International debutants as late as 1995, Belize only made their first appearance in the Copa Centroamericana two years later. Since then they have always finished last in the regional tournament, organised by the Union Centroamericana de Futbol (UNCAF), the governing body of Central American football.
In all that time Los Jaguares failed to win a single game in the competition. This unwanted record finally came to an end this year when they claimed a group-stage victory en route to a wholly unexpected fourth-place finish, earning them a berth at the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the very first time.
Another highlight of the 2013 tournament, which came to an end last weekend, was the return of host nation Costa Rica to the top of the regional pile. Los Ticos had not won the competition since 2007, when they claimed the title for the third time in a row and sixth time overall.
The final standings from the tournament land Costa Rica at the top. Honduras and El Salvador finished second and third, respectively. Belize and Panama round out the top five while Guatemala, who placed sixth, is the only team from the tournament to miss out on the Gold Cup action.
The Copa Centroamericana has long had a reputation throwing up big scorelines. Nevertheless, times have changed in Central American football and former pushovers such as Nicaragua and Belize are no longer the minnows they once were. They proved that point at this year’s tournament with all but two of the group-phase matches ending in draws.
Costa Rica dominated proceedings in Group A, following up a 1-0 win over Belize with a 2-0 defeat of Nicaragua to clinch a place in the last four, and then playing out a 1-1 draw with Guatemala. Widely tipped to take second, Los Chapines could only draw 0-0 with Belize and 1-1 with the Nicaraguans in their first two games, giving the two underdogs a chance to battle it out for the runners-up spot. And it was Los Jaguares who claimed it on the final matchday, upsetting the odds with a historic 2-1 win sealed by a last-minute strike from their star man Deon McCaulay.
The three-team Group B proved even tighter as El Salvador, Honduras and Panama cancelled each other out in three draws. Los Catrachos took top spot courtesy of having scored one goal more than their two rivals, whose fate was decided by the drawing of lots, with fortune favouring Los Cuscatlecos. That left the unlucky Panamanians to fight it out with Guatemala, the third-placed team in Group A, for the last ticket to this July’s Gold Cup, which Los Canaleros secured with a comfortable 3-1 win.
Satisfaction all round
The pattern of close games continued in the semi-finals, as Honduras and Costa Rica edged to respective 1-0 victories over Belize and El Salvador. The final was also decided by a solitary goal, scored in the 38th minute by Costa Rica’s Giancarlo Gonzalez, much to the delight of the crowd at San Jose’s Estadio Nacional.
Tico coach Jorge Luis Pinto was understandably delighted with the result: “We should be happy with what we saw on the pitch. We had six or seven chances, whereas Honduras only managed to create one. Winning always breeds confidence and pushes players on to bigger things.”
Costa Rica defender Jose Salvatierra was equally elated: “Our objective was to win the title and this is a great way to start the year.”
No less pleased was matchwinner Gonzalez: “It’s a dream come true. It’s the most important goal I’ve ever scored in my career, no question.”
While the hosts took the silverware, perhaps the competition’s biggest victors were long shots Belize. “What an incredible feeling. I can’t put it into words,” said goal hero McCauley, after he and his team-mates were greeted by ecstatic crowds on their arrival home. “Everyone in Belize is happy, so happy. The whole country has gone crazy and my family still can’t believe it.”
With the Gold Cup looming on the horizon later this year, for Belize the party may only just be starting.