As someone who loves poring over maps and solving Sudoku puzzles, it comes as no surprise to find Pablo Punyed focusing on Mexico and Canada as well as the numbers that matter to El Salvador in their quest to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. The Salvadorans currently lie bottom of CONCACAF’s Group A and are in dire need of points from their upcoming qualification double-header if they are to accompany Mexico into the 'Hexagonal' six-team final qualifying round.
Logic might suggest that the key game would be their second one against Canada, given the North Americans are just two points ahead of them in the standings. But not according to Punyed. “No, it’s not Canada,” he said during his exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “No question, the team to beat are Mexico, despite the big points difference between us and their having already qualified.
"Defeating them is important primarily because of the morale boost we’d get from it. If we take all three points against them at home, then we’ll travel to Canada more motivated than ever to secure our passage to the Hexagonal,” said the 26-year-old of their fixtures against El Tri on 2 September and the Maple Leafs four days later.
The road less travelled
Born in Miami to Salvadoran parents, Pablo Punyed discovered his passion for football in the USA, where he played from 2008 to 2011 for university side St. John’s Red Storm in New York. With a footballing intellect to match his academic one, he decided to pursue his professional dreams in Europe.
And so it was in 2012 that Icelandic club Fjolnir secured his services, having been impressed by his ability both to win back possession and launch attacks. “It was a bit difficult at fist. It took a while for me to get used to things, as is always the case when you make a change of that magnitude. Fortunately, the style of football wasn’t hugely different from what I’d been used to, so that helped ease the transition,” explained the midfielder.
Four years on, he is still in Iceland and got the chance to see first-hand the sensation caused by the national team’s heroics at UEFA EURO 2016. “What happened there during that tournament was truly impressive. The public really embraced football. For me it was delightful as I knew some of the guys on the team. Seeing them out there, making history, made me very happy,” said the IBV Vestmannaeyjar player, who also represented Icelandic sides Fylkir and Stjarnan after his initial move to Fjolnir.
Indeed, the success enjoyed by Iceland in France is an example for any modest side aspiring to make their mark and delight their followers. Moreover, it could easily be applied to Punyed and his Salvadoran team-mates.
Asked about the qualities El Salvador possessed as they bid to make the six-team final group phase of North, Central American and Caribbean qualifying, the player summed it up thus: “We’re a very united and committed bunch. We have a way of playing that we try to follow, so I’m sure that will help us in these two games, which are critical for our qualification hopes.”
Punyed refuses to be cowed by the big names he will face, or by the weight of history for that matter. “We have enough quality to beat Mexico at home. We’ve really worked for this and will show we’re capable of making it to the next phase. That means first getting a good result at home, then finishing the job in Canada,” he insisted.
“All the world’s [great] stadiums have something magical about them. Ours, El Cuscatlan, is one of those that makes a difference, as the fans never stop supporting you and the atmosphere there lifts you. The crowd never stop shouting and are there for us every game, come what may. Ultimately, that helps us a lot against opponents,” he added.
Although it is still some time away, we cannot let the interview finish without mentioning another point on the map: Russia – or more precisely the 2018 World Cup there, which is the ultimate motivation and the reason for all the hard work.
“Going to a World Cup is the dream of every professional player," he said, as the interview concluded. "Personally speaking, I’d love to reach one and see the joy it would bring to the public. That’s what we’re all working towards. I’m excited by the idea but you cannot spend much time thinking about it. First, we have to reach the Hexagonal.”