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Political F√∫tbol

In Central America, soccer is always more than a game

When the U.S. visits Honduras on Saturday with a chance to clinch a spot in the 2010 World Cup, the setting will give new meaning to the notion of a tough road-game environment. Honduras sank deeper into Central America's worst political crisis in years on Sept. 21, when deposed president Manuel Zelaya (run off by a coup on June 28) sneaked back into the country and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy. The de facto government responded harshly—suspending civil liberties, quashing demonstrations and temporarily closing the country's airports—but last week FIFA announced that the U.S.-Honduras game would take place as scheduled in San Pedro Sula, about 100 miles from the capital city of Tegucigalpa, where most of the turmoil is centered.

In purely soccer terms it's an important match for both teams. With a victory the U.S. would qualify for its sixth straight World Cup. A win for Honduras would bring the Catrachos tantalizingly close to their first Cup berth since 1982. But World Cup qualifying in Central America is rarely just about soccer. Honduras, after all, was the site of the infamous Soccer War, a four-day armed conflict with neighboring El Salvador that was sparked by contentious qualifying games for the 1970 World Cup. At least 2,000 died as a result of El Salvador's invasion.

Even when political upheaval isn't part of the equation, U.S. players often face hostile treatment in Central America that's far beyond anything encountered by visiting teams in, say, European World Cup qualifying. The last time the U.S. played in Honduras, in 2001, a San Pedro Sula newspaper published a diagram of the team's hotel, noting the floor on which the players were staying and the room in which they ate their meals together. (There were no reported incidents.)

U.S. star midfielder Landon Donovan won't forget his first Cup qualifying experience in Central America, in Costa Rica in 2001, when fans of the home team arrived outside the team's hotel. "They pulled up a truck full of massive speakers at two in the morning and were just blasting music," recalls Donovan. In Central America, more so than even in the U.S.'s archrival Mexico, late-night hotel fire alarms and phone calls to the American players' rooms are standard operating procedure.

At Estadio Saprissa in Costa Rica, which has no covered path to the locker room, the U.S. players leave the field under a canopy of police shields, the better to avoid projectiles from the home fans. Things are no less menacing once the game begins, when the crowd noise is incessant. Referees are wary of those fans too, and suspect officiating often hampers the U.S. performance in the region as well.

It's unlike anything in North American sports, and not everyone can handle the pressure. "I loved being the villain," says U.S. Hall of Fame defender Alexi Lalas. "I loved the machine guns and the riot police and the batteries and the craziness. But if your only experience as a player is showing up for a game against the Kansas City Wizards, you are in for a rude awakening when you touch down in Honduras."

That partly explains why the U.S. has struggled to win in Central America, even though the region's teams are not global soccer heavyweights. (The only Central American team to advance from the group stage of the World Cup is Costa Rica in 1990.) It's no coincidence that the U.S.'s two worst performances in this World Cup qualifying round came in El Salvador (a 2--2 tie) and in Costa Rica (a 3--1 loss).

Then again, Saturday's game in Honduras may be one of the rare occasions in Central America in which the home team is under more pressure than the Yanks. The U.S. is the qualifying group leader, and even if it loses to Honduras, it can still clinch one of the group's three guaranteed Cup berths with at least a tie against Costa Rica in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14. Honduras, which is third in the group standings, will be almost assured of a Cup spot with a win.

The U.S.-Honduras result could even have an impact on domestic political support for either the de facto government or the deposed Zelaya. "A home team that wins and has the potential to get to the World Cup would provide some really positive feelings for the [Honduran] population generally," says Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas, a U.S.-based business group that promotes free trade in the region. "You could certainly paint the scenario whereby a victory would transfer to increased political support for the government in place."

On the other hand ... "depending on the result of the game, you could have some folks that are trying to celebrate or show their frustration, and they could go out into the streets and break some windows," Farnsworth adds. "Then the police could overreact, and suddenly you have the potential for a much broader disturbance. If that's the case, that probably plays into Zelaya's hands."

In other words, in Central America soccer can still fan the flames of politics and nationalism. For Honduras, if it loses to the U.S., it would face a must-win game at El Salvador four days later—40 years after their Soccer War.

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U.S. players face HOSTILE TREATMENT far beyond what they see in other countries.