Monthly Archives: October 2017

Honduran national team, the weather and derbies

Dear readers,

Some of you might already know, but I’ve been doing some reporting for Fox Sports Australia in the run up to World Cup playoffs between Honduras and the Soccerroos. Going by the name of my blog, there’s no guessing in who I’m following.

I’m enjoyed it and so far, pretty much so good. My first story was a big miss due to a mis intepretation of various nuances from some sections of the media. However, a third story seemed to be a massive hit, which has landed me interviews on television and radio, which I will go into in a future post. I feel quite overwhelmed by the positivity I’ve received, and I’ve learned an awful lot about patriotism and the power of words, as well as how sensitive Hondurans feel about how they are portrayed globally. I already knew about it, but this has been a great reminder and a very good learning experience. I’ve gained a lot of friends so far, such as the Barra Brava Catracha group, who I will write about more in a post coming up soon.

I wrote this post yesterday for Fox, but they decided not to run with it. I have therefore adapted it and publishing it here.

Enjoy.


HONDURAN NATIONAL TEAM

With Eddie Hernandez out the playoffs, Jorge Pinto was left sweating after his first choice goalkeeper Donis Escober and Choco Lozano were taken off during their respective teams, Olimpia and Barcelona B. was taken off with a muscular injury in Olimpia’s derby game with Motagua. However, it seems they will be fit for Honduras’s crunch games against Australia.

In the meantime, Jorge Pinto has left fans and media guessing about his select 11, adding that he has a plan for Australia.

The press and social media were surprised by the omission of Ronny Martinez and Rubilio Castillo, and the call up of some lesser known players from Honduras’s provincial teams like Juticalpa. Los Catrachos will be buoyed by the return of Carlo Costly and Mario Martinez, but how the latter fits into a team already boasting a range of talent in defensive midfield remains to be seen. The one surprise omission which has brought little news is Roger Espinoza, also known as El Chino, a utility midfield man with Sporting Kansas City in the MLS, who won the English FA Cup with Wigan Athletic in 2013. The Honduran born, US citizen has been a fans favourite over the years, scoring a few golazos along the way. Pinto obviously sees enough talent in the squad to leave him out.

DERBY GAMES

What did my home city Birmingham and my adopted city Tegucigalpa have in common this weekend? Derby games! Both cities boast fiery rivalies in the city, with Birmingjam and Aston Villa and Olimpia and Motagua respectively. Yet this weekend, both derbies ended in 0-0 draws. Yes, the bragging rights mean everything to the fans in both cities, and both clubs want to claim the throne of el papá de ciudad. That’s where the similarities end though. Both Tegucigalpa’s teams are fighting to take top spot in the league, while Birmingham are locked in a relegation dog fight in the 2nd tier in the English leagues, while Villa, which now stars ex-England man John Terry, are in a rat race to return to the Premier League.

Back to the Tegucigalpa derby, both Olimpia and Motagua represent two of the country’s most powerful clubs, in which anything is possible.

Drama surrounds this fixture, and this weekend will be no different, giving supporters some reprieve of thinking about the play off with the Soccerroos. Just last season an Olimpia supporter invaded the pitch, collected the ball, dazzled two or three Motagua defenders before putting it away, while at the same time, Olimpia team took advantage of Motagua’s confusion and also scored, all of it taking place in injury time. Surprisingly, the goal stood and game finished 2-2. Click here to see the video.

While Olimpia could be labelled the Manchester United of Honduras, playing in very similar colours and being by far the most successful club, yet Motagua have won the previous two titles and currently sit four points clear at the top of the league, while Olimpia are 3rd.

The club’s supporters were mocking each other on the sport’s radio show La Potra Hn on Friday night, who called me while on air to talk about an article I’d written, about Olimpia beating Santos of Costa Rica penalties to claim  the Torneo Liga Concacaf the night before, with Motagua supporters were raining on their counterpart’s parade, claiming the victory was only region’s 2nd tier cup, the Europa League of Central America.

WEATHER

Talking of rain, Tropical Storm Selma entered Honduran territory on the Pacific Coast on Saturday evening, bringing torrential rain to the south side of the country. Honduras has already experienced heavy rainfall throughout the country, with has brought flash floods, landslides, overflowing rivers and reservoirs, one of which left a dam on high alert. It’s brought considerable damage to some poorer neighbourhoods in and around the northern towns and cities, claiming a number of lives.

