2013 was a black year for El Salvadoran football. Between that September and November, some 20 national team players were banned from football, 15 of them for life, following their involvement in the fixing of at least four matches in the three previous years.
It just so happened that the generation in question was one of the most talented the country has ever produced. Featuring the likes of Rodolfo Zelaya, Eliseo Quintanilla, Marvin Gonzalez and Osael Romero, it put cuscatleco football back on the regional map in the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ following years of underachievement.
It was in that same team that a gifted midfielder by the name of Arturo Alvarez began to shine. Untarnished by the scandal, he has gone on to become the cornerstone and captain of a new-look team that is aiming to banish memories of the past and pen a new chapter in the history of Salvadoran football.
“It was a very big blow for the game here,” said Alvarez in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “We were all hurt by it. We’d just done well in the World Cup qualifiers, reaching the final phase and coming close to a place at the finals, but then it happened and the question you’re left asking is, why?”
When the scandal broke, the midfielder wasted no time in distancing himself from it, declaring that he had never so much as even thought about fixing a football match. Having now put the whole episode behind him, he is focusing on nothing but the future: “We in the national team have a big debt to the people of El Salvador, there’s no question of that. But people have to realise this is a new team. Ever since our first game we’ve been working really hard to change our image. We’re all pulling together and putting our heart and soul into it.”
Now 30, the man responsible for making La Selecta tick has a very clear idea of the objective he and his team-mates need to be working towards: “Even after everything that happened, the fans were amazing. They supported us through thick and thin. I love El Salvador and I want to repay them for their faith and make them happy.”
It is not only the players who are driving change in Salvadoran football, however. In February 2014, FIFA and the national football association (FSF) announced the launch of a joint monitoring programme that is put into action before, during and after La Selecta matches with a view to preventing match fixing from occurring again.
The new approach is paying off at all levels for Los Cuscatlecos. Putting the past behind them with a revamped line-up that features only two players above the age of 27 – Alvarez and goalkeeper Luis Contreras – El Salvador took fourth place at last year’s Copa Centroamericana, beating arch rivals Honduras on the way. A few months later came a noteworthy draw with Costa Rica at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The objective now is Russia 2018, one El Salvador have already started to work towards by beating a Curacao side featuring several Dutch league players and coached by the legendary Patrick Kluivert. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy because they’re a very physical team,” said Alvarez, who plays his club football for Hungary’s Videoton. “If there is one thing this side has got, though, it’s character and the ability to overcome adversity.”
The new Selecta also has talent. As well as posing obvious problems, the crisis also gave El Salvador the chance to reinvent themselves, as the Houston-born Alvarez, who has scored four goals in 41 appearances for his country over six years, explained. “We’re a team that likes to have possession of the ball. We play a dynamic game and we always look to attack. We’re young and talented so why shouldn’t we throw a little caution to the wind?”
El Salvador will need to be daring if they are to keep putting the past behind them and reach the Hexagonal, the final six-team round of the CONCACAF qualifiers for Russia 2018. A tough task awaits them in Round 4 of the preliminaries, with Mexico, Honduras and Canada providing their next opposition, not that Alvarez is any less ambitious because of that.
“We honestly have the ability to be the best and to reach the Hexagonal,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be an easy road but anything is possible. We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles already and I don’t see why we can’t get past another one.”
The moment of truth will arrive for El Salvador in November, when the action in their pool begins. Whatever happens, however, Alvarez and his team-mates have already secured their first triumph in making a solemn commitment to do things as they should be done.