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.