That being said, emergency services have been quick to react and civilians have been helping one another. Australian fans coming over will be kept well away from the more precarious areas and the game shouldn’t be affected; just remember to bring your waterproofs.

 

 

 

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Honduras make it to the play-offs – part three

Dear readers,

So Tuesday rolled around with Honduras needing a win against Mexico, who had already qualified. One not from the region should know that Honduras and Mexico are buddies in everything all but football. The relationship reminds me a lot of England’s relationship with other home nations, in that England, like Mexico, is the smug better team and take joy in letting their rowdy inferiors know it with derogatory bites of banter, such as claiming that the said nation thinks that footballs are square or offering that nation to carry their bags to the airport to attend a tournament, etc. The noisy neighbours then reply with equally disparaging remarks. Before you know it, there is a continental sized slagging match between the two countries through the media, which makes the games even more testy. It’s one of those moments where xenophobic behaviour and insults become rational and seem the most appropriate course for action. Here is an example of a meme by a cheeky Mexican before the game, which is pretty mild in comparison.

Even the Honduran media weren’t too hopeful. The sports newspaper El Diez ran the headline “Ganar o Socar”, which roughly translates as “win it or crap it”, which is what the nation was pretty much doing; a mixture of prayers, chest thumping, wishful thinking and prepare for the worst.

We all suffer for our national teams. In England, we know all about that. For many poor Hondurans, the team is as important as religion and their family, so when it seems half-arsed or it doesn’t show up, it feels a profound disappointment. Like in most countries, the majority of the players derive from working class or poor backgrounds. They know what it means to the people; there’s no excuses for being lazy. There should be a huge responsibility to wearing your national shirt in this country, yet it only comes, like stated in the previous posts, when it is absolutely necessary. When they’re not making an effort, the frustration ripples through the supporters, resulting not in boos exactly, but mocking and sarcastic remarks.

For me, the black players have played an important role in the team. Just look like Maynor Figueroa. To round off the paragraph, the Honduran players have great potential, but it’s rarely realized, mostly, due to their attitude.

So with all these thoughts, the game rolled around and Hondurans had either the beer or toilet paper at the ready.

I’d heard before the game that Mexico’s star man, the West Ham striker Chicharito, was out the game, which was a good omen as he has a habit of scoring against the Catrachos; a player Hondurans love to hate and would rather see him on a piñata than in the green Mexican shirt. He was slightly injured, from what I hear, and with Mexico already through, a potentially bruising encounter with Honduras didn’t seem worth risking. I was hoping Mexico might play a second string side. But no, Dos Santos, Vela, Jiménez and Peralta were all there.

There were also changes in the Honduran line up from the game against Costa Rica, with the defenders Henry Figueroa and Ever Alvarado coming in my Johnny Palacios and Emilio Izaguirre, and the midfielder Jorge Claros replacing Bryan Acosta.

I missed the first half due to work and traffic. But the humbling realism seemed to be coming to head when I heard over the radio that Peralta scored for Mexico; the Honduran commentator bellowing a kind of phlegmatic “gollll” across the airwaves. It didn’t sound too hopeful so I tuned out and returned to find that the score was now 2-1, courtesy of an equiliser from Elis, only for the ex-Arsenal man Vela to put Mexico up again just five minutes later. It seemed I was missing an exciting game.

After the restart, Mexico were continuing their waves of attacks with short, neat passes, but then being rebounded back into midfield where Elis, López and Quioto were picking up the ball to launch the odd counter attack. The thing was, Honduras looked more like scoring, despite the lack of possession. Then it came, around the 55th minute; when Elis nudged a defender off the ball, centered it for Hernández who smashed it against the crossbar, which rebounded then bounced off the goalkeeper Ochao’s noggin and fell into the net.

Cue celebrations.

Ochoa, who has a Sideshow Bob haircut and according to the internet is often referred to as the Great Wall of Mexico, was knocked out cold for a few minutes.

The game most certainly was back on. We were also hearing that the stars were aligning and prayers were being answered in other games, with USA losing to Trinidad and Tobago and Panama drawing with Costa Rica. Meanwhile, Honduras’s attacks were becoming more frequent and convincing, breathing fire down the Mexicans’ necks; they seemed to be “socando“. The pressure paid off on the hour mark, when Quioto received the ball with his back to goal just outside the left-hand side of the box. Surrounded by two or three green shirts, he took two or three touches to control the ball, fending off a couple of tugs which looked with considerable ease, swivelled, and slammed it into the bottom left hand corner of the net.

