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The Hardy Tale Of Honduran Football

20 Sep

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.

From Honduras To The World

10 Apr

Until recently, many people would have associated Honduran football with two events: the infamous World Cup qualifier with El Salvador in 1969 which contributed to all-out war between the two nations, and an appearance at the 1982 finals in Spain.

However, an increasing number of players from the Central American country are leaving their homeland, and making a name for themselves overseas.

Currently, the English Premier League boasts the likes of Maynor Figueroa and Hendry Thomas at Wigan, as well as former ‘Latic’ Wilson Palacios, who is now at Spurs.  David Suazo meanwhile, has played for Inter amongst others, Georgie Welcome is on loan at Monaco and Julio Cesar de Leon plays in China for Shandong Luneng .

Emilio Izaguirre’s debut season at Celtic meanwhile, has been mightily impressive.  The full-back has been one of the star performers in this season’s SPL, and while he’s not the finished article his performances are rumoured to have attracted the interest of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

This demand for Honduran players is reflected in the performances of the national side who in qualifying for South Africa in 2010, reached only their second World Cup finals.  While they failed to progress beyond the group stage, a first-round exit with a group containing eventual winners Spain, attack-minded Chile and a stubborn Switzerland, was no disgrace. 

Despite recent friendly defeats against South Korea and China, Los Catrachos will hope that they won’t have such a long wait until their next World Cup appearance, and their cause isn’t harmed by the success of their younger sides – Honduras under-20 side has appeared in two of the last three World Cup’s for their age group, though they have just missed out on this year’s finals, which are due to be held in Colombia.  The under-17’s have appeared in two recent World Cup’s (2007 & 2009) and in 2008, the under-23 side qualified for the Olympics in Beijing.  So far, no Honduran side has reached the latter stages of one of these competitions, but the exposure to this level of competition will surely benefit the national side in the years ahead.

The latest hot properties include 17 year old striker Antony Lozano and 18 year old midfielder Andy Najar.  Lozano trained with Spurs last summer and although he has not yet moved to White Hart Lane, the deal may still go ahead in the near future.  DC United midfielder Najar meanwhile, has committed his international future to Honduras, despite speculation that he would represent the USA.

While it won’t attract a great deal of attention beyond its own boundaries, Honduras can also lay claim to a very competitive domestic league.  The Liga National de Futbol de Honduras was first started in 1965 and remains the pinnacle of the Honduran game, with there being no domestic cup competitions.  As is the case in other Latin nations, the league operates on an Apertura and Clausura basis, resulting in two champions each season.  The ten teams in the top flight play each other twice during a regular campaign, before the sides finishing in the top four compete in play-offs to decide on the new champion.

Four clubs dominate the game in Honduras.  Most successful of all are Olimpia from the capital, Tegucigalpa.  With 23 championships and 2 Concacaf Champions League titles, they are normally there or thereabouts come the end of the season.  Their cross-town rivals (and often rivals for the title) are Motagua – the Cyclo Azul (blue cyclones) are second on the all-time list of league titles won and were leading the current Clausura, but have now fallen behind Olimpia.

The other two ‘big guns’ hail from Honduras’ second city, San Pedro Sula.  Real Espana were formed in 1929 and are the only side other than Olimpia to have won three straight league titles.  Espana also won this season’s Apertura.  From the same city come CD Marathon, with the wonderful nickname of El Monstruo Verde, or The Green Monster.  Marathon claim to be the second best supported side in the country and are long-time rivals of Olimpia – their clashes are known as the Clasico Nacional.

The fact that the people of Honduras are able to devote time to watching, playing or even thinking about football, is remarkable in itself.  The country has enough political and social issues to keep a whole continent busy.

In 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from power and sent on a plane to Costa Rica.  His plans to hold a referendum on constitutional change were opposed, and ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.  Zelaya’s departure led to a huge amount of unrest, including reports of the murder of Zelaya’s supporters.

It’s said that three-quarters of the rural population of Honduras (53% of the total population) live below the poverty line, with the country being the second poorest in the Americas, after Haiti.  There are high levels of infant mortality, child malnutrition and one in five adults are unable to read or write.

Gang culture is also a huge issue.  From the early 1990’s, gangs or ‘maras’ have sprung up across the country, resulting in Honduras having per head of population, one of the world’s worst murder rates.  There are all sorts of reasons as to why gangs play such a prominent role in Honduran life: poverty, drugs, population movement to and from the USA, and the demographic makeup of the country are significant factors – 50% of the population are aged 19 or under.

