Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda announced himself on the global stage when he guided Honduras to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. And though Los Catrachos failed to go beyond the group phase, they advanced their reputation and that of their coach in producing three commendable performances against Spain, Switzerland and Chile.
Quick to play down his part in their South African adventure, the modest 53-year-old, who never played the game professionally, has climbed his way up from the bottom of the coaching ladder, starting out in Colombian youth teams before almost steering Los Cafeteros to Germany 2006.
Appointed Ecuador’s national coach in August 2010, Rueda is now preparing for the 2011 Copa America and the start of the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, he discussed those challenges as well as Honduras’ performances at South Africa 2010 and Ecuador’s potential for success.
FIFA.com: Reinaldo, looking back at South Africa 2010, how well do you think you did in what was your first FIFA World Cup finals?
Reinaldo Rueda: Whenever I look through the reports or watch the videos I realise the scale of our achievement. From a personal and professional point of view I’m very happy to have taken part in a World Cup. It was an absolutely wonderful experience, although after spending so many years trying to qualify and putting so much energy into it, it all seemed to go by so quickly.
Do you feel as if you’re a more fully rounded coach now?
You could say that. Everybody wants the status that goes with appearing at the World Cup and it brings you a lot of respect. You learn things from an experience like that. It helps you mature and shows you things you can use to grow and develop. The great thing about this job is that you never stop growing.
How would you assess Honduras’ performance?
You’re always looking for more, but we had a lot of injury problems and that really affected our chances. Even so, we held our own in a group that contained the world champions, the only team to beat them in the whole competition and a side that were the revelations of the South American qualifying competition.
Why were you so emotional when you left the job?
It was a difficult situation because my mind was really torn. My head was saying one thing and my heart was saying another. As well as my professional ties with Honduras, my family and I have very strong personal ties too. We’d grown very attached to the country and it was tough to say that the project had come to an end. My children didn’t want to leave.
To an outsider, though, it seemed hard to believe the project was over.
But that’s how we felt. We had close links with the youth teams and they qualified for the U-17 and U-20 World Cups and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Then there was the World Cup proper. To achieve all that is nothing out of the ordinary for big countries, but for a place like Honduras, with its small population and social and economic problems, it was huge. After South Africa we had the feeling that it was best for both sides just to move on. And if they stick to the right path, then I can see a bright future for them.
And how did you find things when you took on the Ecuador job?
Ecuador’s recent achievements made it an attractive job and my feelings didn’t change when I took over. They’re going through a transitional phase, though, one that’s probably been going on since the last World Cup qualifying competition. There’s been a natural changeover from one generation to another, but there’s also a lot of potential here, with a strong structure at management and club level. With the resources here there are grounds for optimism. The U-20s have just qualified for the World Cup for the first time in ten years, which proves my point.
Your first major assignment is the Copa America. Are you looking at it as an objective in itself or as a dry run for the Brazil 2014 qualifiers?
It’s a tournament with a great history behind it and it’s being staged in Argentina, a country with a big tradition. That said, it’s the only opportunity we’ll have to spend 25 days with the players before the qualifiers start, and it will show us where we are before they get under way. We’ll still be looking to do well, but it’s going to be a useful gauge for us regardless of how far we go.
What do you think of the group you’ve been drawn in?
I always get the tough ones (laughs). Even with an experimental side, you can never underestimate Brazil. Paraguay have consolidated really well under Gerardo Martino, as they showed at the World Cup, and Venezuela have gone from being surprise packages to contenders. Like I said before, it’ll help us see where we are.
What kind of performance would you be happy with?
I don’t want to set a limit or anything, but I would like to see us get beyond the first phase. The opening game with Brazil will be crucial because it’ll set the tone for the other two games. If we can get past the first round, I think we could justifiably set our sights on the semis.
After that come the qualifiers for Brazil 2014. How will it feel to be battling for a place against your native Colombia?
It’ll be very emotional. I have to be professional about it, though, and Colombia now have a generation of players with a lot of potential. They’ve consolidated and turned things around. It’s a big challenge for them, and in Hernan Dario Gomez they’ve got a coach who’s been more successful than anyone in World Cup qualifiers. So the more points we can take off them the better, as they’re going to be direct rivals in the qualification battle. That’s what we’re aiming for, of course: a place at the World Cup.
Now you’re back in South America, perhaps you can answer a question that’s always a topic of debate at FIFA.com. Which is better: South American or Central American football?
You can’t compare the two. They’re two different footballing cultures and they should be respected as such. I think in South America we maybe make the mistake of undervaluing Central American football, but the fact is it’s going from strength to strength. Until you’ve lived there, played there, faced the region’s teams on a regular basis, let alone competed in the World Cup qualifiers, then it’s very difficult to have a real appreciation of the game there.
Would you mind expanding on that?
There are three styles: Caribbean, with all the potential of islands like Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica; North America, with Mexico, USA and Canada, countries with big reputations; and Central America, where there’s been steady development, though they still have a few years to go before they come of age. Even so, I’m sure they’re going to be more and more competitive.
Can you see a CONCACAF team reaching the last four of the FIFA World Cup any time soon?
Well, you need to put that in perspective. USA and Mexico are well ahead of the rest. They’ve got the infrastructure at league and national team level and the tradition to take that step before the rest. That’s why you can see them springing a surprise pretty soon.