After so many recent disappointments, there is a smile back on the face of Honduran football once more. Not only do the senior team have one foot in the group phase qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but the U-23 team continue their impressive build-up to the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, where their chances or causing an upset look better than ever.
El Pastor leading the flock
One of the most respected figures in the history of Honduran football, Gilberto 'El Pastor' Yearwood was a member of the iconic Catracho side of Spain '82, where the battling Central Americans came within a point of progressing to the second round in their onlfy appearance at a FIFA World Cup to date.
Now, 26 years on, Yearwood is hoping to make another bit of history after his recent appointment as coach of the U-23 side for the Beijing Olympics. For the former central defender, it is a huge honour to serve his country in the role. "It's flattering when the national team requires your services. The outgoing coaching staff did a great job in getting Honduras to the Olympics, and so it's nice to part of that process."
Yearwood replaces another former FIFA World Cup star, Alexis Mendoza, who expertly steered the Catrachos to their third consecutive Olympic Games. However, the Colombian was then made assistant to senior-team head coach Reinaldo Rueda for the South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign, thereby ruling him out of the Beijing Games.
Despite only recently taking charge, Yearwood has already begun analysing the group opponents he will face in China. "Everyone knows Italy are a force in world football - that's their nature, and Cameroon are one of Africa's top sides and have good Olympic pedigree. However, this [Honduran] team comes from a good generation of players, and I have no doubt whatsoever they can compete at the highest level with anyone."
A clear demonstration of the potential of the U-23 side is the number of its players to have been handed debuts with the senior team in recent weeks. In the country's friendly with Belize, which the Catrachos comfortably won 2-0, two Beijing-bound youngsters, George Welcome and Jefferson Bernardez, made their bow. Even more encouragingly, the fledgling duo grabbed the goals that secured the victory. Then in their recent friendly against Haiti, U-23 keeper Kevin Hernandez was handed his debut and went on to play a key part in their 3-1 win.
The opening goal of that encounter came from penalty earned by Welcome, already considered to be the team's talisman. The centre forward, a virtual unknown before the Olympic qualifiers, scored the winner in the 1-0 victory over the USA that made the U-23s regional champions, and since then he has not looked back.
Honduras are leaving nothing to chance as they gear up for Beijing, with Reinaldo Rueda having already put in place a step-by-step approach to their quest for a medal.
In terms of practice games, the team will face Nigeria on 21 June, before pitting themselves against Colombian club side Deportes Quindio a week later. In July, they will twice more face Cafetero opposition in the form of Deportivo Pereira and Deportivo Cali. Shortly after that, the U-23s head to the USA, where the will take on San Jose Earthquakes and later the national team itself.
No-one could accuse the Hondurans of taking their preparations lightly as they aim to become the first Central American side to secure a medal at an Olympic Football Tournament. As for Rueda, he is clear about the style the U-23s need to stick to in their bid for glory. "They should have a philosophy based on playing a balanced game with minimum restrictions that will allow them to take maximum advantage of their talent and individual skill. We have the players to bring that to fruition."
All of Honduras will be hoping he is right.