Monday 08 November 2021, 22:00

Punyed: El Salvador can move mountains if we get little details right

  • El Salvador are three points off the inter-confederation play-off place

  • Pablo Punyed believes they can qualify for Qatar 2022

  • “We know we can win in any stadium.”

When he was younger, El Salvador international Pablo Punyed had a big choice to make: whether to follow in the footsteps of his father and become an engineer in the USA, or whether to pursue his childhood dream of playing football professionally. Now 31, the attacking midfielder came up with a creative solution to his dilemma. He gave up on engineering and embarked on an English literature degree at St John’s University, New York. It was a decision that kept his football dream alive, giving him the freedom to travel and continue studying while holed up at team training camps. “I love books but another reason why I studied English literature is that I love teaching and want to be a teacher and a coach,” Punyed told “English gives me a great foundation to achieve all that.”

And so began a story worthy of a good book. “Kansas City chose me in the MLS draft and I turned them down because MLS wasn’t the big league that it is now,” Punyed explained. “They wanted to loan me out to a reserve team, so I said no. “My then girlfriend – who’s now my wife – is from Iceland, and one day I went to visit her. I always take my football boots with me and she convinced to go for a trial with a local team. And here I am, ten years later. “It was a bit hard to begin with. For the first six months to a year it was like I was dumb: I didn’t speak. I just listened and tried to learn as much as I could. I love languages (aside from his native Spanish, Punyed also speaks English, Italian, Icelandic and French) and I learned little by little. “The cultures might not look very similar but the people are really open, welcoming and friendly. Luckily for me, they opened their doors to me and it’s my second home now.”

Already capped by his country, the in-form Punyed earned a return to El Salvador duty last month, in the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. The recall was well received by La Selecta fans. “The people in El Salvador have always shown me a lot of love,” he said. “I’m always very grateful for that and I feel a lot of responsibility when I pull on the national team jersey. When you show love and enjoyment for the things that you do, people can see it. They feel it too and they appreciate it.” Punyed has a lot to be happy about at this moment in time. “My club Vikingur hadn’t won the league since 1991, but this year – almost 30 years later – we went and did it, and we won the cup too. We were delighted to win the double. We overachieved and we did it by playing dynamic, modern football.

“We’re through to the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. I’ve played in the competition twice, although we got knocked out both times. Now we’re looking for the chance to have some success.” That chance will come in 2022, when the final eight-team round of the Concacaf qualifying competition for Qatar comes to an end. Punyed’s dream of World Cup football remains alive, with El Salvador currently in seventh, just three points behind Panama in fourth, which brings with it a place in the intercontinental play-offs. “Football is all about little details now,” he said. “Mexico beat us at home with a set-piece and a penalty. They’re little details. It’s something we’ve got to work on as a team because you pay for it in football. If we can sort out those little things, we can move mountains.”

With El Salvador clearly making progress, Punyed is determined to keep doing what he does best in midfield, which involves providing assists and scoring from free-kicks and long distance. “We’ve shown that football in our country is changing,” he said. “We want to make the most of the strengths of Salvadoran players, who are technically gifted but can also fight and get stuck in against anyone. We want to excite the fans again and get them believing in the national team.” This month brings games against Jamaica and Panama. Win those and El Salvador will end the year on a high. “We’ve got a lot of matches coming up in the next year,” Punyed said. “We’re now seriously focused on getting good results against Jamaica and Panama. If we can do that, we’ll give ourselves a good chance of ending the year right in the mix for third and fourth place for Qatar.”

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Punyed is ready to continue writing his life story – one in which taking El Salvador back to the World Cup after a 40-year absence would make for a memorable chapter. “The important thing is to have a long-term goal,” he said. “There are eight games to go and the goal has always been to get 18 points. If we can reach that mark, we’ll be in the fight for third or fourth place. “It means we have to win four or five of the games that are left. If we can do that, then we have a chance of qualifying regardless of the results against Jamaica and Panama. And we know we can win in any stadium.”