Though sandwiched between the footballing hotbeds of Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua has always been more enamoured with baseball. Indeed it has a proud history and impressive pedigree when it comes to the bat and ball, with its players lighting up the game’s major leagues and the national team having twice finished runners-up in the world championships and twice taken silver in the Pan American Games.

Football, in contrast, has had a much more modest history in Nicaragua. The national team have never participated in the finals of FIFA tournament and before last month had never even survived a round of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying.

In the Central American nation, football is still very much a street game, with the game most frequently played for fun by kids on dirt pitches. For some, however, it is precisely this generation of youngsters that represents the best chance for Nicaraguan football to gradually carve out a niche for itself.

In spite of the vast popularity of baseball and boxing, the country’s footballers are striving to establish the sport they love. A step in the right direction was Nicaragua’s jump of 31 places to 154th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking between February and March this year. Major credit for the improvement has to go Costa Rican Henry Duarte, who took over as coach of Los Pinoleros at the start of the year and has placed great emphasis on youth development.

Present challenges, future hopes
Now 56, Duarte previously worked with Costa Rican youth teams and in the area of sporting development for the country’s FA, making him a the ideal candidate to provide Nicaraguan football with some much needed impetus. “I hope I can bring about an improvement at grassroots level, which is where the future of the country’s football lies,” he said on taking up the post.

“The future of football here is not in the senior team; it’s in the youngsters – possibly the U-17 or U-20 sides. Nicaragua has a great advantage with respect to other countries. Here, football is played on the streets and on dirt pitches. We need to find a way to harness this, as that’s the kind of authentic football that can flourish if we can just give the kids the necessary tools,” he added.

We might not qualify for the World Cup in Russia but I believe we can be among the top six sides in the CONCACAF.

Henry Duarte, Nicaragua coach.

And while he oversees this long-term project and nourishes the seeds to a better future, he is also focusing on the immediate challenges facing the senior team, which also has a major role to play. Despite just a few months at the helm of the full side, the coach has already enjoyed one significant achievement in guiding his charges through a CONCACAF qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.

First hurdle cleared
With only minimal time to prepare, Duarte’s charges took on Anguilla on 23 March in their opening qualifier in what was also the team’s first official fixture of the new era. With his side then 185th in the Ranking, the new coach fielded a young team led by Juan Barrera, soon to become the first Nicaraguan to play in Europe when he moves to Austrian outfit Rheindorf Altach.

Los Pinoleros certainly made home advantage count at the Estadio Nacional in Managua. In a storming first half, they ran in four unanswered goals then added a fifth after the break to all but secure their places in the second round. Six days later, they rubber-stamped their passage with a 3-0 win in Anguilla, where a Moises Leguias double and another Barrera effort did the damage.

The 8-0 aggregate win was keenly celebrated by the players, delighted to have progressed in the competition. The result was no less pleasing for Duarte, who saw his charges put in a committed but tactically-disciplined performance that featured high-tempo football, frequent ball-recovery and pacy transitions between defence and attack. The victory also has the fans starting to believe in the side again after watching it ascend to 154th in the Ranking from an average of 173rd in 2014.   

Thoughts have now turned to the next qualifying round and opponents Suriname, who they face over two legs on 7 and 16 June. Survive that round and Nicaragua would be one step closer to what the coach thinks is a realistic goal: “We might not qualify for the World Cup in Russia but I believe we can be among the top six sides in the CONCACAF.”

It is a goal Duarte will doubtless keep striving for, as he seeks to balance the needs of the present with the future – that of doing well in the qualifiers to raise the team’s profile and confidence, with the need to focus on nurturing young players for the years ahead.

And if the coach can improve the current crop and sow the seeds for future generations, then he may just achieve the thing he values most: “From the moment I arrived, I realised there’s a huge amount of talent here. What’s lacking, however, is the ability to show this to the outside world so that football here can develop. My biggest triumph will not be beating Anguilla, but hopefully leaving a legacy here.”