Who would have imagined it… Fewer than ten years ago, Dennis Lopez was an up-and-coming Honduran teacher, diligently preparing classes as he strived to bring on a younger generation. Nowadays his situation is quite different, though the aim of securing a brighter future remains - even if now it is as part of the Guatemala squad chasing a first ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup™.
Lopez was born, raised and took his first steps on the footballing ladder in his native Honduras, where he juggled the beautiful game with his teaching duties. However, in 2009, following a six-month spell in the Honduran top flight, came a life-changing call from Guatemalan outfit Deportivo Jalapa.
“Thanks to the education my parents provided for me, teaching was a viable career option for me,” the 30-year-old centre-back told FIFA.com, in an exclusive interview. “I took that option but I never stopped dreaming of being able to play professionally. So, I went after that opportunity and, thanks to God, I can now say that I made it,” added the powerfully built, 6’1 (1.86m) defender.
“I think that my teaching background makes football that bit easier for me overall,” continued Lopez, nicknamed El Profe (The Teacher). “I find it easier to communicate with my colleagues on and off the pitch, and I’m better at handling different personalities and situations. Some of my coaches have told me I’m good at expressing ideas and getting them across to my team-mates,” added Lopez, at current club Municipal since 2013.
A Chapín by choice
Also dubbed El Maestro (The School Teacher), Lopez’s time in Guatemalan football has gone so well that, in 2014, he was offered the chance to represent the senior national team. “I’ve spent most of my [senior football] career in Guatemala,” he explained. “When I was asked if I wanted to get involved, I saw it as a way of thanking this country for everything it’s done for me in sporting terms. For me, it was a lovely way to say thank you by doing what I do best: playing football.”
And, within a year, came Lopez’s finest moment thus far in the Chapina shirt: Guatemala's two-legged duel with Antigua and Barbuda for a place in Round 4 of North, Central America and Caribbean qualifying for Russia 2018. Their Caribbean opponents held a 1-0 lead from the first leg, with Los Guatemaltecos requiring a 2-0 win in the return on home soil to go through in normal time.
The scores were still level at 0-0 at the interval but, just after the hour mark, up popped Chapín legend and skipper Carlos El Pescadito Ruiz to open the scoring and ramp up the emotion, drama and expectation levels in Guatemala City’s Estadio Mateo Flores. Yet the glory of the tie’s clinching goal, via a glancing 75th-minute header, was reserved for Lopez.
“When you’re a defender you’re happy when you keep a clean sheet or the team does a good job defensively. The goal was a reward for the whole team, for the work we’d put in during that week,” he said. “That’s why we celebrated it so joyfully and with so much emotion. It’s not easy to score a goal and even more so in a qualifier.”
Aiming to stay on path towards history
Thanks to that vital goal, Guatemala made it through to Round 4 and Group C, where they are aiming to secure one of the section’s two available berths for the final six-team ‘Hexagonal’ round of qualifying. Currently third with three points from two games, they remain just a point behind group leaders USA – their next opponents on 25 March.
“They are a very complete team and have played some great matches,” was El Profe’s verdict. “They’ve played several friendlies this year too but, rather than thinking about them, we’re more focused on what we ourselves can achieve.”
Among the talking points of this encounter will be head coach Walter Claveri, in the Guatemala hotseat since January and set to oversee his first qualifier with his new charges. “The coaching staff have a very clear idea of the way they want us to try and play,” said Lopez. “We don’t get much time to work, just two or three training sessions before each game, but this is a receptive group of players and we’ve picked up wins in friendly games.”
For that reason, despite facing regional heavyweights USA, Los Chapines do not intend to play second-fiddle to anyone in the race for a World Cup place. “Our strengths are teamwork, ability on the ball, sacrifice and determination. We always try to win the ball back as fast as possible. Mathematically we’re still in with a chance of making the next round and, for as long as that’s the case, we’re going to fight for it,” underlined Lopez.
On an individual note too, El Maestro has a goal to fight for: the desire to return to the teaching profession once he hangs up his boots. “If and when I go back to teaching, it’d be lovely to be able to say I played at a World Cup,” he said, looking ahead. “Now that we’ve got this far in qualifying, I can’t stop thinking about that. And of course, I’d love to give the Guatemalan people something to celebrate – they yearn to see the blue-and-white flag at the World Cup.”