Eleven years after El Salvador reached the final qualifying round for the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, the CONCACAF side are once again vying for a place at the game's premier event. With their region's Hexagonal qualifying round just weeks away, the question all Salvadorians are asking themselves is whether Carlos de los Cobos' squad are better than the 1998 generation and if they can go all the way to the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1982.
Step by step
The El Salvador team that came of age in the preliminary competition for France 1998 is considered to be the best the country has produced in the last 20 years. Headed by such legends as Raul Diaz Arce and Mauricio Cienfuegos, La Selecta comfortably made it through to the final qualifying round, having eliminated Panama and Cuba along the way.
In the six-team final phase, after defeating Canada and Costa Rica, losing to Mexico and drawing with the USA, the Central American side had to beat Jamaica at home in their penultimate game to give themselves a realistic chance of claiming a berth in France. Unfortunately, on a night to forget in San Salvador, the Cuscatlecos could only draw 2-2 with their visitors, a result that set the Reggae Boyz up for a historic qualification one week later.
In spite of the disappointment, many of the players from that era still have fond memories of their time under Milovan D'Joric. One such figure is Ronald Cerritos, who had this to say about that famous quest: "As I recall, that was the only qualifying campaign where there were no problems to impede our work. There was almost nothing for the players to complain about. The atmosphere was very relaxed, unlike other qualifying tournaments I've been involved in."
Freefall and recovery
After the France 1998 qualifiers, Salvadorian football went into a steep decline, with the national team unable to make it to the Hexagonal phase for either Korea/Japan 2002 or Germany 2006. The talented squad from the 90s gradually fell apart amid disappointment and regret about unfulfilled potential.
When De los Cobos took charge in 2006, confidence among his players was at a very low ebb. Diaz Arce, by then a few years retired, bemoaned at the time, "Sometimes it seems like we're 30 or 40 years behind in our thinking. We're moving the ball around too slowly; there are no changes in tempo and we have no one capable of surprising. It's all long balls even though we have no tall players [to aim for]."
Without any big-name stars, many felt El Salvador's South Africa 2010 campaign would also be fleeting, particularly after they were drawn against Panama in the second round. Yet the callow youngsters in whom De los Cobos had placed his trust had other ideas. First they knocked the fancied Canaleros out of the competition, then kicked on to come through a four-team group at the expense of Haiti and Suriname.
Now, optimism abounds, and not even a draw with Nicaragua or defeat to Honduras at the UNCAF Nations Cup has dented confidence, as demonstrated by the match report of the Honduran game in the country's AM newspaper.
"In terms of team performance, tonight El Salvador bordered on perfection. The 3-5-2 formation used against the Catrachos was the most compact system we've seen the national team use at the Nations Cup. Now it's just a question of developing that."
But will it be enough to take the team all the way to South Africa? Another former Cuscatleco legend, Jorge "El Zarco" Rodriguez, feels there are grounds for optimism but is taking nothing for granted. "The coach deserves a lot of credit for what he has done. As a Salvadorian, I want us to qualify for the World Cup as it's our dream, but we have to look at the reality. I can see El Salvador battling for fourth place in the Hexagonal. I would also like to congratulate this young team, because not many people expected them to get this far," says the former Aguila, FAS and Alianza star.
So would he say the current side are better than the team he graced in the 90s? "I wouldn't like to speculate as to which was better. The teams are different. What I will say is that, like us, the present side give absolutely everything. I hope they go on to be better than we were." With the Hexagonal getting underway in a fortnight's time, we might soon have the answer to our question.