Guatemala have it all to play for and in the next 180 minutes of football they have their destiny in their own hands.
Two more top-class performances are needed to have the chance to make history by reaching the final hexagonal round in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Any slip-ups and they will be left watching on television as the best of North America, Central America and the Caribbean fight for a place in the finals.
Los Chapínes are level with Jamaica and USA at the top of Group A, with both rivals still to come in their final two matches. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Guatemala’s Uruguayan coach Ever Almeida spoke of the upcoming encounters and his side’s recent progression.
Tight at the top
When the qualifying draw was made, Guatemala appeared to have a difficult route to Brazil 2014, with Jamaica and USA presenting formidable opponents. However, according to Almeida, his side have achieved far more than anybody anticipated.
“To many people’s surprise, we’re leading the standings,” he said proudly. “That gives us a psychological lift and gives us hope to be able to reach the hexagonal. So far, we’ve exceeded expectations.”
With three teams on seven points, there is little margin for error in a wide open group. “The results have been fairly logical until now. USA and Jamaica have won at home. We lost points at home but beat Antigua away, where Jamaica drew. Those two points we made up could be crucial and we need to make the most of them when we face Jamaica.”
Indeed, it is the fixture against the Reggae Boyz which could prove decisive. Victory by as high a margin as possible would represent a huge step forward. Accordingly, Guatemala are gearing up for a match Almeida expects to be extremely close.
“They like to sit back and wait to strike on the counter; that style suits the players they have. That’s how they played against us in Kingston and I very much doubt they’ll change a great deal in Guatemala.”
Whatever the outcome, their recent development has been a huge improvement for a team that reached rock bottom just three years ago, when they failed to qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup following defeat to Nicaragua.
Almeida has played a significant role in their subsequent progress, although the modest coach does not claim the success as his own. “We’ve had two good years in Guatemala, but the idea has been to help the team reach the World Cup. Of our ten qualifying games, we’ve won eight, drawn one and lost one. I think that’s a good return, even if there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Curiously, one of the most significant turning points did not come from the senior side at all, but rather from one of the youth teams, which qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup after eliminating none other than USA. The coach believes the result can form the foundation for a change in mentality.
“There was an important psychological boost for Guatemalan sport, as it showed that nothing is impossible in football as long as you work in an organised manner and are confident in your own ability. Now we have a battle-hardened team, not like the typical Guatemalan sides, which were more about technique than fighting spirit. That’s helped us get good results.”
The feeling of optimism has spread to the Guatemalan population, who are looking forward to the two decisive forthcoming matches with enthusiasm. “The people are very much on our side, they’ve supported us, they love their team and are full of hope.
“They’ve had a foretaste with the U-20 World Cup and now they want to reach the most important tournament of all. People stop me in the street and always say ‘come on, we can make it to the World Cup’,” said Almeida.
It is in this positive and supporting environment that Guatemala are preparing for their final two challenges, which the Chapín coach is convinced they are able to overcome.
“Nobody has been so superior to us that we need to be overly worried. Of course, we’ll be fully focused and we’ll go out aiming to win the matches. While beating Jamaica is crucial, it’ll go right down to the wire and we’re aware of that.”