Under Mexican strategist Carlos de los Cobos, El Salvador are shaping up as the surprise package of the qualifying rounds in CONCACAF. After hammering Anguilla 16-0 on aggregate in the first round, the Salvadorans never looked out of their depth against 2005 Gold Cup runners-up Panama, sensationally knocking the Canaleros out of contention to book a place in the first group stage.
Although El Salvador boast two previous appearances at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, few pundits in the region expected the kind of renewal the Central Americans are showing at present, considering their long and steady decline over nearly the last two decades.
The Salvadoran bid for a place at Germany 2006 was a letdown for fans of the Central American nation. Up against lowly Bermuda in the first preliminary round, El Salvador were run extremely close before scraping through 4-3 on aggregate.
Worse was to come in the second round. El Salvador went through two different coaches and picked up just four points from their six matches, the fruits of a home win against Panama and a lacklustre draw with Jamaica. Action was clearly necessary.
The Salvadoran Football Federation moved swiftly to appoint De los Cobos, and their faith was rewarded by a gradual upturn in performances. The watershed came with a shock 1-0 over European heavyweights Denmark, which ended a run of 18 months without a victory. The Cuscatlecos were able to take that momentum into the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where three points against Trinidad and Tobago helped them to a third-place group finish.
As a result, an air of optimism slowly returned to El Salvador's football. De los Cobos' boys are showing that they have what it takes to stand up to the big names in the region. And with their first group considered the weakest of the three (they are alongside Costa Rica and outsiders Suriname and Haiti), El Salvador could well be in line for a place in the final group stage.