Anyone in any doubt as to the devastation that the maras can cause need only look at the massacre that took place in San Pedro Sula on 23rd December 2004.  Gunmen opened fire on a bus packed with passengers, killing 23 people.  Football doesn’t escape the bloodshed either – in October 2010, again in San Pedro Sula, 14 players taking part in a friendly amateur game on a local pitch were slaughtered by gang members. 

One former player is striving to offer youngsters an alternative to life as part of a mara.  Hector Zelaya was a member of the 1982 World Cup squad, and is head of Futbol Para La Vida, a UNICEF sponsored programme which was founded in 2002.  As well as providing kids with the opportunity to play competitive football, the scheme aims to educate participants in avoiding drugs and HIV.  Already, the programme has helped more than 25,000 children.  While projects like this are by no means a cure to all of Honduras’ ills, they are certainly a massive step in the right direction.

Given what they have to contend with in their homeland, it’s perhaps even more of an achievement that so many Honduran players have established themselves abroad.  They have demonstrated that they not only have the talent, but also the adaptability to thrive in new surroundings.  It would be little surprise therefore, to see more of their compatriots move to Europe and beyond.

Does MLS Need New York Cosmos?

16 Jan

Major League Soccer’s development continues.  The 2011 season will see the number of teams in the league rise to 18, the number of soccer specific stadiums continues to grow and the league tries to bring through young players to complement the high profile – though often past their peak – star names.

Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps are the sides to benefit from this latest expansion.  Both are famous names from the past, now reborn and looking to make an impact in their opening MLS season.  They will be joined for 2012 by Montreal, and the following year it’s expected that another franchise will be added, possibly from New York.

That final team could be New York Cosmos.  Re-launched in a blaze of publicity towards the end of last year, the Cosmos are probably the most famous of all the sides from the former North American Soccer League (NASL).  Backed by Warner Communications they were able to attract some of the biggest names in the game, played in front of massive crowds and won five league titles in the 1970’s and 80’s.  However, the collapse of the NASL led to the demise of the Cosmos.

The man leading the revival is Paul Kemsley, formerly vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur.  He purchased the rights to the Cosmos name from former holder G. Peppe Pinton and hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet: a new kit has been launched (in a deal with Umbro), as have youth academies in New York and Los Angeles.  Their most famous former player, Pele, has been appointed Honorary President while Rick Parry has joined the board of directors, bring with him experience gained from spells as chief executive of both the FA Premier League and Liverpool.  In recent weeks there have also been unconfirmed reports that David Beckham may be interested in buying the Cosmos.

It’s been suggested that the Cosmos could operate as some kind of travelling exhibition team, almost like football’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Such an idea however, is surely a non-starter.  If they plan to be viewed as a serious club, then the Cosmos must be playing competitive football.  In the USA, that means joining MLS.

The primary benefit of the Cosmos in MLS is a second New York franchise, and some local competition for the Red Bulls.  While the league has some fierce rivalries, the only genuine local derby is LA Galaxy v Chivas USA – yet some fans consider this rivalry to be somewhat contrived, particularly when held up against Galaxy’s history with San Jose and the animosity between the Red Bulls and DC United.  The Seattle/Portland/Vancouver matches should also be interesting.  A genuine inter-city derby therefore, would be welcomed, particularly by fans in the Big Apple.  Initially, such a contest may not have the intensity (hatred?) of its European or South American counterparts, but that may come in time – after all Celtic and Rangers didn’t despise each other from day one.

The Cosmos return may also encourage former fans from the 70’s and 80’s to return to the game, though it could be an awkward situation for any former Cosmos supporters who now follow the Red Bulls.  Do they remain loyal to their current team, or go back to their first love?  Furthermore, the Cosmos name and the memories it conjures up could lead to an increase in the interest in MLS from people in the USA and beyond.

While there is a fairly strong argument for their being admitted to the league, does a second New York franchise have to be the Cosmos?  Well in a word…no.  While it appears that the new organisation has the expertise, the support and the funding to make a success of the second generation Cosmos, the landscape has changed.  In the NASL, the New York Cosmos were the big attraction, with Pele, Beckenbauer and the rest, but that wouldn’t happen in MLS.  Thanks to the salary cap, it’s a more level playing field, and one that prevents the domination of one or two ‘superclubs’.

Should the returning Cosmos be willing and able to fit into such an environment, then it would be nice to see the return of another old favourite.  What’s most important though, is that any expansion teams are strong, progressive organisations who will make a positive contribution to the league.  Whether they are called New York Cosmos, City, United or anything else, is of secondary importance.