For years now, the name Carlos Ruiz has been synonymous with the Guatemalan national team. Widely known by the nickname El Pescadito (The Little Fish), Ruiz's goal-laden performances in USA's Major League Soccer have made him an inspiration for millions of his fellow countrymen and a genuine star on the CONCACAF scene.
Now 28, the lethal striker is facing the greatest challenge of his career thus far: spearheading Guatemala's bid for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. And though determined not to get carried away, the Chapín fans' favourite was in confident mood when speaking about this and a range of other issues with FIFA.com.
Ready for action
"We're in really good shape, we're ready and our minds are totally focused on the start of qualifying, especially after what happened four years ago," says Ruiz, whose team welcome the USA to Guatemala City on 20 August for their opening Group 1 encounter. "We were just one game away from finishing in fourth place [in the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone] and that would have earned us a play-off place."
Indeed, in the six-team final qualifying round for Germany 2006, Ruiz and Co finished just two points shy of fourth spot and a play-off against an Asian Zone representative. A 3-2 away defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in the final run-in had proved decisive, however, and the Chapines could only look on as the Soca Warriors edged past Bahrain to take their place in Germany.
"It was the first time that a Guatemalan national team had still been in with a chance of making the finals going into the final game, and that was a big achievement in itself," says the LA Galaxy hitman. "Of course, missing out was hard to swallow, but we'd never been in that situation before. So now we intend to use that experience to take a definitive step forward."
And the experienced striker believes the Guatamalans have all the ingredients to do just that. "We've got good young players, who are important to us and have a lot of quality," he says. "On top of that, we've got the same coaching staff in place, one that knows the regional game well. We're also much more experienced, which contrasts with what happened to us in the last qualifying campaign."
Nevertheless, El Pescadito is fully aware of the difficulty of the task ahead, after Guatemala were grouped together with T&T and regional powerhouses the USA. "As we've said, Guatemala aren't the favourites and so we'll have to play every game as if it were a final. Our first game is against the United States and that will set the standard for the rest of the qualifiers."
Varied attacking threat
As far as Ruiz is concerned, this Guatemala squad's biggest strength is its versatility. "We've got players who are technically gifted, others who are quick and others who are physically strong. The way we play will depend on the players out on the pitch and which opponents we're facing," explains the former FC Dallas front-runner. "We've always been a very skilful side, now we have to find something extra in order to be more effective."
With that in mind, Ruiz believes Guatemala are lacking in one vital ingredient: experience abroad. "Definitely, because the standard of the Guatemalan league is below that of international level, and when you play for the national team you notice the difference," says the veteran of six years in the MLS.
"This competition must be treated like a shop window, like it was in my case. I made my national team debut, scored several goals and that opened the doors for a move abroad."
And how has he changed after so long away from his homeland? "I'm more mature, I see football in a different light. Being outside Guatemala makes you develop a much stronger personality and be more professional."
Given his success Stateside, does he see European football as the logical next step? "I've got a comfortable life in the United States and at my age that's very important. I'd only consider offers that were on a par with my current situation, and they haven't materialised as yet."
One thing he is clear upon is that he will not be leading the line for his country for much longer. "I don't think I'll keep playing for the national team once this qualifying campaign is over. What I'm aiming to do is to make the fans' dream a reality," he says with conviction. "I'm hoping this is the opportunity that we've all been waiting for to qualify [for the FIFA World Cup finals] and that way I can bow out having made history."
His short-term objectives thus laid out, what does the cool-headed goal-getter plan to do when he eventually brings his club career to an end? "I've been thinking about those things more, and I want to stay in the United States because it's better for my family," says Ruiz, who currently shares a dressing room with fellow Galaxy stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan.
"And while I don't see myself as a coach, I would like to work with young players and pass on my experience, perhaps because when I was in Guatemala I had nobody to guide me and had to learn everything for myself."