One man heaving a huge sigh of relief when Honduras sealed their qualification for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 was coach Miguel Escalante. And no wonder. A late Costa Rica strike in the CONCACAF play-offs two years ago denied his side a place at Peru 2005, a crushing disappointment that made this year's qualifying triumph all the sweeter.
As he prepares for the Catrachos' maiden appearance in the tournament, the significance of the occasion for Honduran football is not lost on Escalante. "As far as we're concerned, results aren't the be-all and end-all here," he tells FIFA.com. "It's important for us that the players get some experience. That's why we've brought some 16- year-olds with us. Hopefully they will kick on and form the basis of the U-20 and U-23 side and then the full national team."
"And I'm not just talking about experience on the pitch," he continues. "For some of these kids this is the first time they've ever been on a plane or in a hotel. As for the football, well, it's important for them to get out and play in front of big crowds so that they can handle that kind of thing in the future." And when it comes to putting his philosophy into a nutshell, Escalante equates his role to that of a gardener: "I see the team as a little seedling that you have to nurture, water and feed so that it bears fruit in the future."
Spain loom on the horizon
The future aside, Honduras's short-term goal is to acquit themselves well in Korea. Content with their preparations to date, Escalante is confident they can do just that. "Bearing in mind the resources we have and the work we've done so far I'd say we're in pretty good shape. Obviously we are learning new things all the time but we've played 25 international matches in all, including the qualifiers, and we've only lost five."
Perhaps the highlight of those encounters was the 0-0 draw that denied reigning FIFA U-17 world champions Mexico the opportunity to defend their title in the far east. "Games like that or the match against Brazil at the Pan-American Games, where we played in front of 30,000 people, have helped the team mature and develop. But if we're going to achieve anything here we're going to have to fight harder and run faster than the others," adds Escalante.
The question is, will those attributes be enough to secure a good result in their opening match against Spain? "Surprises happen all the time but I don't want to get carried away and say something I might have to take back later," says a cautious Escalante. "Time puts everything in its place as they say, and you can never predict what's going to happen in a game. I prefer just to be honest, say little, and put my faith in the boys giving it their all."
One thing this self-confessed admirer of Argentinian football is sure about is how both sides will approach Sunday's Group C curtain raiser. "They'll hit us with everything they've got and attack down the flanks, which is how they like to play. We'll just be looking to keep things tight and see if we can surprise them on the counter with our strikers, who are quick and also hold the ball up well. If we can stay focused and concentrate, especially at dead-ball situations, then we'll have a chance."
Although Honduras could hardly have had a tougher start to their campaign, Escalante is not one to bemoan his misfortune. "We don't have any control over that," he says phlegmatically. "I know Spain and Argentina better than Syria, but maybe it'll be the Syrians who end up surprising me most. The three group games are a fight to the death, and even if we come off second best, I just hope we can say that it wasn't because we didn't run or fight but because they were better, more experienced or better prepared than we were."