Yes, thank you.

3-2.

Pick that out the net, wey!

Forget the screams and cheering at the Estadio Olimpico, my wife was creating a pulsing atmosphere all by herself sitting on the back-rest of the sofa, throwing food or water or whatever she had in her hand in the air. Unfortunately, this energy surge confused our eight month old dog, who excitedly (and with love) bit Pamela on the upper part of her leg. I didn’t know if she was in tears of joy or pain, although his punishment was to sit the rest of the game outside.

Once everyone had calmed, we began to realise that if the scores remained the same in the other games, Honduras would leapfrog Panama and USA in the table, taking up the final qualifying position to go automatically to the world cup.

Cue euphoria.

That being said, most Hondurans knew in their heart of heart that after an extremely mediocre campaign, it wasn’t one bit deserved. But did they care? As the Spanish saying goes, les vale verga. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. In polite English, it means they didn’t care one bit. Football’s cruel and unfair. Such is life. Ni bloody modo.

Back to the game, Mexico were coming back into the game, with Escober pulling off some heroic saves, but Honduras were also having chances of their own and nearly scored a fourth had Quioto not inexplicably fallen asleep when the ball rolled to his feet just yards from the goal-mouth.

The Mexicans were getting fed up of the Hondurans time-wasting too. Claros took an age coming off the pitch when he was substituted, which I thought was a bit stupid. You knew the referee was going to add this on at the end of the game. You would have thought the Catrachos had learned that lesson from the previous game against Costa Rica. The animated Honduran coach Jorge Pinto was also kicking off with members of the Mexican coaching staff. Great TV. Pinto looks quite like a silver feathered camp actor in his light blue suits, waving hands and perfectly etched eyebrows. He’s like a one-man tele-novela.

Minutes from the end, news reached us that the Panama had scored against Costa Rica, which meant they would take final spot, while Honduras would go into a play-off with Australia. But time was ticking by slowly; it always does in such situations. Five minutes of injury time were given, but now fans were helping with the time-wasting with pitch invasions. Two rotund Honduran men escaped the security staff and ran on to the pitch, pointing at their watched, in reference to the last game, where the referee awarded 6 mysterious minutes. I don’t know if the security personnel were lazy or unfit, but to be out-run by two evidently overweight men, it’s to their own embarrassment.

Then the whistle went.

Breathe easily.

Relief.

It was something of a dampner that automatic qualification had been snatched from them, especially learning now that Panama’s winning goal hadn’t crossed the line. USA are reportedly demanding a rematch, as the goal affectively knocks them out the world cup. No offence to US supporters, but it is something of a wonderful irony that Donald Trump’s men won’t be going Russia. Going back to the rematch, they might well get it. USA is a great source of dosh in terms of commercial deals and TV rights for FIFA; far more than Honduras and Panama put together. FIFA and the corporate world would of course prefer USA. It was without doubt a dodgy goal and a cock up from the ref, but it would also be very unjust on Panama, with this being their first ever appearence in at a world cup. It was a huge shock USA being knocked out though. Qualification from the CONCACAF qualifying round should be routine for a country that pours millions of dollars into the infrastructure and foundations of the sport. They fired Klinsmann half way through the campaign and brought in Arena, who is a great coach. But the team looked very off colour and at odds with itself, being thrashed 4-0 by Costa Rica along the way.

The other shock was Chile in South America, especially off the back of two impressive wins in the Copa America.

In the meantime, Honduras will now go into a play off match with Australia, both soccer crazy nations with love for beer and foul language. Who am I to judge? I’m only a pom/gringo.

Watch this space…


Honduras make it to the play-offs – part two

Dear readers,

Continued from previous post…

On Saturday, Honduras went to Costa Rica needing all three points to keep any hope of qualifying alive, while Costa Rica only needed a point to qualify. The omens were not good. The optimism I spoke of in the previous post had deserted me and I was preparing for the worst. I sat through most of the game playing with Vicente or reading Dr No. I grew into the game after a while, seeing that Honduras had changed their style somewhat, frustrating the Ticos with short quick passes, being more compact and defensive, hitting the opposition on the counter with more clinical and cunning attacks; in short, Honduras playing to their strengths. It was more Italian or Mourinho than the mediocre caos we’d seen before. Pinto had changed the formation, at last, from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. I didn’t know of many of the players, but Maynor Figueroa, the former Wigan Athletic and Hull City defender, lead by example from the back. The whole back line looked more organised, and Emilio Izaguirre, who in my opinion has always saved his better performances for Celtic, who for once looked interested on the left. Johnny Palacios was cracking skulls and intercepting crosses, and Beckeles, who is usually unfairly made the scapegoat when things go dire, was solid on the right.

