My recent piece for the excellent Oval Log
The Liga Nacional de Honduras cannot match Argentina’s Primera Division when it comes to the technical ability of its players. Nor does it possess the flair of Spain’s La Liga or the financial resources of England’s Premier League. However, it can lay claim to being every bit as competitive as its more illustrious counterparts.
The Central American nation have, from a football perspective, impressed beyond their own borders in recent times – the national side appeared at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the Honduran youth teams have qualified for the Under-17 and Under-20 equivalents on a number of occasions recently. The likes of David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios and Emilio Izaguirre meanwhile, have seamlessly made the transition to European club football after catching the eye of foreign observers whilst appearing for their clubs and for Los Catrachos.
Naturally, the starting point for most Honduran players is their domestic championship. Since its formation in 1965 (replacing the previous amateur championship), four clubs have dominated the league. Like many other nations in the Americas, Honduras operates on an Apertura and Clausura basis, meaning two champions each season.
Must successful of all are Olimpia. Hailing from the capital city, Tegucigalpa, the Leones have not only been champions of their country a record 23 times, they are also the only Honduran club to win CONCACAF’S version of the Champions League, lifting the trophy in 1973 and 1988. They have also reached the final on another two occasions.
Olimpia’s tally of titles could be even greater had they not been denied in the finals of both the Apertura and Clausura last season. The latter of those defeats came against their city rivals, Motagua, who triumphed with a 5-3 aggregate to clinch their twelfth title (second on the all-time list), and their second straight Clausura.
From the northern city of San Pedro Sula come Real Espana. Other than Olimpia, Espana are the only side to win three straight league titles (achieved in the 1970’s) and are this season’s other defending champion, having won last year’s Apertura.
The last in the quartet of Honduran super-powers are CD Marathon. Also from San Pedro Sula, Marathon are long-standing rivals of Olimpia, their contests are known as the Clasico Nacional. Marathon also have the wonderful nickname of El Monstruo Verde, or The Green Monster.
Other clubs of note include Platense, who were champions in 2001 meaning they were the last side from outside the ‘big four’ to win the title. Vida and Victoria meanwhile, have both regularly reached the play-offs over the past ten years.
The ten teams in the top-flight play each other twice, meaning 18 matches each in the two different stages of the season. With no domestic cups currently played for, the league title is the be all and end all for Honduran club football.
Then it becomes interesting – for most seasons since 1970/71, the sides finishing in the top four positions have then competed in play-off semi-finals over two legs, with the winners meeting (again over two legs) to decide who will become league champions.
There will though, be a slight amendment for the 2011/12 campaign, which kicks-off on 6th August. The top six will now qualify for the post-season, meaning 3rd will play 6th , and 4th will play 5th in eliminators to decide which clubs will join the top two in the last four.
This change could potentially lead to a more open competition with more teams having the opportunity of winning the title. However, it must be considered somewhat unfair that a club who ends the regular season in the bottom half of the table, could feasibly end up national champions just half a dozen games later. Any league system which does not recognise the team who gain the most points as champions will always be contentious, but this appears to be a rather extreme example.
In a social context, Honduras doesn’t have its problems to seek. Political unrest led to the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, being removed from power in 2009, while drugs and the demographic make-up of the country – 50% of the population are aged 19 or under – contribute to gang culture being a huge issue. The ‘maras’ dominate everyday life in many areas, and have links to other gangs in the USA and other countries. It’s also reported that more than half of the population live below the poverty line, and around one-fifth of adults are illiterate.
However, when it comes to providing a football league where there is genuine competition and a platform for young players to showcase their talents before moving overseas, Honduras is by no means a poor relation.