As anticipation grows for this summer’s Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, players, coaches, and fans alike are beginning to weigh up their chances. The route to qualifying for London 2012 proved thrilling round the globe, but perhaps one of the most dramatic scenarios played out in the North, Central and Caribbean region.
Honduras and Mexico were the last two standing in CONCACAF after handing Canada and El Salvador their exits in the semi-final round of qualifying, while Olympic regulars USA failed to even make it out of the group stage.
Los Catrachos’ dramatic extra-time defeat of El Salvador in the last four ensured their presence at just a third Olympic Games, all of which appearances have come since the new millennium. Mexico, on the other hand, claimed their spot for the tenth time thanks to a more routine win over Canada.
With Mexico set to open their London campaign against Korea Republic and Honduras against Morocco, FIFA.com takes a closer look at the key moments in the two sides’ differing histories in reaching the Olympic Games.
An elusive fourth for El Tri
Mexico first appeared at the Olympics at Amsterdam 1928, however, there they failed to collect a single point after a 7-1 loss to Spain. Following up that effort with first-round exits in 1948 and 1964, with a three-year absence in between, El Tri finally made their first big splash at the Games on home soil during Mexico City 1968.
Qualifying as hosts alongside Guatemala and El Salvador, Mexico finished second in Group A behind France before finally seeking revenge against Spain in a 2-0 quarter-final victory, and then losing out to Bulgaria in the semi-finals. However, a bronze medal was still up for grabs in a third-place match against tournament surprise packages Japan.
Political unrest and civil rights activism hung a tumultuous backdrop for the 1968 Summer Games, and with plenty on-and-off the field conflict, Mexico too were added into the drama come time for their final outing. Fans were irate in Azteca stadium throughout, even throwing cushions onto the pitch in protest of a decision, while the Mexicans ultimately lost 2-0 to Japan for a fourth-place finish.
While home fans certainly had wished for more, Mexico’s performance at those Olympics still remains their best to date. Despite reaching the last eight at the tournament’s next instalment in Munich in 1972, the Mexicans have been dogged by inconsistency. Absent from the competition throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until Atlanta 1996 in which El Tricolor returned to the quarter-finals. And, even so, the last decade has presented a rocky road for Mexico. Appearing only at Athens 2004, Mexico’s last two misses, in 2000 and 2008, made way for a new kid on the block: Honduras.
New millennium, new competition
La Bicolor's history at the Olympics is a relatively short one, with the Central Americans making their first appearance just 12-years-ago at Sydney 2000. Though the Hondurans bowed out in the group stage in Australia after bagging four points following an opening draw against Nigeria, a loss to Italy, and a win over the hosts, it was their path to qualifying for their first Olympic Games that proved most remarkable.
After enduring two preliminary rounds, Honduras arrived at the final phase of qualifying in dubious position after an internal dispute had the national side in short-lived disarray. Then coach Ramon Maradiaga, however, has since said he believed the squad would qualify for the Olympics despite the obstacles faced prior to the last stage of qualifying.
Such conviction couldn’t prevent the Hondurans from an initial slip-up against USA, but nevertheless, they did beat Canada to book a semi-final match against Mexico and a chance to make history. After playing out a goalless draw in normal and extra time, Los Catrachos claimed an unlikely 5-4 win on penalties over the Mexicans and a first-ever place at the Olympics. And, if that wasn’t prize enough, they marched on to Sydney as CONCACAF U-23 champions after shocking the United States in the final.
Maradiaga was overcome with joy at the time, recalling to concacaf.com: “The motivation to attain goals, bring happiness to the country and to know that this group of players, each of whom went through obstacles, all became pioneers in writing this chapter in the history of Honduran football, filled me with great pride that the objective was achieved.”
Although Honduras missed out on the next Olympic edition, they qualified for their second in similar style as they beat Guatemala in the last four before winning another CONCACAF crown over fellow-qualifiers USA. Beijing 2008 proved out to not be as successful a campaign for La Bicolor, though, as they crashed out of the competition without a point.
However, with the next Men’s Olympic Football Tournament already in sight, Honduras will surely be eyeing a better finish this time around as they continue to build their global clout. Meanwhile, Mexico are itching a return to the Olympic stage after strong performances at youth level, in the U-17 and U-20 FIFA World Cups just last year, have many pegging them as contenders.