Guatemala are aiming to reach a first-ever FIFA World Cup™ in two years' time. Following a few bumps in the road and the return of a trusted coach, the Chapines have climbed four places on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for April and have fresh impetus heading into their first qualifier for South Africa 2010.
Colombian Hernan Dario Gomez resigned after 16 months in the Guatemala hot-seat, the tipping point coming on Wednesday 6 February 2008. In what was the side's maiden meeting with Argentina, the South Americans' reserves beat them 5-0. "I've been here for two-and-a-half years without making any headway," said the former Colombia and Ecuador coach."My dreams have been shattered."
It was a moment of profound disappointment, not only for Gomez but also for Guatemalan fans who had seen their side come within one game of reaching the previous FIFA World Cup. The immediate response from the country's FA was to turn backward, re-hiring former Honduran international and coach Ramon Maradiaga, who had guided the Chapines during the qualifying stages for Germany 2006.
It proved an inspired move.
Since the Honduran's return, Guatemala have not lost a match and look in good form heading into their crucial preliminary campaign. The impressive run of form, which includes a hard-fought 1-0 win over Haiti, has moved the Central Americans up four places on April's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking after three months of only marginal movement in the global pecking order.
The Guatemalans, who begin their South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign on 14 June at home to Caribbean minnows St. Lucia, are currently ranked eighth in North, Central America and the Caribbean, just behind Trinidad and Tobago (the team that pipped them at the wire for a play-off spot to Germany 2006) and ahead of Jamaica and Cuba.
The country's highest-ever ranking came in 2006, during the high-point of their charge towards the last world finals, and saw them roar all the way up to 50th in the world. Now in 91st position, they find themselves comforted by a spot in the top 100 and by the fact that United Arab Emirates, Austria and reigning Caribbean champions Haiti sit beneath them.
Guatemala, champions of the region in 1965 and 1969, will be heavy favourites to reach the first group stage of CONCACAF qualifying, but they may have to do so without their all-time top scorer Carlos Ruiz. El Pescadito (The Little Fish) has not played in a month for club side Los Angeles Galaxy after picking up a serious knee injury. However, the MLS-based goal-getter is not shy in giving his opinion on the recently re-installed Maradiaga, affectionately known as El Primitivo (The Caveman).
"He's the best man for the job here in Guatemala," said Ruiz, one of a precious few Guatemalan national team players based outside of the Central American country. "
He knows exactly what it takes to go through a qualifying campaign and to get us to the World Cup
The Guatemalans are entering into a feverish approach to the their first-leg qualifier on 14 June, with a host of challenging friendly matches aimed at giving Maradiaga and Co a better picture of where they stand. They meet Central American neighbours El Salvador on 31 May, before clashing with Panama on 1 June and Chile three days later.