El Salvador's win over Panama last month in the North, Central American and Caribbean zone qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was one of the biggest shocks of the preliminary competition so far. Ranked 60 places below the Canaleros in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Cuscatlecos were not expected to unduly trouble their Central American cousins, and not even their own fans held out much hope of victory.
However, no one gave the script to Carlos de los Cobos' men who, after a narrow 1-0 defeat in Panama, turned the tie around with a magnificent 3-1 win in San Salvador to progress to the first group phase of CONCACAF qualifying. So how did they do it? In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, their Mexican coach gives his take on the resurgence of Salvadoran football.
Doing it their way
Just the tone of De los Cobos' voice is enough to tell you that you that you are talking to a happy man. "Yes, I feel very satisfied. You know, even here in El Salvador the fans held out very little hope of victory [over Panama]. But we won and deservedly so; it was unquestionably a fair result."
More than anyone, De los Cobos knows the difficulties Cuscatleco football had to overcome to get this far. When the coach was appointed back in 2006, the team had gone almost two years without a win.
"It hasn't been easy," says the former Mexican international. "We've faced a lot of obstacles in the time I've been in charge, but I've managed to motivate the squad and instil something in the youngsters that had been lost: the desire to play for the national team. The key has been getting that commitment from the players and building a team that has its own playing style."
That formula, which proved so effective in beating Panama, makes for deceptively simple reading. "Even though Salvadoran players are not the biggest physically, they have very good technique and skills. Moreover, they possess good stamina, which allows them to maintain a good rhythm during the game. Then there's their tactical discipline and positional sense, which helps them keep their shape on the pitch. Not having any big-name stars means we focus on the group," says the coach.
An unforgettable night
Asked how he prepared his side for that memorable victory, De los Cobos explains: "We'd performed well in the away leg. Although we lost there, we deserved to get more out of the game. In fact, in the second half there, we were totally dominant and that strengthened our belief for the second leg. We knew there would be a risk of our conceding an away goal on the night, but we had planned for that as well," adds the Mexican, in reference to Jose Luis Garces' goal for Panama which obliged them to score three times themselves.
"However, we couldn't allow that to alter our objectives or what we'd worked towards. The message to the players was simple: 'If we keep our heads and don't concede a second, then we have 45 minutes to turn things round.' It was vital we continued to play the ball around on the deck and not thump up high balls, as they were bigger and stronger than we were. Fortunately, things went according to plan," the 49-year-old adds.
Now, El Salvador find themselves in Group 3 of their regional qualifiers with Costa Rica, Suriname and Haiti and, on the face of it at least, El Salvador look like second favourites behind the powerful Ticos. ". We've taken an important step forwards but we mustn't get carried away."
The reality of it is that, based on past performances, we would appear to be in the easiest of the three groups. However, in football, nothing is won off the pitch
The Cuscatlecos' first assignment brings them to the intimidating atmosphere of San Jose's Stadio Ricardo Saprissa. "Without doubt, Costa Rica are the favourites," says the coach, "but I've told the lads they have to dig in and match them stride for stride, always in the knowledge that we'll be facing a team with players of considerable experience and quality. They are a level above us but, if we play as we know how, we'll be hoping for at least a draw."
So would the coach say his enthusiasm and conviction is rubbing off on the players? "Before, we didn't believe in ourselves; now it's the other way around. The public are ecstatic about the national team after what they achieved at the Cuscatlan. Naturally, this in turn demands an even greater commitment on our part and a responsibility to continue giving them something to cheer about."