Few coaches in Central America can boast a CV to rival that of Ramon Maradiaga. On the field, he captained Honduras at the 1982 FIFA World Cup™ in Spain, while off it, he has been their most successful manager of the last 20 years.
On top of this, he was at the helm of Guatemala's highly successful 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany qualifying campaign, when they came agonising close to making it to their first finals ever.
Now reunited with the Guatemala squad, his most immediate concern will be to get his side's fortunes back on track ahead of the 2010 South Africa campaign opener against St. Lucia - a prospect he is clearly relishing. As intelligent and concise as ever, Maradiaga shares with FIFA.com his thoughts on once again carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
An eternal optimist
Maradiaga has always been known for his motivational abilities, so it came as no surprise to hear him start the interview in an upbeat manner: "We're ready to face into this new era head on. We're very optimistic, given the amount of preparation we've been doing, and that makes us confident about getting through to the next round."
In spite of this positive outlook, El Profe (the teacher) is leaving nothing to chance and has been closely watching St. Lucia, a relatively unknown quantity on the international stage. "
They're a team that rely a lot on physical strength, with a few players with good technical abilities. On the whole, its going to be a tricky fixture
Maradiaga arrived in March for his second stint in charge of Los Chapines, but his undoubted talent has not been reflected in results on the field. How does one go about turning the tide? "Quite simply, with work," he states firmly. He has even resorted to psychology to spur on his charges: "We've brought in a professional to motivate the players and get them back in a positive frame of mind. Up to now we've seen encouraging results, above all thanks to the excellent attitude of the players."
The road to South Africa
Guatemala have never come closer to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup than in 2005. Just a single point separated the Central Americans from a playoff spot against Bahrain for a place at Germany 2006. So can they finally break their duck at South Africa 2010?
"I'm convinced we can. All the necessary elements are in place and, above all, we have the ability," says Maradiaga. "But it won't be easy. Our rivals - Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, not to mention Panama - have come on a lot. That's without even considering the usual favourites. We know what they're capable of, but we're confident we can overcome them."
Part of this confidence lies in the fact that Guatemala possess a talisman in Carlos Pescadito (little fish) Ruiz. Maradiaga describes him as a "role model" and "a vitally important player", but one who is also part of the new generation. "Some new faces have appeared on the scene which give us even more cause for hope. Two central defenders, Wilson Lalin and Cristian Noriega, a great midfielder, Jean Marquez, and another in Jose Contreras. This new generation could succeed in any part of the world."
This exporting of players to foreign teams is a hotly contested issue within Guatemalan football, but Maradiaga feels that this injection of new blood will change that. "This is something which must be put right as soon as possible. Going abroad allows players to take on new challenges and get to know other cultures in both their professional and personal lives. The other countries in this qualifying zone enjoy the advantage of having players in Europe. Guatemala is behind the rest in this regard, but we're confident things will change."
Self-belief and attacking football
Maradiaga has always been a proponent of attacking football, and he has made no exception with Guatemala. "We're going to try to be aggressive in the best sense of word, go forward into the opponent's half even when not in possession, and use the ball well."
Of course, good play means little without results, and confidence is high that these are now within reach. Both the senior and U-23 sides recently defeated Mexico, the Goliath of Central American football. "
These wins set the bar higher for ourselves. If we work well we can be up there with the best of them
Suffice to say that Ramon Maradiaga is a man who exudes confidence. But is it just him, or indeed the whole country that have such belief in the team? "It's been contagious," he declares. "It's the first time that something like this has happened to me. I was very well received by the public when I was unveiled as coach, and then we had a full house for the game against Haiti. But we don't want to get carried away and forget that work has to be done. This optimism has to be translated into results, otherwise it will all be in vain."