Central America's sides have made an impressive start to the CONCACAF Zone Qualifying, with four of the region's teams on course for places in the final qualifying group for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Curiously, the lofty ambitions of three of the four sides are being fuelled by a trio of players who, until very recently, were virtually unknown on the international stage. Costa Rica's Bryan Ruiz, Rodolfo Zelaya of El Salvador and Ramon Nunez of Honduras have been grabbing the headlines in the region's press and will be hoping to extend their fine form into this month's qualifying double-header.
No ordinary striker
The first thing you notice about Bryan Ruiz is his stature, not difficult when the man in question is a towering 1.88m. In Costa Rican football, the 23-year-old is far from unique in this regard - Paulo Wanchope was taller still - but it is his power that really sets him apart.
Ruiz is anything but your typical penalty-box predator, but rather a skilled and cerebral individual who likes nothing better than breaking from midfield and arriving from deep. A versatile player who has shone in a variety of positions, he is one of those rare talents for whom the word complete is genuinely appropriate.
And while the Ticos' star man narrowly missed out on a place at Germany 2006, his involvement with the national team from an early age has given him invaluable experience. Despite suffering an unfortunate series of injuries in recent years, one of which kept him out of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he has established himself as a key figure under Rodrigo Kenton and has already netted four times in the current qualifying campaign.
"He's (Ruiz) a really interesting player, elegant and full of desire," Kenton recently told FIFA.com.
His fine recent form has also silenced some critics, who had previously accused him of failing to deliver on the big occasion. "You have to accept criticism, but the good thing about football is that it always gives you a chance to hit back. My recent goals have certainly boosted my confidence," says the star of Belgian side Gent.
Another Central American team who have surprised many observers with their solid and technical football are El Salvador. After eliminating Panama in the previous qualifying round, Carlos de los Cobos' men have made a good start in their group and now have one foot in the hexagonal final phase. The surprising thing about the team's progress, though, is that their most influential player has not been the normally stellar Eliseo Quintanilla or Rudis Corrales, but Rodolfo Zelaya, a striker few people even knew of prior to his scintillating displays in recent months.
Blessed with a surprising burst of pace, El Salvador's new centre-forward hit the headlines with a hat-trick in his side's 5-0 rout of Haiti last month. Currently playing for one of country's top sides, Alianza, the youngster earlier served his time with less-heralded local clubs like Intipuca and Chalaltenango. Now, though, his focus is on sustaining his level of performance and earning a move abroad, something only Quintanilla has managed to do to date.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Honduras all the talk is of a bourgeoning midfielder with an eye for goal. On his senior competitive debut for the Catrachos, Ramon Nunez made his intentions clear with a brace to earn his side a crucial win against Canada. Not content at that, he found the target again just days later in another qualifier, against Jamaica.
The 22-year-old has a somewhat unusual background. Born on the tiny Honduran island of Playita, he grew up in Dallas, Texas, where he played for MSL side Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas). Unable to establish himself there or at Chivas USA, where he spent a season, Nunez returned to homeland to play for Olimpia, where he finally fulfilled his early promise and broke into the national team.
Even though an untimely injury has left him doubtful for the upcoming qualifiers, few doubt that the youngster will play an integral role for Honduras for a long time to come. Like his counterparts Ruiz and Zelaya, expect to hear plenty more about him in the coming months.
Play and win
Keen to test your football knowledge and expertise? Sign up for the FIFA.com Club today and play the McDonald's FIFA World Cup Fantasy and the McDonald's FIFA World Cup Predictor games. With great prizes, including trips to South Africa 2010, on offer, what are you waiting for?