Not for nothing are Nicaragua known as the "Cinderella" of Central American football. Over the years the Albiazules have consistently been overshadowed by their more powerful neighbours and have had to resign themselves to a role as one of the region's makeweights. Yet when you consider that baseball, and not football, is the country's No1 sport that lowly status is hardly surprising.

A glance at Nicaragua's FIFA World Cup™ qualifying record reveals the scale of their underachievement. Since playing their first ever qualifier in 1992, the men in blue and white have yet to record a single victory, the highpoint of their efforts to shine on the big stage being a 2-2 draw against St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2004.

Now coached by former player Mauricio Cruz, the regional also-rans are determined to buck the trend. And it was with that objective in mind that the Nicaraguans continued their in-depth preparations for the upcoming double-header with the Netherlands Antilles by taking a trip to Brazil.

Signs of progress
A journey to the backyard of the biggest football superpower on the planet is a daunting enough prospect for any team, and the dangers of taking on Brazil's powerful club sides became obvious to the touring Nicaraguans from the outset. A 9-0 defeat in their opening game against Atletico Friburguense revealed to the Central Americans just how steep their Brazilian learning curve would be.

If anything, the next leg of their tour presented an even greater challenge, pitting them as it did against Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo. The fearless Albiazules, made up entirely of players from the national league, showed encouraging signs of progress, restricting their illustrious opponents to a 5-0 win.

Nevertheless, the real acid test for the Nicaraguans would come in a quadrangular tournament involving matches against local outfit Nova Iguacu, Norwegian club side Floy and Huracan Buceo of Uruguay. Good performances against three well-drilled sides would give Cruz's men the confidence boost they had come to Brazil for.

Hearteningly for the boss, his charges proved equal to the task. In a keenly contested opening game against the Scandinavians, the Central Americans fell to an unlucky 1-0 defeat.

Their next encounter finally saw them kick the losing habit, however, consigning their Uruguayan opponents to a comprehensive 3-0 reverse, one of the biggest in Nicaragua's history, with Wilber Sanchez, Ricardo Vega and Milton Bustos getting the all-important goals.

"It's an important win because it will help the team improve on a mental level," commented a suitably satisfied Julio Rocha, the president of the Nicaraguan FA, after the game. And despite rounding off the tournament with 2-0 reverse against the Brazilians, the Nicas did enough overall to suggest brighter days may yet lie ahead.

With plenty of positive points to work on, Cruz expressed his optimism at the end of the tour. "We played well in our last game and I feel we've come on a lot since the two warm-up games at the start."

And with the showdown against Caribbean side Netherlands Antilles now just days away, the coach will receive another boost with the return of his star player, midfielder Armando Collado, who plies his trade with Nejapa in El Salvador's first division.

A dangerous rival
The Nicaraguans will certainly need to be at full strength for the two-legged tie against their island opponents. The former Dutch colony are far from pushovers and can count on several players who have forged careers in Europe.

Excelsior Rotterdam striker Eldrick Roger is undoubtedly the danger man. Joining him will be fellow Dutch exiles Richal Leitoe of Den Bosch, Clivard Sprockel of Vitesse Arnhem and BV Veendam's Angelo Cijntje, not to mention Charly Jones, currently with Greek outfit Thiva.

All of which explains why the Nicaraguans have been so meticulous in their preparations. The return of goalkeeper Denis "The Octopus" Espinoza and defender Jaime Ruiz from injury, coupled with Collado's reappearance, should help them with their fine tuning as they strive to break into the big time.