause for despair. "We have to move on from the Guatemala match," said Sambulá, "we simply have to get our heads down and concentrate on our next match, which is at home to Canada.".
As they sit second in Group 2, two points behind the Guatemalans, Honduras know they are still very much in the running for a place in Germany, but they also know they can ill-afford any slip-ups against the Canadians on 9 October. If they do make it to the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 24 years, they will certainly draw inspiration from the performance of their predecessors. In Spain 1982, Honduras drew twice and suffered one narrow defeat; a showing that enabled them to make quite a leap up the world ranking.