Honduras hold sway in Central America
© AFP

After decades in the doldrums, Honduras are well and truly back among the CONCACAF footballing elite. Seven months after becoming the sole Central American side to grace the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ last year, Los Catrachos proved it was no fluke by winning the 2011 Copa Centroamericana last Sunday in Panama.

Despite a shaky start in the competition, Juan de Dios Castillo’s side claimed the title with a hugely satisfying defeat of arch-rivals Costa Rica, who they would appear to have usurped as the region’s top side. The tournament also decided the five Central American participants at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Heading to the championship in the USA this June alongside the aforementioned finalists will be Panama, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The champions
It would be fair to say Honduras did not go into the tournament at the top of their game. After a series of disappointing friendlies that had raised doubts about Castillo’s position, even their own supporters were divided. Nor were the doubts banished when they struggled to an opening 1-1 draw in Group B against Costa Rica.

We’ve achieved something with a team no one believed in and in the face of much scepticism.
Honduras coach Juan de Dios Castillo

From that moment on, though, Los Catrachos never looked back. A brace from Jorge Claros helped them to a comfortable 3-1 win over Guatemala, a result that secured top spot in their section and set up a last-four meeting with another old rival, El Salvador. The Salvadorans provided stiff resistance before two goals in the final 12 minutes secured victory. Waiting for them in the final, almost inevitably, were Los Ticos, who had seen off the hosts 4-2 on penalties after their semi-final ended 1-1.

The decider against Costa Rica, who had veteran coach Ricardo La Volpe at the helm, was every bit as intense as expected. Walter Martinez gave Honduras an early lead on eight minutes before Emil Martinez doubled their advantage with an exquisite free-kick nine minutes into the second half. Despite having to chase the game and being without the red-carded Dario Delgado, La Volpe’s troops battled on and cut the deficit with a Marcos Urena strike 17 minutes from time. It would prove too little too late for Los Ticos, however, as their neighbours deservedly held on for victory.

The rest of the field
For all the disappointment of losing the final, Costa Rica will take many positives from the tournament. A new era is underway under highly respected Argentinian strategist La Volpe, who immediately proved his mettle by going to Panama with a young and inexperienced squad in the absence of a raft of foreign-based regulars. Seizing the opportunity were the likes Urena, Celso Borges, Josue Martinez, Carlos Elizondo and Dave Myrie, all of whom we can expect to hear a lot more about in the future.

Hosts Panama, for their part, could not manage to retain the title won in 2009, in spite of going unbeaten throughout. La Roja will nevertheless take consolation and encouragement from a third-place finish at the expense of a defensive El Salvador side, who succumbed 5-4 on penalties after a goalless 120 minutes.

Thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 win over Nicaragua, Guatemala grabbed fifth spot and the final ticket to the Gold Cup. Their opponents, meanwhile, could not repeat the successes of the previous edition two years ago, when they surprisingly beat the Los Chapines in the corresponding fixture. Last, but by no means least, were Belize, who were never humiliated and showed considerable progress in their deserved 1-1 draw with Nicaragua.

What they said...
“We’ve achieved something with a team no one believed in and in the face of much scepticism. We remained humble and fought for our results. We were very focused and determined in every game we played, and this title is our reward,” Juan de Dios Castillo, Honduras coach.

“With ten men we still managed to put Honduras on the ropes a few times. I believe the team played very well, but sometimes in football the side with the most possession and chances doesn’t win,” Ricardo La Volpe, Costa Rica coach.