El Salvador have been one of the international game's most improved sides in recent years. No longer a team defined solely by past achievements, Carlos de los Cobos' side are battling it out in CONCACAF's six-team final qualifying group for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

El Salvador's rapid progress has also been reflected in the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, in which Los Cuscatlecos occupy 81st position, an improvement of nine places on the previous month. And while it is true they are still some way short of the highest-ever ranking, 50th in December 1992, they are clearly heading in the right direction.

Fresh challenges
Just how steadily the Central Americans have improved can be seen by their ranking positions in recent years. After sinking to an all-time low of 169 in November 2006, El Salvador have risen 88 places in an trajectory that has featured just the occasional slip.

While this progress is undoubtedly a source of pride to De los Cobos and his charges, their difficult position in the North, Central America and Caribbean zone qualifiers for South Africa 2010 presents a formidable challenge. Los Cuscatlecos currently occupy fifth spot in the six-team group heading into their make-or-break qualifying double-header next month.

There's no way we can throw in the towel now... that's not how I am. There's still a lot to play for.

Carlos de los Cobos on El Salvador's FIFA World Cup bid

The Salvadorans face perhaps the biggest game of their recent history when they head north to take on the USA on 5 September. Four days later they welcome group leaders Costa Rica, whom they encouragingly beat 2-1 at the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup - a result that had a considerable bearing on their rise in this month's ranking.  

Two wins against these formidable rivals, or even a win and a draw, would put the Central Americans right back in contention for a ticket to the finals. Anything less and their African hopes will be left hanging by a thread.

Realising the dream
Though the picture looks complicated, De los Cobos is refusing to countenance defeat and remains confident about his side's chances. "There's no way we can throw in the towel now... that's not how I am. There's still a lot to play for," he said after the defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in the last round of qualifying in mid-August.

The Mexican-born coach has called up two new players for the double header: goalkeeper Dagoberto Portillo and midfielder Arturo Alvarez. After revealing his squad list, De los Cobos explained his thinking behind the changes. "We brought in Dagoberto because of how he's been playing for Deportivo FAS. He's come on a lot and that'll be a big help to us." Referring to Alvarez, a naturalised Salvadoran of US origin who is currently with MLS side San Jose Earthquakes, he said. "He's a great player who gives us different options up front, and we're delighted to have him in the team."

Though there is no denying the progress made in recent times, De los Cobos and his men face a huge challenge in the coming months. Hunger and determination they have in abundance, but only time will tell if they can continue to scale new heights.