Improvement, for some, is measured in increments, those small lines between the inches and centimetres on a ruler. It is so for Nicaragua and Aruba. While both have tumbled out of contention before the group stages of CONCACAF qualifying for Russia 2018, they are showing signs of life in the fatter end of world football’s pyramid.
Both nations reached their highest ever position in the latest release of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Nicaragua, wedged between Central America powers Honduras and Costa Rica, have never made many waves on the pitch. One of the poorest countries in Latin America, still recovering from decades of war and unrest that raged from the 1960s through the 80s, the deck is stacked against the team nicknamed the Pinoleros.
Even so, they surged in the early rounds of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, beating tiny Anguilla, the world’s lowest-ranked team, 9-0 over two legs. The achievement was dismissed as a one-off until, in the next round, they caused a sensation by besting Suriname 4-1 on aggregate to set a date with Jamaica, the 1998 World Cup participants and giants of Caribbean football, who, weeks before, beat USA to reach the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The draw was unkind for Nicaragua, but they did not seem to notice, winning the first leg away in Kingston 3-2 and looking good for what would have been the biggest shock in World Cup qualifying to that point. In the return leg, down only 1-0 in the 88th minute, Nicaragua were seconds away from eliminating the desperate Jamaicans, when disaster struck. A late goal from Simon Dawkins crushed their big dreams.
It was a cruel blow for Nicaragua, who, up to that point, looked one of the best sides in the early rounds of the CONCACAF running. Their captain, Juan Barrera, who recently became the first Nicaraguan to sign for a European club, sees the glass half-full, and a fine future ahead for his country. “The game doesn’t just belong to the Italians, the English or Argentinians any longer,” said the 26-year-old, raised in neighbouring Costa Rica. “If you’re good enough it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Costa Rican-born coach Henry Duarte, eager to leave a legacy in the country, sees a bright future in a crop of players, born of poverty, kicking footballs around the back alleys of Managua. “The future of Nicaragua is in the young kids,” he said, pointing to the U-17 and U-20 teams. “From the moment I arrived, I realised there’s a huge amount of talent here.”
For now, Nicaragua will have to wait for a chance to dance on the big stage. Even so, their boost of 44 places in world football’s pecking order saw them crack the top-100, sitting in 95th globally and 12th in CONCACAF, just one place behind neighbours El Salvador, who have twice reached the World Cup.
Aruba, a Caribbean Lazarus
A Dutch-speaking island of just over 100,000 people, Aruba’s rise to their highest-ever position was not as meteoric as Nicaragua’s, and it might not be as long lasting. But it was historic nevertheless. Their climb of 22 points to 115th globally came on the back of improved form, and a little help from a technicality.
They were knocked out of Russia 2018 qualifying over two legs by Barbados, demi-powers in the lower reaches of the Caribbean sub-region, only to find out later that the Barbadians had fielded an ineligible player. As such, the Arubans were handed a win and a place in the next round, where they met St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
One step away from the first group stages, and with a new coach in the hot-seat, the Arubans looked like they were going to make the most of their new lease on life. After losing the first leg 2-0, they roared back to level at 2-2 in the return fixture, but eventually lost out by a bare 3-2 scoreline in the dying moments. Like Nicaragua, they were pipped at the finish line. Clearly, though, they are moving in the right direction: up.