For many years El Salvador were a big fish in Central American football. The Cuscatlecos became one of the first teams from the region to reach the FIFA World Cup™ finals when they qualified for Mexico 1970. And 12 years later they were back on the big stage at Spain 1982.
Even as recently as the early 90s the Salvadoreños were still firmly ensconced in the CONCACAF elite, a status underlined by their 2-1 defeat of mighty Mexico in the qualifiers for USA 1994.
During that time players of the stature of Jorge "Mágico" Gonzalez, Carlos Castro Borja and Raul Diaz Arce came to the fore, ensuring El Salvador remained at the forefront of the regional scene. But since the advent of the new millennium all that has changed, the boys in blue experiencing a decline that even the great Mauricio Cienfuegos was powerless to prevent.
Alas hoping to take wing
Redemption, and with it a place at South Africa 2010, seems as far away as ever for the one-time heavyweights. For the first time in many a qualification campaign, El Salvador are not even favourites to make it through to the first group phase in the CONCACAF zone. Although minnows Anguilla should pose few problems in Stage 1, La Azul will have their work cut out in the next knockout round against fast-improving Panama, a side with serious designs on making their FIFA World Cup™ finals debut.
One man determined to bring the good times back, however, is coach Carlos de los Cobos. The Mexican's masterplan is based on a talented new generation of young players who have got the local fans believing again. Leading the way is 22-year-old Dennis Alas, a tireless midfielder who has just signed for Real Maryland FC of the USL, the USA's second flight.
After making his name with the goal that gave El Salvador victory over Trinidad and Tobago in last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup, Alas is intent on making a big impact in the States.
"I'm very excited about this," he says. "Playing abroad is something I've been dreaming about for a long time now and I've finally got the opportunity. I'm going to give it my best shot I can tell you. It's a great shop window and if I can play well I might get spotted by other clubs."
The other ace up De los Cobos's sleeve is Eliseo Quintanilla, the top scorer in the current national side with eight goals so far. And like his international team-mate Alas, the 24-year-old playmaker has sought fame and fortune in other climes, enjoying a two-year spell with MLS outfit DC United from 2002 to 2004 and having just signed on the dotted line for Alajuelense of Costa Rica.
Both club and country are hopeful Quintanilla can lift them out of their respective troughs, a challenge that the kid they call "Cheyo" is looking forward to with relish. "I'm really up for it," he enthused. "I'm a hard-working player who gives his all, and I'm modest on and off the pitch. I'm always looking to get forward, play good football and score goals."
In De los Cobos we trust
Having been handed the job of getting El Salvador back on track, De Los Cobos knows that Quintanilla and Co represent his best hope of doing just that. Recent results have confirmed the scale of the task he faces. After registering an encouraging win over neighbours Honduras in August last year, his charges failed to win any of their next four games, a worrying run that included a 4-1 defeat to Ecuador and a 3-0 reverse at the hands of Jamaica.
Even so, the Mexican's confidence in the mainstays of his ambitious new project remains undimmed. "When it comes to football in El Salvador there's Eliseo Quintanilla and then there's the rest. When he's in the side he knows he's the one who has to dictate the play."
While auguring an equally promising future for Alas, De los Cobos is keen for the USA-bound youngster to impose himself a little more. "Dennis might be young but he's experienced and very talented. What he needs to do, though, is take more responsibility for moving the ball around and bringing people into play."
Provided the dynamic duo can continue to blossom, there is no reason why El Salvador cannot kick the losing habit and bring joy to millions of fans anxious to see their heroes mix it with the world's best once more.