Noel Valladares might not be the best-known member of the Honduras team vying for a place at South Africa 2010. Yet the 32-year-old keeper is one of the main reasons why Los Catrachos are well placed to land a qualifying slot in the CONCACAF Zone.
With Valladares between the posts, Reinaldo Rueda's well-organised side have the best defensive record in the final six-team group, having conceded just six goals. As he prepares for this weekend's hugely important home meeting with Trinidad and Tobago, the in-form custodian spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his career and Honduras' dream of making a return to the biggest tournament of them all.
After a shaky start, the upwardly mobile Hondurans have strung together some impressive results to move up to second place in the section. And as the stalwart keeper explains, that has triggered mounting excitement across the country. "There's a real feeling of joy in the air right now and that's got everyone believing," he explains. "The fans have faith in the national team and we're ready to respond to that."
That sense of growing optimism can largely be put down to last month's 4-0 demolition of group leaders Costa Rica, a stunning win that catapulted La Bicolor right into the thick of the qualification battle.
"There's a lot of confidence in what we're doing now because of that result," he says, describing the knock-on effect of a result that ultimately helped his side climb above the mighty USA. "We're not taking anything for granted, though, because there's still some way to go before South Africa yet. We have some very tough games coming up and we have to win them if we want to reach our goal and fulfil our dream."
Next up for Valladares and Co is a showdown on Saturday with bottom-placed Trinidad and Tobago. "We need to be watchful," says Honduras' No1, guarding against complacency. "We're taking a cautious approach to this game because we know that every match is different. We're going to keep our feet on the ground, stay focused and not let ourselves get carried away by our last result."
After their date with the Soca Warriors, Honduras travel to Mexico and the daunting Estadio Azteca for a game that could well decide the fate of both sides. Could that be their opportunity for a breakthrough victory in the Mexican capital? "We want to win the home game before we start thinking about Mexico," he replies warily. "We're taking things one step at a time. Let's get the three points on Saturday first; the Azteca will come round soon enough."
Long blessed with skilful individuals, Honduras have struggled to mount a serious challenge in recent FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns. What has made the difference this time? "It's difficult to say," comes the response. "I don't like making comparisons, but the team has grown in so many ways, and you can see that on the pitch. The mindset we have right now is what has taken us so close to our objective."
In Valladares' eyes one of the main architects of the turnaround is Colombian coach Rueda, who has quietly and unobtrusively taken the Central Americans forward. "He's patient, dedicated and hard-working. Those are his main attributes. His wisdom and humility have been so important to us and have helped instil us with confidence."
On a personal level the experienced glovesman has not given up hope of one day emulating some of his team-mates by earning a move to Europe. "It's something I think about and I'm still working towards it, but it's for God to decide," he says. "All I can do is give my all and be ready if and when the opportunity arises."
With a few more sterling performances in the Honduras goal, Valladares could yet make that dream a reality.