Pinto seemed done with certain midfielders. Mario Martinez, the hot-headed little oik who has never fulfilled his potential, is lost in the depths of a team in San Pedro Sula; the former Wigan player, Roger Espinoza, who I think was one of Honduras’s better players, hasn’t appeared in an age; Wilson Palacios isn’t anywhere near contention; and Andy Najar seems permanently crocked in Beligum.

Instead, he selected Bryan Acosta, who now plys his trade for Tenerife in Spain, and Alfredo Mejía, who with his beard looks more of a thinker than a footballer; just as well because he plays his club football in Greece. The two did a superb job of keeping the ball and shielding the defence, the providing short, quick passes to the attacking front line that included Romell Quioto on the left, Alex Lopez in the middle and Elis on the right, then the giant Eddie Hernandez, who plays for my Honduran club, Motagua.

The team looked organised. Of course, the keeper Escober was kept busy, but they were convincing, keeping the ball out of their half by passing it out neatly, then running with the ball when they reached the opposition’s half. And the stats speak millions: Honduras’s 11 attacks to Costa Rica’s 6. But Honduras were bossing their opponents, and Costa Rica’s emotions were beginning to spill over.

Mid-way through the second half, Eddie Hernandez pounded a header into the back of the net. Cue many foul mouthed celebrations from my wife. It was game on and Costa Rica looked a bit lost and desperate. Then, in the 90th minute, the Ticos were awarded the golden ticket when the referee summoned a mysterious six minutes of injury time. Apart from a few scruffs and arguments, the game was pretty flowing and six minutes seemed excessive. The Honduran bench thought so too, and vented their rage at the assistant referee, as did my wife, and for a few minutes, I worried for the smart TV’s life. Costa Rica took this as their moment to pounce. And they did, in the 94th minute.

A 1-1 draw and many complaints of being robbed. However, it was the best I’d seen of Honduras for some time.

The Mexico game, to be continued in the next post.


Honduras make it to the play-offs – part one

Dear readers,

I consider myself a football optimist. I do believe in miracles that this wonderful sport can bring. I almost expect it. Esecially from the underdogs. The best kind of victories. Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 being one. Iceland’s heroics in the European Championships the same year. But even I thought Honduras were down for the count. La Garra Catracha has thrown itself the most unlikely lifeline and will now face Australia in the playoffs; two games they must win if they are to reach Russia 2018.

So why the surprise? They’ve reached the last two world cups. Why is this any different?

To say Honduras have been abysmal in this qualifying campaign is an understatement. They scraped through the first round which contained Mexico, El Salvador and Canada, who they lost to 1-0 on the way (bottom of the barrel kind of football). The second round started poorly, losing at home to Panama (somewhat of a bogey team for Honduras). They were also thrashed twice (losing 6-0 to USA and 3-0 to Mexico), conceded late goals that turned wins into draws (Costa Rica x 2, USA, and Panama) and played very slow, directionless football (a bit like England, although England were picking up results). Coupled with that, they went out of the Gold Cup without scoring an official goal, only going through to the quarter finals courtesy of French Guiana inexplicably playing the former French International and Chelsea player, Florent Malouda, of course against FIFA rules. The game finished 0-0, but the rule break meant the game was forfeited and Honduras were awarded the three points and three goals.

The redeeming factor was winning the Copa Centroaméricana earlier this year in Panama, although it didn’t really set the world alight. The team has also seemed in disarray, with the coach Jorge Pinto (the Colombian who steered Costa Rica to the quarter finals in the 2014 World Cup), using players who didn’t seem prepared for the rigors of international football and there were reports of fallings out in the squad. There were calls to bring back Carlo Costly (El Toro), still cracking skulls for Olimpia in Honduras, while people were wondering what had happened to the Honduran youth players that had been playing so well in their respective tournaments a few years back. They have been languishing in the 4th, 5th and 6th places of the qualifying round for the bulk of the campaign, and I was beginning to think that it was probably best Honduras give up on this campaign to save being embarrassed in Russia. I was also one of those calling for Pinto’s head. Well, he’s certainly taught me to eat my words, because Honduras (as always) suddenly perked up only when they absolutely, absolutely had to. And that time was last night (and Saturday).