Honduras, for years the nearly men of the region, pulled off
quite a shock by beating the United States 1-0 in Nashville in
Sunday's final of the 2008 CONCACAF U-23 championship. Although
bragging rights have their place, the real tension and drama came
on Thursday when both finalists booked passage to the Beijing
Olympic Games by winning their respective last-four contests.
Led by the hulking figure of Hendry Thomas in the centre of the pitch, the Hondurans - who lost to the US in the group stages - needed penalties to get past fellow Central Americans Guatemala in a tense, defensive semi-final which ended goalless after 120 minutes. The shootout win means the Catrachos are heading to a Men's Olympic Football Tournament for the first time since 2000. Currently without a club, Georgie Welcome went on to score the only goal in the 103rd-minute of the extra-time final against a severely depleted USA, playing without Freddy Adu and Jonathan Spector who headed back to Europe after qualification was secured.
The hosts, coached by former Poland international Peter Nowak, booked their place in Beijing when they roared past northern neighbours Canada with minimal effort (3-0) in their crucial last-four contest. A two-goal performance from teenage sensation and Benfica man Adu (who was among four Americans named to the tournament's best eleven) had the States in the driving seat even before Sasha Kljestan finished off the job with an insurance goal in the 78th minute.
The American players were thrilled with reaching Beijing. They will be hoping to exceed their best-ever Olympic performance of Sydney 2000 where, led by Brad Friedel and Landon Donovan, they finished just out of the medals in fourth."It's a dream come true and I'd like to live in this moment forever," said defender Marvel Wynne. "Growing up watching the Olympics, you know you're watching the best in the world and now I can say "Hey mom, I'm an Olympian!"
Midfielder Stuart Holden was equally enthralled. "It feels amazing and it is kind of a relief," he said. "We've put in all this hard work over the last couple of months and now we've finally accomplished our goal - we're going to Beijing."
The defeated Canadians, who went on to finish third at the competition with a shootout win over Guatemala on Sunday, can be well proud of their performance after having helped orchestrate the elimination of heavily fancied Mexico in the group stages. "We exceeded all expectations," said former Canada international and coach Nick Dasovic. "The players can be very proud of what they've done."
The over-achieving result will be a tonic for Canadian football fans after their team failed to win a game at last summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup on home soil.
Mexico were led by senior team boss Hugo Sanchez and had such established stars as Guillermo Ochoa, Cesar Villaluz and Patricio Araujo in the side. However, they started slowly and were unable to keep their fate in their own hands before tumbling out early. After drawing Canada and losing to Guatemala (their first defeat in 23 Olympic qualifying games), they needed a big win in their third match against Haiti, which they got (5-1). But already qualified Guatemala were not in the mood to do the Mexicans any favours and their 5-0 loss to the Canadians saw the rampaging favourites go out on one-goal's worth of goal difference.
The failure was met with anger south of the Rio Grande, with fans and media calling for Sanchez's head. The former Real Madrid striker, though, has decided to stand firm and look to the future. "I'm sad, as are all Mexicans." he said. "But I'm sure that the ones who carry on from here will be stronger at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010."
The host Americans had their troubles in the opening rounds as well, only just winning their group with slim wins over Panama and Honduras (both 1-0) in Tampa, Florida after drawing Cuba in their first game. Although the Cubans looked up for a fight, the defection of seven of their players after the stalemate with the Americans effectively ended their hopes of reaching the next round.
Champions: Honduras (qualified for Beijing)
Runners-up: USA (qualified for Beijing)