Wobbly climb begins anew for Cuscatlecos
© AFP

As a 7-0 defeat to neighbours Costa Rica in their first-ever international in 1921 suggested, life on the international scene has often been a struggle for El Salvador. The Central Americans have, however, gone on to enjoy some notable successes and are currently undergoing one of their most promising moments in an up-and-down history.

The Cuscatlecos have reached the FIFA World Cup™ finals on two occasions, becoming the first side from the UNCAF region to reach the world’s biggest stage at Mexico 1970. Then, 12 years later, they became the first Central American team to reach football’s promised land twice when they qualified for Spain 1982.

Recent performances under coach Jose Luis Rugamas have seen the side jolt up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, largely on the strength of their fourth-place finish at last month’s Copa Centroamericano, a best-ever performance at the tournament. They reached the second round of the Central American cup of nations with convincing wins over Nicaragua and Belize before losing to eventual champions Honduras in the semi-finals and were only just edged out by hosts Panama in the third-place play-off. It is a marked improvement from the kind of performances that saw them lose 10 games, draw two and win none from 2004 to 2006.

Such improvements saw the side shoot up no fewer than 18 places (to 98th overall) in the most recent release of the global standings, zipping past the likes of Bolivia and Zambia to the relative comfort of 12th place in their CONCACAF zone. It is a modest improvement that, combined with El Salvador reaching the final round of regional qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, has the team in good stead heading into the biannual CONCACAF Gold Cup this June in the United States, a tournament they qualified for thanks to their semi-final finish in Panama.

We played well at the Copa Centroamericano. We fought to the end and it was a real battle.
El Salvador coach Rugamas

Although the best the Salvadorans have ever managed at a Gold Cup was a pair of quarter-final finishes, they can brag about being one of only three Central American teams to have reached the FIFA World Cup finals, albeit with poor results once there. In their first go attempt in 1970, they lost all three games and made the short trip home without having scored a goal. Their second appearance was only marginally better when, led by the legendary Jorge ‘Magico’ Gonzalez – widely regarded as the country’s best-ever player – they were mauled 10-1 in their opener against Hungary, a FIFA World Cup-record margin to this day. This time, though, they managed to score a goal over the course of their three losses.

Though they have no-one in the current team with the kind of talent of ‘El Magico,’ coach Rugamas does have a number of lively talents coming through. Most are home based, with a strong core of the team playing for local giants Alianza. One of those Alianza men is Rafael Burgos, the 22-year-old top scorer at the Copa Centroamericano. Jaime Alas, playing in an advanced midfield role with club side Firpo, scored two goals at the finals in Panama and never looked out of his depth alongside such established veterans as Eliseo Quintanilla.

“We played well at the Copa Centroamericano. We fought to the end and it was a real battle,” said Rugamas, once a youth coach and assistant to former boss Carlos del los Cobos, who was handed an extension to his contract to take the team through the Gold Cup. “Now we need to keep moving the same direction.”

The road opening before El Salvador begins with the Gold Cup and leads directly to the preliminary stages of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014. Considering the youthful side’s recent form and trajectory, who would fault the Cuscatlecos for beginning to dream about a hat-trick of appearances on the world’s biggest stage?