By rights, the gloves that Honduras goalkeeper Luis Buba Lopez used against Korea Republic at Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao should already be on their way to a museum back home. There can be no item that better represents the Hondurans’ historic feat in reaching the semi-finals of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, the first Central American nation to do so in competition history.
Indeed, however imperious was Romell Quioto’s raking 60-metre dash, prior to an immaculately clinical first-time finish from Alberth Elis for the game’s only goal, that it will be Los Catrachos taking on Brazil in the last four in Rio’s Maracana is down to the cat-like reflexes of Buba Lopez.
“Every player is important, but we have to be thankful to Buba,” said head coach Jorge Luis Pinto, not a man noted for singling out individual players for praise, in the post-match press conference. “He was special tonight, extraordinary, and I told him so. Part of this is his. With a great goalkeeper we can do great things."
“He’s a top-class keeper without a doubt. He was the man. He saved us tonight and I hope he can keep doing so, for the good of the whole country,” chipped in centre-back Johnny Palacios, the squad’s most experienced player, in speaking with FIFA.com. “We all thanked him in the dressing room and told him to keep playing like that and we’d do our bit too.”
Though the whole match lasted 90 minutes plus added time, the spell featuring Lopez pulling off seemingly impossible saves lasted just 17. Between the 38th and 55th minute of this quarter-final encounter, with the half-time interval in between, the only thing lacking from the Real Espana custodian’s Superman impression was a cape.
First came a firm hand to repel a venomous shot from outside the box, which had hit a defender and was spinning inexorably towards the back of the net. Then came a duel that Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heungmin will not soon forget. Three efforts from the South Korean No7 were met by three stops from the Catrachos’ No1, each more unbelievable than the last and each with his strong left hand.
“It’s hard to say if it’s the best performance of my career,” said the man of the hour after the match, who outside those unforgettable 17 minutes pulled off other crucial – if more routine – stops. “I felt really good but the result was down to the whole team, over and above my performance. I’m pleased we’re in the next round.”
Nor is it the first time that Honduras have been grateful to his gifts between the sticks, particularly four wonder-saves in the 2-1 group-stage defeat against Portugal – in the teams’ second match. At the time the Central Americans may have felt that Buba’s heroics had been in vain but, in fact, Honduras subsequently squeezed out of Group D thanks to a goal difference one better than Argentina’s.
Yet Honduran football fans could easily have lived to regret the short-sightedness of Real Espana who, when the player was 17, initially chose not to sign him because, of all things, a lack of height. Fortunately, the scout who discovered him backed his find to the hilt and the 22-year-old, now measuring in at 1.83m – still not huge in these days of giant goalkeepers – has risen like steam ever since.
In 2013 he made his top-flight debut, he then won the Honduran championship, stopping decisive penalties along the way, and by 2014 was his country’s third-choice keeper at the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. In 2015 came his senior international debut which, almost predictably, featured another spot-kick save.
Pinto selected him for his Olympic squad and Buba could barely have repaid his faith better, helping lift Honduras to historic heights and earning iconic status in the dressing room: “We’ve enjoyed this experience like one big family. It’s very fulfilling to see my team-mates so happy.
"Now comes to mind all the work we put in, the hard graft under the hot Sun, but all this is down to God’s help,” he concluded, before signing off with a shot across Brazil’s bows. “We’re really happy, but we want to keep making more history.”