Honduras enjoy a hard-earned place in the sun
p>In their very first appearance in the Olympic Football Tournament , Honduras face an imposing task just to reach the quarter-finals. The Central Americans will face reigning gold-medalists Nigeria, traditional giants Brazil and hosts Australia.
Honduras almost did not get an opportunity to qualify for the Games after their Under-23 team refused to travel to the final phase of the CONCACAF tournament in the United States because players had not received promised bonuses. The federation eventually paid half of the USD 2,200 bonuses owed to each player and the team agreed to fly to the USA, unaware they were about to make football history. Not only did Honduras overcome and surprise perennial CONCACAF powers Mexico and United States to achieve their greatest international football moment since participating in the 1982 World Cup, they captured the confederation championship as well.
"It's history for us to be able to get to the Olympics for the first time, even though we had to overcome a lot of difficulties, " said coach Ramon Enrique Maradiaga, who was carried in triumph by his players after defeating the USA, 2-1 in the final.
Before the tournament, many of the players were considered pariahs by their own fans and media in the Central American country of 5.6 million people. "They wanted to stone us," Maradiaga said.Instead, the team returned home as heroes although Maradiaga admitted that he and the team had endured many heartaches. "I have lost some peace of mind, some confidence," he said. "When we left, some people were hoping we would do badly here. That's how bad it was. There was a lot of rubbish said in our country by the local news media. We have dignity and we have shown our dignity."
A carnival in Honduras
Winning the tournament earned each player a bonus of USD 4,000. But Maradiaga, who was a member of that 1982 World Cup team, realizes it will take more than player bonuses to prepare his team for the Olympics.
"The economic assistance in our country is very limited, and private assistance doesn't support us much," he said. "We don't even have appropriate training facilities to have adequate preparation."
Due to the possibility of the boycott, the Hondurans barely got to the tournament in Hershey, Pennsylvania on time, arriving at 5 a.m. on the day of their first match. It showed in their performance as a tired team lost 0-3 to the USA before rebounding with a 2-0 win over Canada.
That set up a semi-final confrontation with heavily favored Mexico. Honduras however, had other plans. Despite being outplayed, the Hondurans, driven forward by a superb performance by goalkeeper Noel Valladares, edged out the Mexicans on penalty kicks, 5-4, after playing 120 minutes of scoreless football. Hector Gutierrez converted the crucial kick, firing a shot into the lower left corner past keeper Adrian Zermeno.
"Certainly, this is like a festival, a carnival in Honduras," Maradiaga said. "I'm sure people will be in the streets tomorrow. This is the first time we're going to a competition like this. We owe that to the players and thanks to God."
The Hondurans were not finished as they were able to exact revenge on the USA, who had inflicted that first-game defeat. After the USA drew first blood Honduras began to impose themselves.
Suazo leads the way
Striker Oscar David Suazo, whose entry into the competition was delayed until the Mexican match due to commitments with Italian Serie A club Cagliari, scored twice. He equalized in the 29th minute with a 12-yard thunderbolt off a pass from his cousin, midfielder and team captain Maynor Suazo.
It was the first goal the Americans had conceded in 299 minutes in the tournament. "When we tied the game, it gave us a little more confidence and settled us down," Maradiaga said.
Suazo sealed victory with a beautifully placed header in the 56th minute off a left-wing cross by Julio Cesar Suazo (no relation). "He gives us more power and speed," Maradiaga said. "He is a very powerful player in Italy."
In September, Suazo will need all this speed and power and his teammates at their opportunistic best if Honduras want to continue their miraculous run.